Thursday, October 25, 2007

All for Love - The Life of Jane Digby

"Being loved is to me as the air that I breathe," Jane Digby writing to King Ludwig of Bavaria.

Jane Digby in her day was called "one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century.' She survived the scandal of divorce, was the mistress to Kings before finally finding love in the deserts of the Middle East. In her lifetime, no fewer than 8 novels including one written by Honore de Balzac were written featuring Jane as a thinly disguised character, most of them not flattering portraits. She inspired envy and jealously in other women because of her beauty and the attention paid to her by men. In an age when women didn't travel, had very few rights, and were basically the property of their husbands, Jane forged a passionate destiny of her own, throwing over her proper life in England, for the life of a passionate nomad, searching for that one perfect love.

Jane Elizabeth Digby was born on April 3, 1807 in Dorset at Minterne Magna, the daughter of Admiral Henry Digby and Jane Elizabeth Coke, who had been married previously. For the rest of her life, her mother preferred to be called by her previous title of Lady Andover, despite her apparent happy marriage to Jane's father.

The family fortune was established when her father seized the Spanish treasure ship, the Santa Brigada in 1799. He was also the captain of the HMS Africa under Nelson's command at the Battle of Trafalgar. Jane was the first child, soon to be followed by two younger brothers Edward and Kenelm. She spent much of her childhood at her grandfather Thomas Coke, later the 1st Earl of Leicester's home, Holkham Hall, where she grew up with her cousins, among them the the 11 children of her aunt, Lady Anson. Much loved and spoiled by her parents and relatives, Jane grew up a bit of a tomboy, running and riding around the family estates. She had a governess, the redoubtable Miss Steele, who taught her the more refined pursuits of a lady. When Jane was 13, she was able to spent some time abroad in France, Italy and Switzerland, when her father was posted to Malta.

Jane's beauty and poise was noticed at a very early age, so much so that her mother decided to launch her into society soon after she turned sixteen. After being presented at court, Jane was fully launched. Only a few weeks into her first season, Jane met Edward Law, 2nd Baron Ellenborough (later Earl of Ellenborough and Governor General of India). Law was 17 years her senior and a widow. His first wife, Octavia, had been the daughter of the hated Lord Castlereagh who committed suicide in 1821. Edward had been a widow for several years when he began courting Jane.

After an eight week acquaintance, he asked her father's permission for her hand in marriage. On paper, it seemed a brilliant match. Lord Ellenborough was a rising politician, handsome with a reputation as a roue. Jane was very young for her age, and in her first season. Her family was well-off so there was no need for her to marry the first man who offered for her. But Jane was in love with the idea of being in love, and in the days of their courtship and their early marriage, Ellenborough spent considerable time wooing her. It must have been a heady experience to have someone like Ellenborough pay attention to her. Jane wasn't the first woman to make the mistake of marrying for the wrong reasons. However, once the marriage went sour, Jane proved herself to be a romantic rebel.

Ellenborough like William Lamb was ambitious and totally devoted to his career. He thought nothing of spending hours at the House of Commons long into the night, writing speeches, meeting with his political cronies. Jane was left no other option but to attend balls and parties often by herself. She soon fell into a fast crowd made up acquaintances of her husband. At first despite her husband's neglect, Jane and Ellenborough were reasonably happy. The turning point may have come when Jane learned that her husband had a mistress in Brighton where they had spent their honeymoon.

Jane's behavior in town was shocking enough that her family felt the need to talk to her about it. Jane pooh-poohed their concern. After all, they were her husband's social set, if they were good enough for him, then there should be no stigma to her her acquaintance with them. However, her family felt the situation was so serious, that they sent Jane's former governess Steely to talk to Lord Ellenborough, who was somewhat amused at the idea of a social inferior warning him about his wife.

When Jane decided to take a lover, she looked no further than her own family, her first cousin Colonel George Anson. While George was on leave from the army, he began squiring her to parties. Eight years her senior, he had grown up to be handsome and a bit of a rake, sowing his wild oats in London. Jane may have had a bit of a crush on him as a child, and now at the age of 19, her cousin fell under the spell of her beauty. They were soon lovers and Jane fell madly in love with him. Unfortunately the feeling wasn't mutual, although he walked the walk, and talked the talk for many months. Jane soon found herself pregnant, giving birth to a son, Arthur Dudley. Although she was still sleeping with Ellenborough, Jane was pretty sure that her son was actually Anson's.

After the birth of her son, who spent most of his time in the country where the air was fresher, her relationship with Anson foundered, and he finally broke it off. Jane was distraught and depressed that she could have been so wrong about his love for her. That summer she met Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, an Austrian diplomat, who had just been posted to London. It was love at first sight for the Prince, but Jane was still in mourning for her lost love. The prince persisted, wooing Jane through the summer, until she finally succumbed to his passionate declarations of love. She fell madly, totally in love with him, sowing the seeds for the eventual destruction of her marriage.

At first Jane and the Prince tried to be discreet. She would visit him in his house in Harley Street, either on foot, wearing a veil to hide her identity. Soon she was seen coming and going 3 or 4 times a week. At night they attended parties seperately to keep up the fiction, but soon they became reckless. Jane was seen by a neighbor in Schwarzenberg's embrace (which later came out during her divorce trial), the Prince lacing up her stays. Eventually, they took the risk of spending the night together at a hotel in Norfolk, when Jane went down to the country to visit her son. It was a mistake that Jane would soon have to pay for. A porter saw the Prince sneaking in and out of Jane's room. Despite paying him off, he still wrote a letter to her husband, telling him of what he'd seen.

Once again, Jane found herself pregnant. Only this time there was no way that she could pass of the child as her husband's. She hadn't been intimate with Ellenborough in months. Ironically, Jane's excuse was that she didn't want to get pregnant again. Events moved swiftly. Schwarzenberg was sent packing back to the continent before his career was totally ruined by the rumors of his adulterous relationship with Jane. Although Ellenborough had refused to believe the letter from the porter, friends of his felt compelled to tell him about her relationship with the Prince. Jane, of course, denied it while begging her husband to allow her to travel abroad ostensibly to get over the relationship but really to give birth in secrecy. Her husband refused.

Jane made the impetuous decision that she couldn't live without the prince. She made plans to flee England and to follow him to Switzerland. Her parents pleaded with her to at least attempt to repair her relationship with her husband. Her father, in particular, tried to impress upon her what she was giving up by leaving him to go abroad. If she stayed in England, and they formally seperated, she could still take her place in society after a suitable amount of time. But Jane was not to be denied. As far as she was concerned her life and her fate lay with the Prince. He was the only man that she wanted to married to.

Lord Ellenborough had no choice but to start divorce proceedings against her. An investigator was hired who dug up the information about Jane's trysts with the Prince in Harley Street. The divorce case was so sensational that for the first time, the Times of London featured the story on it's front page instead of the classified advertisements that were a mainstay of the paper until the 1960's. Getting a divorce at this time was incredibly difficult, that only two divorces were ever heard a year, the notoriety was particularly loathsome. Lord Ellenborough settled a sum on Jane to be paid for the rest of her life. He never remarried, although he lived with several mistresses, and had a host of illegitimate children. He never spoke of Jane again, although he built a monument to his first wife in the church near his family estate.

While the divorce proceedings were going on, Jane went to Basle to give birth to a daughter that she and Felix named Mathilde. However, there was no happily ever after for Jane and Felix, who told her that he would never be able to marry her due to his religion (he was a Catholic) and because it would detrimental to his career. Jane could sense that his feelings for her had changed, but she was still determined that they could make their life together work. However, the Prince had other ideas and in his passive-aggressive way, tried to push her away but not before she conceived another child, a son, who only lived ten days. After accusing her of being unfaithful, the Prince left Jane for good.

When the Prince deserted her, Jane didn't give up hope that she would eventually be able to convince him of her innocence. She moved to Munich to be near him when he was posted to Berlin, where she became the intimate friend of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who was captivated like many men before him by her beauty and intelligence. She shared his interest in classical antiquities and mythology. They called each other Ianthe (Greek for Jane) and Basily, writing to each other two and three times a day, even when they knew they would be seeing each other. She joined the pantheon of other beautiful women in his Hall of Beauty having her portrait painted by court painter Joseph Karl Stieler.

She also caught the attention of a German baron, name Carl Venningen who worshipped her and pursued her relentlessly while she pined for Felix who continued to write her letters of love while simultaneously keeping her at arm's length. After months of rebuffing Charles as she called him in the hopes that Felix would return to her, she finally succumbed to his attentions and promptly fell pregnant. Hiding out in Italy, she gave birth to a son, who was fostered out for the first few years of his life, until Jane could safely bring him home. Finally after Felix blew her off once again, Jane finally had to give up the ghost of her relationship, but not before giving up their daughter Didi to his sister, who grew up with no memory or knowledge of her beautiful mother.

Finally Jane agreed to marry Charles, despite her misgivings about the lack of a passionate attachment on her part. For a time, she was happy and it looked like she might have found her match. But her husband wanted to turn her into a German hausfrau, while Jane was lively and intelligent and loved parties. However, her marriage now made her acceptable at court and in the upper echelons of society that had been closed to her. She also met Honore de Balzac briefly who based one of his most famous characters, Lady Arabella Dudley, on her. The portrait was so vivid, that rumors went around that Balzac and Jane had been lovers in 1831 when she lived in Paris, a story that subsequent biographers have repeated, despite the lack of evidence.

After giving birth to another child, a girl, Jane met the next love of her life, a young Greek count named Spiridon Theotoky who fought her husband in a duel after he was caught eloping with her. Although Theotoky was wounded, he managed to survive. Baron Venningen generously decided to release Jane from her marriage. He received custody of their children, and he and Jane stayed friends for the rest of her life.

After five years, Jane finally married her Count, converting to the Greek orthodox faith. They had a child, Leonidas, who became Jane's favorite, the only one of her five children that she felt close to and that she kept by her side. Once again, Jane was happy until the family moved to Athens, and Spiridon became drinking and spending his nights out. After discovering that her Greek husband was unfaithful, Jane became the mistress of King Otto of Greece, coincidentally the son of her former lover, Ludwig, and the enemy of his wife Queen Amalie, who made it her mission to blacken Jane's name. Heartbroken at the death of her six-year-old Leonidas, who died falling from a balcony when he tried to slide down it, she became an inveterate traveller in the Middle East. For a time she became the mistress of an Albanian general and was thrilled to share his rough outdoor life as queen of his brigand army, living in caves, riding fiery Arab horses and hunting game in the mountains for food; until she found that he too was unfaithful with her maid no less and left him on the spot.

Now middle-aged but still stunningly beautiful, and vowing to renounce men, she headed for Syria, to see Palmyra the legendary kingdom of Zenobia, where she met and married the love of her life, a Bedouin nobleman, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab who was twenty years her junior. Medjuel offered to divorce his wife for Jane, within minutes of meeting her. Despite the advice of the British Counsel and her family, she threw caution to the wind, finally finding the one man, she could bond body and soul with. During the remainder of her life she adopted for six months of each year the exotic but uniquely harsh existence of a desert nomad living in the famous black goathair tents of Arabia; the remaining months she spent in the splendid palace she built for herself and Medjuel in Damascus. She never converted to Islam, but she dyed her blonde hair dark, since light hair was considered bad luck. As wife to the Sheikh and mother to his tribe this passionate woman found not only genuine fulfilment but further adventures, all of which she committed each year to her diary. She became good friends with Richard and Isabel Burton, when Burton was posted as consul to Damascus, and Lady Anne and Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

Jane made one last visit to England in 1856, shortly after her marriage to Medjuel. She found English society had become rigid and straight-laced under the reign of Victoria and Albert, who found her shocking, not only had she married an Arab but she also had 3 husbands who were still living! Although reconciled with her family, she was not allowed to talk about her marriage to Medjuel. Jane realized just how far she had moved away not just physically but mentally. Victorian England was no place for her. After six months, she kissed her family good-bye and returned to Medjuel and the desert.

In August 1881, Jane fell ill with dysentry. With her husband by her side, she finally passed away on August 11 at the age of 74. Obeying her final wishes, he had her buried in the Protestant cemetary in Damascus. Then her grief-stricken widower, rode out into the desert and sacrificed one of his finest camels in her memory.

Jane lived a remarkable life that was later matched by her great-great niece, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who ended her adventurous and romantic life as Ambassador to France. Although she wasn't anyone's idea of a good mother, having abandoned her three living children, she led a life of passionate abandon and adventure, never giving up searching for love. Although she had many lovers, Jane wasn't really promiscuous. Apart from a few brief flings, Jane was a woman who lived for love, and enjoyed sex, which scandalized the Victorians, who covered their piano legs, and who taught women to close their eyes and think of England. In many ways, she was a modern woman living in a world that couldn't tolerate anyone outside the norm.

For further reading:

A Scandalous Life: A biography of Jane Digby - Mary S. Lovell
Seductresses - Betsy Prioleau

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The King's Whore: Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Restoration England is one of my favorite periods of English history, so many fascinating personalities, among them the Merry Monarch himself, Samuel Pepys, the Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, and one of the most intriguing of all, Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland. One of the most famous royal mistresses in history, she was considered one of the most audacious and shocking. In her day, she was a household name, written about in numerous diary entries, painted by some of the most celebrated painters of her era.

She was described by Bishop Burnet as "a woman of great beauty, but more enormously vicious and ravenous, foolish but imperious." Charles himself claimed that "she hath all the tricks of Ariten that are to be practised to give pleasure." She also had her detractors, among them John Evelyn who called her "a vulgar mannered, arrogant slut." And Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon (a title that was eventually given to a member of the Villiers family who still hold it to this day), spent considerable energy trying to get rid of her. Even the diarist Samuel Pepys, who admired her, wrote, "I know well enough she is a whore."

She was a beauty with a less than beautiful disposition. Barbara was born November 17 ,1640 to William, Viscount Grandison and his wife, the Honorable Mary Bayning. Barbara was a member of the notorious Villiers family, her father's cousin George was the 1st Duke of Buckingham, James I's favorite, immortalized by Dumas in The Three Muskateers as an admirer of Anne of Austria. The Villiers family had been in England since the days of William the Conqueror, but they were only minor nobility until George made his mark at the court. After his assassination in 1628, his son, also named George, was raised by the royal family along with Charles and his brothers. Another cousin, Elizabeth, would become the mistress of William III (the actor Christopher Villiers who starred in Top Secret with Val Kilmer is a distant relative).

Her father died of wounds sustained at the battle of Bristol when Barbara was a child. Her mother subsequently remarried her husband's cousin, Charles Villiers, the Earl of Anglesey. Barbara was farmed out as a child to the country where she lived with relatives and servants until her mother brought her to London when she was 15, with the idea of her making a brilliant match to restore the family's fortunes.

By this time, Barbara had grown up into a beautiful young woman. She was tall and voluptuous with chestnut hair and eyes so deep a blue that they appeared almost black. Even a bout with small pox did not dim her beauty, unlike so many others. She was also vivacious and lusty. It didn't take long before she caught the eye of the libertine Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, who became her first lover.

England at this time had been ruled by Cromwell for about 11 years, after the execution of Charles I. Playhouses were banned, as well as music of any sort, although private performances went on behind closed doors. The lands and homes of many royalist sympathizers had been seized by Cromwell and given to his generals. Barbara and her family were closet royalists, who mingled in London society with those families who worked and planned for the day that Charles II would be restored to the throne of England. The mood of the times was similar to that of the 1920's after the Great War. A number of young men had been lost either to the war or had left the country to seek their fortunes in the New World or in exile with the King. The people were tired of the deprivation and tired of Cromwell and his Puritans. Those who stayed behind amused themselves plotting Charle's return, and indulging in pursuits of the flesh.

Barbara was already married to Roger Palmer when she met Charles 1659 in Holland at the age of 19 on a diplomatic mission. She had been entrusted to bring letters and money to the King. As a woman, she would have aroused fewer suspicions. Charles at this time had spent the past 19 years on the continent, living hand to mouth, relying on royalist sympathizers for support, planning for the day when he would hopefully be restored to his rightful place on the throne of England. They immediately became lovers and when Charles returned to England in triumph, he spent his first night in London with Barbara. Barbara and the King had much in common. They had both lost father's, both were unabashed hedonists with a quick wit. More importantly, the King appreciated Barbara not only for her beauty but also her intelligence. She gave birth to her first child in early 1661, uncertain just whose child she was. Named Anne, she was claimed by both Roger Palmer and the King.

At first Barbara and the King were relatively discreet about their affair. They took care to always be in the company of his brother's the Duke of York and the Duke of Gloucester. But tongues still wagged about the King's visits to her home which was conveniently located close by the palace of Whitehall. Their relationship became more public after the birth of their first two children, particularly Charles. After his birth, Roger Palmer swept up the baby and had him baptized a Catholic. When Barbara found out she had him rebaptized Anglican in the presence of the King and her Aunt, the King publicly proclaiming the child as his own.

In 1661, her husband was created 1st Earl Castlemaine, an Irish peerage, probably to help him turn a blind eye to his wife's infidelity with the King. By this time, Roger had figured out what was going on. Although he accepted the peerage, he never took his seat in the Irish parliament and spent most of his life abroad after seperating from Barbara finally in 1662. They had been a mismatch from the start. While Barbara was vivacious with a quick wit, and an even quicker temper, Roger was a quiet, studious and bookish man, and a devoted Catholic. More than likely she married him because Chesterfield, her first lover, married another. Roger had studied law but never practiced. He had married her against his parents' wishes. His father had predicted at the time of the wedding taht she would make him one of the most miserable men on earth. They never divorced probably due to Palmer's Catholicism. He remained affectionate towards Barbara's first born, Lady Anne, to the point of appointing her one of the trustees of his will, and making her his heir.

When Charles' future queen, Catherine of Braganza arrived from Portugal in 1662, Barbara was heavily pregnant by him with her second child. She gave birth to a son on 18 June, five weeks after Catherine's arrival. Barbara desired to be appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber, which would give her an income and rooms at the Palace. However, the Queen had been warned about Barbara. When she saw her name on the list of appointees, she immediately struck it off. Barbara was naturally displeased, and the King was caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he was not a man to be thwarted by his wife. Instead he brought Barbara to be presented to the Queen at court. When Catherine discovered who she was, she fainted, blood streaming from her nose. The King was incensed by what he considered to be her stubborness. Determined to bring her around, he dismissed her Portuguese ladies, allowing the Queen to retain only a few priests and one elderly, blind attendant.

The poor Queen was left friendless and alone. The few friends that she had made at court turned from her, rather than face the King's wrath. Clarendon was forced to plead the case of the woman that he loathed to the Queen. The Queen eventually gave in, and accepted the Countess as of one of her ladies.

These were the glory years for Barbara. She was painted several times by the King's official court painter Sir Peter Lely. The images were engraved and sold like hot cakes, making Barbara one of the most well-known women in England, acknowledged as the most beautiful woman in Britain. Barbara also had a taste for politics, her house became a rendezvous point for those at court who despised the Earl of Clarendon as much as she did. She received an annual income of 4,700 pounds a year from the Post Office, and also other sums from customs and excise. She also did a brisk business taking money from those seeking to advance at court and in offices. Even the French and Italian ambassadors sought out her influence with the King.

Barbara was also extravagant. After a childhood of deprivation, she was making up for it big time. It wasn't uncommon for her to wear 30,000 pounds worth of jewelry to the theater and then to lose the same amount at the gaming tables later that night. The King deeded over the Tudor palace of Nonesuch to Barbara which she proceeded to have dismantled, the contents sold. Eventually she was unable to keep up her London residence, and was forced to sell the contents of her home at Cheam.

Still, Barbara faced rivals to her status as maitresse en titre. The first was Lady Frances Stuart. La Belle Stuart, whose visage as Britannia on the coinage of Britain lasted for centuries, was around 14 or 15 when she came to court. Charles pursued her ardently and whether through guile or just plain obliviousness, she refused to succumb, which of course, only made the King want her more. Barbara cultivated her friendship, using that old adage, 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer.' She even went so far as to have a mock wedding ceremony with Frances. Eventually, Frances realized that she would have to succumb to the King. Rumors at court suggested that she had already done so. Convinced that she was in love, she eloped with the young widowed Duke of Richmond. The King was incensed, and banned them from court. After the Duke's death, and a bout of small pox which did end up marring her beauty, Frances returned to court. By this time, the King had moved on to other mistresses, the actresses Nell Gwynn, Moll Davis and one of his sister's maids of honor, Louise de Keroualle.

She also faced enemies from within the court besides Clarendon. Her own cousin, George, 2nd Duke of Buckingham plotted against her. He was part of a faction at court that, during the Queen's serious illness, hoped to replace her with Frances Stuart if she had died. Barbara prayed like she never had before in her life for the Queen's recovery! Still there were those at court who feared and loathed her influence over the King, who famous declared that any enemy of Barbara's was an enemy of his.

Finally, she managed to bring her arch enemy Clarendon down. Despite the fact that he had been the King's trusted advisor during his year's of exile, and his daughter Anne, had married the King's brother the Duke of York, the King had finally had enough of Clarendon's puritanical attitude towards the licentious court. Push came to shove, when Clarendon was unwise as to speak out against Barbara and her meddling in politics. The King was furious and told him to turn his seal of office. Barbara had finally won. Like Nixon's enemies list, Barbara never forgot any one who had slighted her and when she had the opportunity, she took her revenge. Clarendon's mistake was that he underestimated her and the King's attachment to her, thinking her nothing but a whore, but a dangerous one. The story goes that Barbara was standing on the balcony in her nightclothes jeering at his misfortunes. Clarendon's banishment convinced Barbara that she was untouchable, and that she could do anything with the King. Once she even forced him to grovel at her feet for forgiveness in front of the entire court!

Barbara was never faithful to her royal lover. She had affairs with Henry Jermyn, the acrobat Jacob Hall and the young John Churchill (who later became Duke of Marlborough during the reign of Queen Anne). She was generous with her lovers, John Churchill was able to purchase an annuity because of her financial help. Still, the King used to visit Barbara four nights a week at her apartments in Whitehall. When her second son was born in 1663, Charles denied paternity but nevertheless gave Barbara lavish Christmas presents the same year. The couple had ferocious arguments and she was not above threatening Charles. When she was expecting another child in 1667, Barbara swore that if he denied paternity again, she would dash the infant's brains out. Barbara's power over Charles was such that he went down on his knees to be 'pardoned' for his very well-founded suspicions.

By 1674, after almost fourteen years as his mistress, Barbara found herself supplanted by Nell Gwynn and Louise de Keroualle. Ultimately, Barbara's demands were so great, her temper so fierce and her infidelities so brazen that Charles tired of her. He wanted peace, and so did the kingdom. She lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber as a result of the 1673 Test Act, which banned all Catholics from holding office (Barbara had converted in 1663). But not before she was created Duchess of Cleveland, Baroness of Nonesuch and Countess Southampton in her own right in 1670, and before she had secured the futures of her children by Charles. He paid for lavish weddings for their daughters, Anne and Charlotte in 1674, but the people protested this latest extravagance of "The King's Whore."

Barbara left for Paris in the spring of 1677, where she formed an intrigue with the British ambassador Ralph Montagu. She also embarked on more liaisons which produced yet more children until her tally totalled seven, five of whom were claimed by the King. Her husband was not one of them.

Her children were given the surname FitzRoy, and the current Duke of Grafton, a descendant of Barbara and Charles II, still carries that surname to this day. Of her six children, Lady Anne became the Countess of Sussex, Charles FitzRoy became the Duke of Southampton and Cleveland, Henry FitzRoy, the Earl of Euston and Duke of Grafton, Charlotte married the Earl of Lichfield, George was created the Duke of Northumberland and Barbara, who may have been John Churchill's daughter, became a nun after giving birth to an illegitmate son by Charles Hamilton, the Earl of Arran.

She returned to England shortly before the King's death in 1685. After her husband's death in 1705, Barbara remarried an opportunist by the name of Major-General Charles Fielding known as Beau. The marriage was voided when it turned out that Mr. Fielding already had a wife still living. She died in 1709 after suffering from dropsy at the age of 69. But her spirit, always restless and disastisfied in life, is said not to rest and that she haunts the Mall to this day.

Further reading:

Sex with Kings - Eleanor Herman

Charles II - Antonia Fraser

Royal Harlot - Susan Holloway Scott

The Royal Whore - Allen Andrews

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lola Montez - Uncrowned Queen of Bavaria

October 1846 saw Lola heading for Bavaria, eager to put the past behind her and to earn some much needed money. Although Dujarier had left her 20,000 pounds, Lola had a lavish lifestyle. It was in Bavaria that Lola would achieve her greatest triumphs and tragedies, and pass into history as a legend.

After auditioning for the State Theatre, Lola was told her dancing might cause moral offence by the theater's manager. He'd heard rumors of her scandalous performances elsewhere. Determined to defend her reputation, and probably banking on Ludwig being taken by her allure, Lola stormed the palace unannounced to plead with the King Ludwig of Bavaria himself for help. There is a legend that Lola cut the strings of her bodice with a letter opener when the King asked her if her bosoms were real. No matter what really happened, Lola got her wish. The King agreed to let her dance and, ironically, Lola made her debut in a play called The Enchanted Prince.

At the time that they met, Lola was 25 years old and Ludwig was 60. Ludwig I (1786-1868) was responsible for turning Munich into a cultural mecca. He was the son of King Maximilian I and Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt, and one of his godfather's was Louis XVI of France. He sponsored artists, writers, craftsmen, and architects. While he was quite free with the country's money, he wasn't quite as free with spending it on his family. The occasion of his marriage to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810 was the first ever Oktoberfest. His father had forged an alliance with Napoleon I of France, which Ludwig objected to, but he dutifully joined the Emperor's wars with the Bavarian troops. His father owed his crown to Napoleon. Maximilian was forced to consent to the marriage of Ludwig's sister Pauline to Napoleon's step-son Eugene de Beauharnais. Despite the inauspicious beginning, Pauline and Eugene ended up quite happy. Ludwig disliked and feared French political connections. He became King of Bavaria in 1825.

During the early years of his reign, Ludwig undersaw the completion of Germany's first raildroad line in 1835. He had several beautiful buildings constructed including the Walhalla Temple, modeled after the Parthenon in Greece. In his early years, his policies as King were quite liberal for the time. However, as time progressed, Ludwig's reign became more oppressive, he began to impose censorship and high taxes.

Lola's career on the Munich stage lasted a scant two performances. Ludwig became smitten by Lola, and the dancer enjoyed a new role – as his mistress. Within weeks she had a powerful hold over Ludwig. She agreed to sit for a portrait which would be included in Ludwig's renowed Gallery of Beauties, which included portraits of more than 30 women. During her sittings, Ludwig would join her, spending the time getting to know her better. He'd fallen hopelessly in love with her, and Lola claimed to return his feelings. During the next few months, the king remodeled a stately home for her, spending millions of dollars along the way.

Ludwig's advisors, friends, and family warned him that Lola was nothing but an adventuress, but the more they tried to persuade him, the more stubborn he became. He refused to believe what he considered to be lies about his Lola. Ludwig became determined to fulfill her every wish of which there were many. Lola, convinced of her own nobility, wanted a title of her own. Ludwig obliged by making her Countess of Landsfield, despite the fact that only Bavarian citizens could be enobled, and the Council of Ministers refused to grant Lola citizenship. In response, Lola convinced him to replace them with ministers who were more sympathetic. The previously pro-Catholic government was now swinging more incline with Lola's own anti-clerical, liberal positions.

It was during this period in Bavaria that Lola's animosity toward the Catholic church fermented. Although Lola's family were Irish, they were also Protestant, and her stepfather Craigie was more than likely Presbyterian. Bavaria was a very Catholic country and the Jesuits were horrified at the king's behavior and the insult to the queen. Lola had developed a long standing paranoid suspicion of the Jesuits. Whenever things went wrong for her later in life, as they often did, she would attribute this to sinister jesuitical plots.

Lola was soon to learn that being a royal mistress was not all it was cracked up to be. She hungered for social acceptance from the nobility in Munich but it was not forthcoming. Most of her admirers of course were men who sought to see advancement at court through the King's mistress. If Lola had only been more diplomatic, like Madame de Pompadour, coaching her requests with sweet nothings and a pleasing disposition, things might have been different, and her reign as Leopold's mistress might not have ended in disaster. Unfortunately, Lola was of a different temperment. She had more in common with Charles II virago of a mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. However, the days when royal mistresses could get away with raking in the coins from the royal coffers were long over.

As the people of Munich turned against Lola, she even more arrogant and demanding. On one occasion she slapped two men who objected to her relationship with Ludwig and, on another, she was trapped inside a shop by a mob after her dog attacked a passing Jesuit. Lola's final fatal mistake was when she convinced Ludwig to close down the university, after the Catholic student protests against her, ended up in a brawl between the anti-Montez students, and her own loyal group of students, social outcasts like her, called the Allemania. One student was killed in the melee. A riot ensured when Lola appeared on the scene, leading her to seek shelter in the nearby Theatinerkirche.

An irate crowd of 2,000 students gathered and made their way to city hall where a petition was presented to the King asking him to reopen the university. Ludwig refused. As hatred against her grew to a fever pitch, Ludwig's entire cabinet resigned. Lola's affair with the King had toppled the government. Lola was forced to flee the city, taking refuge in Switzerland. Ludwig was pressured into rescinding her citizenship, revoking her title, and publishing an order for her arrest. Nine days later in 1848, the King also abdicated in favor of his son Maximilian. The whole sorry affair lasted less than two years. Still the King loved Lola until he died 7 years after her death. Despite having cost him his throne, Ludwig continued to write to Lola for three years, and to send her an annual allowance of 70,000 gulden, until he was finally convinced of her infidelities while his mistress, and he cut her off.

Forced into exile, Lola finally returned to London. She was down but she was not out. Within months, she had met and married Army officer George Trafford Heald who came from a rich and distringuished family. He was seven years younger than she was. But the marriage was bigamous, although Lola was divorced from Captain James it was on the proviso that neither one was able to remarry unless the other one died. An elderly relative dug up the dirt in order to get rid of Lola, and she had to flee to France or face life behind bars. George put up the bail money for her, and followed her to the continent.

They traveled together through France, Italy and Spain, quarelling and making up incessantly. At one point, during a particularly nasty fight, she stabbed him. George and Lola quickly ran up huge gambling debts in Paris and George eventually deserted his wife in 1850. Lola, alone yet again, ended up back on the stage to help pay her bills – in America. P.T. Barnum offered to sponsor her tour, but Lola refused to be one of many of the acts in his circus. Instead, she signed with a manager named Edward Willis, who bought her story of being an improverished Spanish noblewoman. He was convinced that she would conquer America the way Columbus had once conquered it.

She arrived in New York in 1852, dressed like a man, with spurred boots and a riding whip, which she used immediately on an admirer who dared to grab onto her coat tails. Once in the States, however, the controversy began anew and Lola was forced to buy an even bigger whip – using it on impolite reporters and restless audiences. She toured the country for three years, purchasing a house in Grass Valley, Nevada where she lived in between tours. While in San Francisco, she married her third husband (again bigamous), a newspaper man by the name of Patrick Hull in 1853 in a Catholic ceremony no less, despite the fact that Lola had been raised Protestant.

They set off on a tour of the Gold Rush towns, Lola not one to travel lightly, brought along 50 trunks that contained silk drapery, gilt mirrors, as well as a stupendous wardrobe of clothes. Again the marriage didn't last, and Hull left Lola after two months of marrriage. Lola clamed in her autobiography to have been married a fourth time to a German baron. Unlucky in love, she is said to have written, "Love is a pipe we fill at eighteen and smoke until forty. Then we rake the ashes till our exit."

While living out west, Lola showed another side to her character than that of the horse-whipping femme fatale. She began to devote her time to helping out troubled women. There is a legend that she took the young Lotta Crabtree under her wing, teaching her how to dance and to command the stage. She became a model citizen of Grass Valley, much admired by the other townsfolk. She kept a menagerie of pets including a tamed grizzly bear which she took for walks.

However, after awhile, Lola needed money again. She entertained lavishly as visitors found her. She decided to go down under, to tour Australia, where she made a sensation with her Spider Dance and not in a good way. Over the years, Lola's performances had lost their sublety, and had become downright vulgar for the times. In Melbourne, when an editor had the temerity to call her performance immoral, she went after him with her whip. The Australian tour a failure, Lola was forced to lick her wounds and go home.

Once again, Lola was unlucky in love. She had fallen in love with her tour manager, Ned Fellin, who fell over board mysteriously on the voyage back to the States. When Lola was questioned about his disappearance, she said, "I have been wild, and wayward, but never wicked." Lola returned to America to present a series of literary lectures. It turned out that Lola was a formidable and eloquent lecturer, far better than she was a dancer.She even wrote several books, an autobiography, and a book called Timeless Beauty: Advice to Ladies & Gentleman.

By the year 1857, Lola's thoughts began turning toward religion, her own spiritual state, even thoughts of death. It seemed that she had become remorseful over her life. As New York sweltered in a heat wave in June 1860, however, she suffered a stroke. The condition left her unable to move or speak for several months. News of Lola's illness reached her mother, who was now Lady Craigie. She travelled to America on the pretext of seeing her daughter for what might be the last time, but it appeared that her actual purpose was to find out whether or not Lola still had any of the jewels that Ludwig had given her. but, by December, she had recovered enough to hobble outside for a breath of fresh air on Christmas Day. It was to prove the death of her. Lola developed pneumonia and, on January 17, 1861 – a month before her 40th birthday – she died. Her life quickly passed into legend.

She's buried in Green-Wood Cemetary in Brooklyn, NY. Her headstone was inscribed with a name she never used – her maiden name of Eliza Gilbert preceded by Mrs. One of her more recent biographers, Bruce Seymour, recently paid to have her grave spruced up.

Lola lived life on her terms, and sometimes she paid a high price for her reckless, adventuresome spirit. The late romance novelist Tom Huff, who wrote as Jennifer Wilde, based one of his novels on Lola Montez, called Dare to Love, a title that could apply to Lola's own life . No one could say that Lola didn't seize life with both hands and try to mold it to her will.

For further reading:

Cupid and the King - Princess Michael of Kent
Lola Montez: Her Life and Conquests - James Morton
Lola Montez: A Life - Bruce Seymour
Book of Courtesans - Susan Griffin

Friday, October 12, 2007

Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets - The racy life of Lola Montez

'Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl,
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
But while she tried to be a star," Copacabana by Barry Manilow.

'She is fatal to any man who dares to love her,' Alexandre Dumas, pere.

"I have known all the world has to give -- ALL!" Lola Montez shortly before her death in 1861.

She is considered one of the first tabloid celebrities, the 19th Century's answer to Madonna. Her lovers included Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria. She was an actress, a writer, a lecturer, and the most famous Spanish dancer in the world who couldn't actually dance. Later in her life, she was able to charge more for her lectures than Charles Dickens. Her name? Lola Montez.

In her lifetime, she claimed to be the illegimate daughter of Byron, the daughter of Carlists from Spain, the daughter of a Spanish grandee stolen by gypsies, and many others, but the reality was far simpler and less dramatic.

Lola was actually born Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert on February 16, 1821, although some biographers claim that she was born earlier in 1818, and Lola herself shaved years off her birth. Research indicates that the 1821 birthdate is the correct one. She later claimed that Lola was a nickname for Dolores which she was christened, but there is no record of the name Dolores on her baptismal certificate.

Her father, Edward was a soldier in the British army, and her mother Elizabeth Oliver was the illegimate daughter of the High Sheriff of Cork and Irish MP Sir Charles Oliver and Mary Green who was herself illegitimate and of partial Spanish ancestry.

The family soon set off for Calcutta where Eliza's father was posted. Soon after they arrived, he died from cholera. His widow remarried a year later to another career army officer Captain Patrick Craigie, the son of the Provost of Montrose in Scotland. Eliza's mother was still young, only 18, and became caught up in the social life in Calcutta. Craigie, while he adored Eliza, felt that she was growing up wild in India and decided to send her back to live with his relatives in Scotland.

Although it seems somewhat cruel to send a 5 year old away with strangers, many children were sent back to England to be educated. However, it's not to hard to imagine that Eliza's mother wouldn't have wanted reminders around that she was a mother, while flirting with the officers.

Eliza stayed with Craigie's family for about 8 months. It was not a success. She was rebellious and chafed against life in a small town. The contrast between the heart and lush climate of India with the harsh winters of Scotland must have been a shock to the little girl, who had been abandoned first by her father's death and now by her mother and stepfather. "The queer, wayward Indian girl," as Eliza was known, scandalized the town by running down the street naked.

At the age of 10, Lola was sent to a schoool run by her stepfather's older sister, Catherine Rae, and her husband in Sunderland. Lola clearly made an impression on her teachers. One of them, a Mr. Grant, who taught art later recalled that she was an elegant and graceful child, with eyes of "excessive beauty," an "orientally dark complexion," and an air of haughty ease. He also noted that she "the violence and obstinancy of her temper gave too frequent cause of painful anxiety," to her aunt.

In 1832, Eliza was sent to a boarding school in Bath, England where she lived until her mother came back to England in 1837. It was not a happy reunion. Her mother had planned to marry her off to a "rich and gouty old gentleman of 60 years," as Eliza put it in her memoirs. The man in questions was Sir Abraham Lumley, a Judge of the Supreme Court in India. Looking for away out, Eliza eloped instead with her mother's admirer, Lt. Thomas James, an army officer on leave who had accompanied her mother from India to Bath. She had just turned 16.

Eliza quickly realized that she had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire to quote an old cliche. Instead of the glamour and balls and excitement that she expected from married life, Eliza was now stuck in the backwaters of Ireland, and she quickly became restless. The cracks in the marriage began to show. Eliza had known very little about her husband before they eloped. Now she learned that he was not the person that he had seemed to be at first. She claimed that he started to drink heavily and to slap her around.

Despite returning to India with her husband, the marriage was doomed. In 1842, he either abandoned her for another woman, or she left him when she couldn't take his violence and infidelity. However, she was shunned by her mother for bringing disgrace to the family. Armed with 1,000 pounds from her step-father, she had no choice but to return to England.

However, in Madras, a dashing army officer named Lennox, joined the ship. He was the grandson of the Duke of Richmond, and he and Eliza became lovers. When they arrived in London, they continued their affair and Lennox introduced her to several influential men. When word of their affair reached her husband, he filed for divorce siting her adultery with Lennox.

Lennox soon proved no more constant a lover than her husband. He soon left her with no means of support. Eliza now faced a quandary that many 'fallen' women in that era faced. She was virtually unemployable as a governess or a lady's companion. Instead of turning to prostitution, Eliza decided to go on the stage.

Unfortunately she didn't have the talent for acting, due to her inability to take directions from anyone. Instead she decided to become a dancer. She'd studied ballet as a child, but she was too old now to launch a ballet career. Instead Eliza decided to take herself off to Spain for 6 months to learn flamenco and the language. When she arrived back in London, she no longer Eliza Gilbert James but Lola Montez. Or to be exact Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez, "the proud and beautiful daughter of noble Spanish family."

Thus started the second chapter in her life. She was engaged to perform at Her Majesty's Theater, but her appearance was not a success. She was recognized by several acquaintances from her time with Lennox who blew her cover with the theater's management by shouting out 'Why it's Betty James,' when she stepped onto the stage. Her contract was subsequently cancelled. Lola later claimed that London audiences were incapable of appreciating the subtle quality of her dancing.

Lola was not a very good dancer. She had no sense of rhythm or timing, what she did have was a sense of theatricality. Her costume consisted of a black lace dress with a high color, the better to frame her face, and her magnificent bosom, and a decoration of red roses. She was also remarkably beautiful, with lustrous dark hair, ivory skin, and stunning blue eyes. Her most famous dance, The Tarantula, chiefly consisted of Lola conducting a frenzied search of her person for the elusive spider. Inevitably she would reveal a great deal of leg to the audience, in an era when people covered their piano legs. The secret of her later success was her utter shamelessness and her ability to play it straight.

After the disaster of her London debut, Lola took herself off on a tour of the continent, where she took up with wealthy nobility who had a penchent for beautiful women. She had a violence about her that both attracted and repelled men. Audiences either loved or hated her. Critics were divided too, they weren't sure if she was serious or if she were in on the joke.

She entranced Prince Heinrich who's family ruled over small regions in Germany. She danced in Dresden, Berlin and Warsaw, where she inadvertantly started a riot after she refused the attentions of the Viceroy of Poland, who fell desperately in love with her. He offered her an estate, and handfuls of diamonds if she became his mistress, but Lola found him repulsive. The director of the theater where she was appearing suggested that she might be wise to reconsider. Lola, in a rage, threw him out.

That night when she appeared on stage for her performance she was met by boos and hisses from a certain section of the audience. It was clear that it was pre-arranged. It happened the next night and the next. Finally Lola had had enough, she stormed the footlights and told the audience exactly what was going on. The crowd cheered and applauded her courage.

An immense mob escorted her back to her hotel. Unbeknownst to Lola, the Viceroy and the theater manager were suspected of being traitors, working with the Tsarist government, and they were much hated by the Polish people. Instead of leaving, the crowd stayed, rioting started in the streets, and Warsaw was on the brink of revolution. Lola was asked quietly to leave.

Her most notable affair at this time was with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who was also one of the most dynamic pianists of the era. What Byron was to poetry, Liszt was to classical music, a Victorian rock star. He'd already cut a swathe through the women of Europe, who threw themselves at him, when he met Lola.

At first the love affair was quite passionate, they travelled everywhere together, quarrelling and making-up with equal frequency. Their two gigantic egos were destined to collide. She had a tendency to annoy him while he was trying to work, and she flew into jealous rages when he played even the slightest attention to other women. He was also jealous of her notoriety and her ability to upstage him. Things came to a head while he was unveiling a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. Lola hadn't been invited, so she gatecrashed the banquet, and in front of the royalty and other dignitaries, she leapt onto a table and danced among the dishes. He finally managed to escape by locking her in their hotel room, after leaving sufficient funds to cover the damage he knew she would inflict on the room when she discovered that he had left.

Lola was gaining a reputation, not for her dancing, but for her volcanic temper, and her ability to manipulate the press by giving interviews, in which ever city she was appearing. Like a lot of people who reinvent themselves, Lola began to actually believe that she came from a noble but improverished Spanish background. While she was in Berlin, during ceremonies to arranged to honor the Tsar of Russian, Lola arrived alone and on horseback. When she tried to enter a section of the parade grounds reserved for royalty and nobility, a policeman tried to stop her by grabbing the reigns of her horse. Lola, enraged, struck him with her riding crop. Needless to say, she was forced to leave the city.

When her mother heard about her daughter's latest scandal, she decided that Lola was now dead to her. She went into mourning and had her stationary edged in black. In Paris, Lola's growing notoriety helped gain her an engagement at the Port St. Martin theater. When she was booed by the audience in the middle of her performance, Lola in a fit of temper, took of her garters and flung them into the audience to their delight.

It was in Paris that Lola met the man who would become the great love of her life. Alexandre Henri Dujarier was the co-editor and literary critic of La Presse. Intigued by the stories he had heard about Lola, he went to see her dance. Introduced backstage, they were immediately taken with each other. They became lovers, and Dujarier began to show her a world she had never entered before. Paris at this time was the literary and artistic capital of Europe. Dujarier took Lola to the salon of writer George Sand, where she met literary lights like Dumas, Victor Hugo, Balzac and Theophile Gautier, who wrote the libretto for Giselle.

For once Lola was appreciated for her intelligence and conversation. She had always been interested in politics, and under Dujarier's influence, she became an ardent Republican. Dujarier proposed to her and she accepted, despite the fact that any marriage would be bigamous. Just when it seemed as if her life was finally settling down, the idyll came to an end. In March of 1845, Dujarier left Lola and went to a supper party alone. There was much drinking and carousing going on, when one of the other guests, Jean de Beauvallon, a rival newspapermen, picked a fight with Dujarier for neglecting to publish a feuilleton of his Memoires de M. Motholon. At first they decided to settle the dispute with cards, but Dujarier was unlucky and couldn't settle his losses. Both men were fried and their nerves were frayed from the long night. More wine was consumed and de Beauvallon made the mistake of being tactless about an old affair of Dujarier's. That was the last straw and Dujarier challenged him to a duel.

Unfortunately Dujarier was no fighter, and although he opted for pistols, he was no great shot either. Before he left, he wrote out his will and left two letters, one for his mother, and the other for Lola. de Beauvallon had no intention of killing Dujarier, to save face he tried showing up at the appointed place late, but Dujarier was still waiting for him. He even tried to get out of it by offering him warm pistols. According to the duelling code, warm pistols meant that they had been practiced with, and was against the code. However, Dujarier was either determined or incredibly foolish. After taking their places, Dujarier fired first and missed. de Beauvallon's didn't. Dujarier died before his body reached Paris.

Lola was devastated with grief. Though she was uninvolved in the argument, she was blamed all the same. When de Beauvallon was tried for murder, Lola showed up to testify against him, dressed in masses of silk and lace. The court was taken aback when she declared that she would have fought de Beauvallon herself because she was the better shot.

At this point in her life, it could be safe to say that something broke in Lola after the loss of Dujarier. Her whole life up until this point had been one of loss and abandonment. Her utter recklessness in her next adventure in Munich seems more now of a woman still grieving over the loss of her lover, and determined never get as much as she could out of the next man before the inevitable abandonment.

Tomorrow - Lola Montez, Part II - from Munich to New York

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - The Life of Lady Caroline Lamb

Allegedly that was Lady Caroline Lamb's response on her first sight of George Gordon, Lord Byron, but the same sentiment could be applied to her. In an age that favored form and decorum, no matter what you did behind closed doors, Lady Caroline Lamb scandalized society with her reckless behavior and flouting of convention.

She was born Caroline Ponsonby on the 13th of November in 1785, which makes her a Scorpio. She was the only daughter of Lord Duncannon, the future Earl of Bessborough and Lady Henrietta Ponsonby, the sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (more on her in another post).

Like her mother, Caro was delicate in health as a child. From the age of 9, she lived at Devonshire House, along with her cousins Lord Hartington, his sisters Lady Georgiana and Lady Harriet, and Lady Elizabeth Forster's two children by the Duke, one of which was also named Caroline.

A born drama queen, Caroline made up fanciful tales about her childhood, including the tidbit that she didn't learn to read until well into her teens. Considering that her grandmother, the Dowager Lady Spencer was zealous about education, and her governess was Selina Trimmer, the sister of noted author of children's morality tales, Sarah Trimmer, the idea is absurd. Still many future biographers have taken Caro's stories at face value, and repeated them.

The truth is that Caroline was exceptionally well-educated. She wrote several published novels and poems as an adult, but she was also an accomplished artist as well. Not only was she fluent in French and Italian, but she was also skilled at Latin and Greek. Growing up, Caro spent time on the continent with her mother and her aunt as they gave birth to the illegitimate children of their lovers. She met Marie Antoinette, the Queen of Naples.

From early childhood, Caro was developing a reputation for outrageous behavior. She once told the noted writer Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that his face was so ugly it scared her puppy! While most kids outgrow the inclination to say whatever comes out of their mouth, Caro never did.

Caroline was blessed with a slim figure, reddish blonde hair and delicate features but she had the unfortunate tendency to lisp and to talk in a baby voice (sort of like Trista Sutter from The Bachelorette). As her marriage broke down, she liked to dress up like a page, flouting convention.

At the age of 16, she met William Lamb, the second son of Lord Melbourne. Both her mother and her grandmother had misgivings about the match. At the time, William was the second son, his brother Peniston being the heir to the title. William wasn't even Lord Melbourne's biological son. The rumor was that he was actually Lord Egremont's. Caro was also headstrong, and neurotic while William had a much calmer temperment. They also had almost nothing in common. Still, his mother, Lady Melbourne championed the match. She wanted access to the Whig Power Center which was Devonshire House, the Duchess being an ardent Whig supporter. There William could mingle with politicians such as Charles James Fox, furthering his own career.

They were married in 1805 when Caro was 19. At first the marriage was happy, until William's overwhelming ambition to succeed as a politician took him away more and more. Caro also suffered two horrible miscarriages, including a stillborn daughter, before finally giving birth to a son, Augustus in 1807. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Augustus suffered from epileptic fits and he may have been autistic as well. Caroline refused to put him away, despite the pleas of her family and her in-laws. Despite his affliction, she was devoted to him.

Soon the cracks in their marriage became even greater. William was an athiest while Caroline had been relatively pious when they married. They were also not sexually compatible. There is evidence that William was a little kinky which shocked Caroline, who probably had very little knowledge of the sexual act before marriage.

In March 1812, Caro read an advance reading copy of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and wrote him an anonymous fan letter. Byron at this time had yet to become the rock star of the Regency that he would become. He'd had some verse published in 1806 and 1807, but Childe Harold made his reputation after the first two cantos were published. He'd taken his place in the House of Lords the previous year, and made his maiden speech only a month before he met Caroline.

Byron described Caroline to a friend as “the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous fascinating little being that lives now or ought to have lived 2000 years ago.” Caroline was one of the stars of her day. She was beautiful and charming, but, in the words of one of her friends, "had a restless craving after excitement".

Byron received hundreds of what were essentially fan letters from women. When he found out that Lady Caroline Lamb was the letter writer, he was intrigued enough to want to meet her.
What followed was an affair that lasted only six months, but the repercussions continued for years. Caroline was totally besotted with Byron and, initially, he was equally smitten by her, although she wasn't his usual type. It was not just a sexual attraction but also an intellectual attraction. They shared a love for dogs, horses, and music. They both they wrote constantly to each other, sometimes every day. By the end of their affair, something like 300 letters had exchanged hands.

The public nature of the romance presented no problem to Caroline. Most of her family, including her mother-in-law, had little regard for fidelity, but kept their liaisons quiet.
This was not Caroline's style. Being a Drama Queen, she enjoyed making scenes, and with Byron, there was ample opportunity. Caroline had no care for what other people's opinions, a trait that Byron admired. Like Violet Trefusis, another aristocratic woman who was the daughter of Edward VII's last mistress Alice Keppel, Caroline had no use for the hypocrisy of the times, where as long as you were discreet, you could get away with anything.

Byron at first admired her outrageousness but he soon pulled back, wounding Caroline, who wanted him to admit that the relationship mattered to him. Her infatuation became obsessive. On one occasion, as Byron leant across another woman Caroline bit through the rim of her wineglass in jealous anxiety. Byron received constant attention and barrages of love-letters from her. At first Byron was charmed but eventually he got bored. Like most men, he preferred the chase, until he got what he desired, and then he no longer wanted it.

Byron on the other hand wanted all her love and devotion solely for him. It killed him when Caroline admitted that she loved her husband, and that she wouldn't tell him that she loved him more than William. The more he demanded of her, and the more she gave, the less he wanted her once the initial thrill was gone.

His friends advised him that his affair with Caroline was ruining his reputation. He removed himself to his country estate Newstead Abbey where Caroline bombarded him with letters, which he didn't answer, probably hoping that she would get the hint that the relationship was over. But Caroline persisted. She beside herself, wondering why after the passionate two months they had spent together, he was now cruelly ignoring her. When Byron returned to London in June, Caroline threatened to visit him at his rooms, which would have been a disaster. No lady could appear at a man's rooms alone without reprecussions from society. On June 29th, Caroline showed up as threatened. When his friend Hobhouse tried to get her to leave, she grabbed a knife and tried to stab herself.

Caroline continued to bombard him with letters, engaged in further cross-dressing to get into his rooms, and posted him some of her pubic hair. The campaign was so intense that Byron would refuse to attend social engagements for fear of meeting her. Caro became that woman that we all fear becoming, the crazy ex-girlfriend, unable to walk away with her dignity intact when it was clear that he was no longer interested. She just didn't get that he was "just not that in to her," anymore. But Byron's passive-agressive behavior didn't help matters. He couldn't or wouldn't just end things.

Byron detested "scenes" unless he was the one making them and, being interested mainly in himself, finally found the intensity all too much. He broke off the affair, but Caroline wouldn't give up. She claimed that she and Byron intended to elope. Her father-in-law called her bluff, by telling her to go ahead! Her parents eventually took her off to Ireland, where Caroline tried to forget Byron, and to repair the damage to her marriage. It was actually Byron who persuaded her to go for both their sakes. While she was there, they continued to write each other, although he wrote her a "good-bye" letter which Caro kept until her death.

While she was gone, Bryon took up with a new mistress, Lady Oxford, an older woman with six children, who was also a friend of Caroline's (shades of Lady Hester Stanhope and Lady Bessborough. Lady Oxford however, encouraged her lover's disdain for Caro, effectively ending their friendship. When Caroline wrote to Byron from Ireland, he would compose his replies to her with Lady Oxford's help. As she was arriving back in London, she received a letter from Byron that was sealed with Lady Oxford's initials. Talk about a bad move!

'I am no longer your lover; and since you oblige me to confess it, by this truly unfeminine persecution, - learn that I am attached to another; who name it would be of course dishonorable to mention.'


The shock made Caroline physically ill, she lost weight, which made her look skeletal. Instead of going away quietly, she still clung to the hope that she and Byron would be together. She threatened to tell Lord Oxford about his wife's affair, which Lady Oxford laughed off but left Byron troubled. During Christmas, Caro had held a dramatic bonfire at Brocket Hall. While village girls danced in white, Caroline threw copies of his letters into the fire, while a figure of the poet was burned in effigy!

Caro's behavior became increasingly erratic. She would visit at inappropriate hours, once leaving a note in one of his books on his desk: "Remember me!". Pissed off, Byron wrote a poem in reply:

"Remember thee! Remember thee!

Till Lethe quench life's burning stream

Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,

And haunt thee like a feverish dream."

The 19th century term for what ailed Caroline was called 'erotomania,' dementia caused by obsession with a man. Nowadays, she'd be given Prozac or Lithium to balance out her moods, but back then the only cure was laudanum, a concoction that was derived from opium and alcohol (I just found out that it is still available by prescription in the US. Who knew?). It was a catch-all cure for everything from menstrual cramps to nervous ailments, colds to cardiac diseases. The only problem was that it was also addictive.

Caroline got her own revenge back of a sort in 1816 with the publication of her novel Glenarvon, a thinly disguised account of her relationship with Byron. She even quoted one of his letters in the novel. Although the book was published anonymously, it was too much for the ton, who began to shun her. She was banned from Almack's, and even her cousin Caroline who had married William Lamb's brother George (to differeniate between the two of them, Caro was CaroWilliam, and her cousin was CaroGeorge), began to distance herself. She even encouraged her husband to declare that he would never set foot on the family estate as long as Caro resided there.

Byron married William's cousin Annabella Milbanke in 1814, but after having their first child, a daughter Ada Augusta, the couple seperated in 1816. Caroline, who was friendly with Annabella, played both sides against each other, spreading rumors about Byron's relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. She claimed that he had confessed to an incestuous relationship at their last meeting. In the meantime, she was also still writing to Byron, who suspected that she was up to something and was disgusted at the lengths that she would go to.

William's parents encouraged him a number of times to formally seperate from Caroline for the good of his career. However, every time he took steps to do so, they would reconcile. But finally in 1825, he even had had enough. She'd humiliated him one to many times, having affairs with army officers while they traveled to Paris and Brussels after the war. In 1820, she'd even appeared at a masquerade ball dressed like Don Juan, after the first cantos of Byron's poem had been published.

Caro had continued to write, publishing two more novels, Graham Hamilton and Ada Reis, along with two epic poems. All were published anonymously. But her heart still belonged to Byron. In 1824, she had a nervous breakdown after accidentaally encountering Byron's funeral cortege as it passed through Welwyn, near Brocket Hall. Her health declined, she'd been abusing alcohol and laudanum. By 1827, she was an invalid, under the car of a physician full-time. William had been given the post of Secretary for Ireland, and was away when she took a turn for the worse.

Despite the past, he was still devoted enough to her that he made came back from Ireland in inclimate weather to be by herself when she died on January 25, 1828. She was only 43 years old.

After her death, William never remarried. He told Lady Brandon, soon to become his mistress, that he felt a "a sort of impossibility of believing that I shall never see her countenance or hear her voice again." He became Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister until he resigned in 1841. He had been very close to the young Queen, tutoring her in the art of politics. Melbourne, Australia was named after him in 1837. He died at the family estate of Brocket Hall in November of 1848.

Lady Caroline Lamb has come down to us through history as a cautionary tale of how not to act, but she should also be known for her bravey, in not conforming to the feminine role of her era. She dared to love, wholeheartedly and admittedly recklessly but with her entire being. She kept her son with her at a time when handicapped children were routinely shunted aside to the care of an outsider, and never acknowledged. She made a name for herself as an author, when the idea of women writing books was still considered a novelty.

Further Reading:

Caro The Fatal Passion: The Life of Lady Caroline Lamb - Henry Blyth
Passion and Principle, the lifes of women during the Regency - Jane Aiken Hodge

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Lady Hester Stanhope, Queen of the Desert

Born in the age of Revolution, Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) , is remembered today as a passionate and intrepid traveller in an age when women were discouraged from being adventurous.

The life of Lady Hester had its ups and downs, some would say probably more downs than ups. She was the granddaughter of William Pitt the elder, and the eldest daughter of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope. Her father and mother were that rare thing in the 18th century, a love match.

Her mother, also named Hester, gave birth to 3 daughters of which Hester was the eldest, in four years, and promptly expired in childbirth with the last. The Earl was devastated by her death, but promptly remarried six months later. Hester's stepmother obliged the Earl by giving birth to 3 sons, the heir, the spare, and a little something extra, before abandoning her children to governesses at Chevening, the family estate, to take her place back in society in London. Hester's younger sister Lucy was later to say that she doubted she would have recognized her stepmother on the street if she ran into her.

The Earl was no better as a father. In fact you could say he sucked. A noted scientist and an inventor, he spent most of his time in his laboratory. He sympathized with the French Revolution, going so far as to call himself "Citizen Stanhope" and to refer to Chevening as "Democracy Hall." He even tried to sell the family estate, (in order to find the funds to continue with his attempts to refine his ideas of a steam powered ship) keeping his eldest son practically a prisoner in Kent to try him to force him to sign over his rights, refusing to send him to university.

Hester was the only one of the Earl's sixth children who wasn't afraid of him, standing up to him on numerous occasions. Her father recognized that she had a brain and would spend time with her, discoursing on various subjects. But at the age of 20, Hester decided to take her destiny in her own hands. When her father refused her permission to attend a party, she did what any rebellious teenager would do, and lied that she was going to visit a friend. Instead she drove herself over to the party, without even a maid for a chaperone, a shocking sight in late 18th century England.

Her father then disowned her after she rescued her eldest brother from his clutches, hatching a plan with her uncle to spirit her brother to the continent to university. The doors to her home were now closed to her, and she moved in with her maternal Pitt grandmother.

Lady Hester was not beautiful, but she was tall and striking with beautiful blue eyes, and the Pitt nose. She was probably too independant and outspoken for most men as a wife (Byron once famously referred to her as "that dangerous thing, a female wit), but she had many male friends. She was what we would probably call a man's woman, the type who preferred talking about politics, philosophy and other intellectual topics and less interest in shopping or gossip. She had no female friends (probably not wanting to share the attention of men).

She traveled abroad for the first time in 1802, traveling on the Continent on the Grand Tour like a man, only returning to England when war broke out again. When her grandmother died, Hester was homeless again until an invitation came from her Uncle Pitt to live with him.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the youngest Prime Minister in British History in 1783 at the age of 24, an office he helf until 1801 when he resigned over the question of Catholic emancipation. His father, William Pitt the Elder had also been Prime Minister, and was awarded the title of Earl of Chatham for his services to the crown. Pitt the Younger never married, preferring his career over a home and family. He was also already suffering from ill-health having been a heavy drinker most of his life. At the time that Hester came to live with him, he was the Warden of the Cinque Ports, spending most of his time at Walmer Castle. When Pitt was returned to the premiereship in 1804, Hester served as his hostess.

Here Hester was in her element. Her conversation was lively and intelligent, and witty although she also had the unfortunate tendency to speak her mind, which made enemies unnecessarily.

Lady Hester was never very lucky in love. Her first love was Granville Leveson Gower, a politician, and the lover of Harriet, Lady Bessborough. At the time that Hester fell in love with him, he'd already had one illegitimate child with Harriett. Handsome and flirtatious, he had women coming out of the woodwork. Hester was just one of many. At first, he seemed to return her affection, but Hester came on just a little too strong. Having never read the regency equivalent of The Rules, she made her feelings obvious not to just to Granville but to everyone in society. Hester had never learned the word "discreet." She was in love an didn't care who knew it.

Leveson Gower never had any intention of marrying her, if anything he was more interested in her connection to Pitt than to her. Between her uncle and Lady Bessborough, the relationship was nipped in the bud, and Leveson Gower went off to Russia as an ambassador. Rumors swirled that Hester had tried to committ suicide, that she was pregnant with his child, and Hester went around telling people that he had jilted her.

In 1806, Pitt finally died from ill-health but not before making sure that Hester and her sisters were taken care of. Hester was awarded a pension of 1,200 pounds a year. She was also homeless again. She took a small house in Montagu Square with her two younger brothers, Charles and James. Life became a little intolerable for Hester. She was unable to afford a coach and horses, and walking in London without a maid was something only prostitutes did. Hiring a hackney cab to take her places was also out of the question. "A poor gentlewoman is the worst thing in the world," she declared.

Many of her so-called friends abandoned her after her Uncle's death. One who stayed faithful was Sir John Moore, a general in the army. From Glasgow, he was tall and weather beaten. They became extremely close friends, and might have been more if he hadn't been killed in Spain along with her younger brother Charles. His last words to her brother James were of Hester, and she kept his blood stained glove with her for the rest of her life.

After their deaths, Hester lived in Wales for awhile, but finally decided to leave England to travel, on her doctor's orders. She hired a young physician, Charles Meryon (another Scotsman) as a medical companion. Along with her maid, and several others, she set off with her brother James. The plan was to drop James off in Gibraltar and then to continue on. She left England in 1810, not knowing then that she would never see her homeland again.

While in Gibraltar, she met the last of her three loves, Michael Bruce, who was twelve years younger than her. He was highly educated, charming with a rich father who'd made his fortune in India. They became lovers and travel companions, flouting convention. But Hester wasn't stupid, she knew that one day, Michael would leave her.

Still they traveled on to Turkey and Greece, from Constantinople they planned to head to Cairo in Egypt. She had no purposes for her travels, although at one point she came up with the hairbrained scheme of getting permission to travel to France, where she imagined she would ingratiate herself with Napoleon, studying his character in order to report back to the English a way that they could defeat him. Fortunately the French ambassador thought better of issuing her a passport, thereby putting the kibosh on what could have turned out to be an international incident!

With nothing better to do, the party pushed on towards Egypt. While in Alexandria, she set about learning Turkish and Arabic. While shipwrecked on Rhode's, Hester's party lost all their clothes and had to wear Turkish costumes. Lady Hester found them so comfortable and convenient that she adopted the outfit for the rest of her life.

As she traveled throughout the Middle East, Lady Hester was received royally whereever she and her party went. She was received in state by the Pasha, Mehmet Ali, in Cairo. She traveled to Jerusalem and Acre, and other little known citites. When she reached Damascus, Lady Hester refused to wear the veil or change out of her men's clothes to enter the city, despite the warnings she received that it was an anti-Christian community. Instead she rode in, unveiled at midday. The people of Damascus didn't know what hit them, but their amazement turned to enthusiasm and she was hailed as a Queen.

In 1813, she decided to travel to Palmyra, site of Queen Zenobia's ancient kingdom, despite the route going through a desert with potentially dangerous Bedouins. Dressing as a Bedouin, Hester took with her a caravan of 22 camels to carry all her baggage (and you thought that Posh Spice had a lot of luggage!). The local Bedouins were so impressed by her courage, that they came to see her. When she arrived in Palmyra, she was crowned in celebration. From then on, she became known as "Queen Hester."

That was the high point of Hester's life. From then on everything went to hell in a handbasket. Her lover, Michael Bruce, was recalled back to England after learning of his father's illness. Hester's options however were limited. She was now a fallen woman thanks to the gossip about her relationship with Michael which was well known in England. There was nothing for her back home. Hester decided to stay in the Middle East for good.

She had high hopes that she and Michael would have a long loving correspondance like Leveson Gower and Harriet Bessborough, but it was not to be. He wrote her only 3 times over and 18 month period after his return. His promise of sending her a thousand pounds a year also was also an empty promise. Hester was left to live on her pension from the government which should have gone far in the Middle East but not by a woman who was used to living and traveling in high style.

Part of the problem was that Hester opened her doors to any British traveller who came her way. She also gave sanctuary to hundreds of refugees of Druze inter-clan warfare, earning her the enmity of Mehmet Ali during his struggles with the Sultan. The other problem was she was used to living like a Lady and no intentions of downsizing just because she had no money.

After a long illness that almost killed her, in 1815, Hester decided to mount an expedition to search for buried treasure in the city of Ascalon, after discovering clues in an ancient parchment. After receiving permission from the Sultan, she requested funds from the British government but was denied. The only find was a large statue which Hester destroyed for fear of being accussed of smuggling antiquities (earning her the enmity from generations of archeologists appalled that she would destroy an artifact). The cost of the expedition increased her already burdensome financial problems.

Her faithful maid died in 1828, and Charles Meryon left her finally to return to England in 1831 where he married and started a family of his own. Apparently he had suffered for years from unrequited love for her, but he returned twice to see her, worried about her health and safety. She'd moved to Djoun, a remote abandoned monastery in the Lebanese mountains. Ruling her household with a mixture of laxity and an iron fist, she turned more and more to Eastern mysticism and medicine.

Her eccentricities increased. She began to believe that the Mahdi, the ruler expected by some Mulstims to establish a reign of righteousness throughout the world, was about to appear and make her his bride. She kept an Arab mare, who she served sherbert to, and she expected her servants to treat her like royalty.

Her pension was finally cut off by the government to pay off her debts. She set a constant stream of letters to Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria herself, but her letters were never answered. She eventually became a recluse, and her servants took the opportunity to steal whatever they could get their hands on to sell to pay their wages. Increasingly she would only see visitors after dark, and then would only let them see her hands and face. Rashly, she walled herself up in the monastery until her death. After her death, the British consul found her quarters full of junk.

She was buried in her garden at D'joun, until her tomb was destroyed during a civil war. Reburied in the garden of the British ambassador's summer residence, she rested there in peace until 2004, when her ashes were scattered over the ruins of her former home. Hester would probably have been forgotten if it hadn't been for the faithful Meryon who wrote 3 volumes of memoirs about his travels with her, giving the world a picture of a woman who chose the excitement of travel and adventure into the unknown mysterious Middle East instead of the constricted life of a spinster in London's regimented society.


Lady Hester: Queen of the East - Lorna Gibb
Passion and Principle: The Lives and loves of women during the Regency - Jane Aiken Hodge

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Scandalous Lovers: Abelard and Heloise

"With our lessons as a pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, with our books open before us more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed more often over the curves of her body than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts."

Peter Abelard

"Abaelardus and Heloïse surprised by Master Fulbert", by Romanticist painter Jean Vignaud (1819)

It was the sex scandal of the 12th Century. Imagine the headlines if this were to happen today: Handsome cleric scores with hot pupil. It touches all our hot buttons about the teacher/student relationship. After it was all over, he said it was just sex, while she believed it was true love. Sound familiar? It is the story of Abelard and Heloise. What is it about this almost nine hundred year old love story that still captures our imagination?
One of the most brilliant, charismatic and arrogant ment of the Middle Ages, Peter Abelard was the son of a noble family from the village of Pallet in Brittany. He had been destined for knighthood, but he was more suited for an acadamic career. Abelard was so brilliant that he defeated all of the famous intellectuals of the time in philosophical debates, including several of his teachers. He was a philosopher and a theologian, willing to to question all aspects of Christian doctrine, not a smooth career move, when schools were run by the Church.
He excelled in something called dialectic, which consisted of the logic of Aristotle filtered through Latin channels according to Wikipedia. While still in his teens, he arrived in Paris, where he attended the cathedral school of Notre Dame (not to be confused with the one now in Paris, this was an earlier version). At the age of only 22, Abelard set up his own school outside of Paris. In 1115, he was nominated a canon at Notre Dame.
Thousands of students were drawn to Paris by the fame of his teaching. Think of the most popular teachers at college and how hard it was to get into those classes. In his arrogance, he later wrote, that he thought of himself as the only undefeated philosopher in the world. Ego much? You know what they say about "pride goeth before the fall?" Well Abelard was about to experience that in spades.
Living within the precints of Notre Dame, was a young girl named Heloise, the niece of Canon Fulbert. Little is known about her family, who her parents were, or how she came to live with Fulbert. In a time when most men and women, even of the nobility, were illiterate, Heloise was remarkable for having studied Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Abélard writes that she was nominatissima, "most renowned" for her gift in reading and writing. He fell in love with her, and contrived to get himself hired as her tutor. It wasn't hard. Fulbert was particularly proud of his niece's intelligence, and wanted her to have an excellent education.
Soon Abelard was tutoring her in more than just Socrates. According to his famous Historia Calamitatum they spend more time having sex then they did studying to the point that Abelard began neglecting his own work and his classes at the university. They also weren't particularly discreet. Soon all of Paris knew what was going on except for Fulbert. While not the sharpest quill in the drawer, Fulbert finally caught the two lovebirds christening the refectory on Good Friday. To say he was a little pissed is an understatement. To top it all of, Heloise was pregnant, birth control not being top of the list of things that Abelard had learned in his studies.
Panicking, Abelard shipped Heloise off to stay with his relatives in Brittany until their son was born, who Heloise christened Astrolabe proving that it's not just celebrities in the 21st century who give their children ridiculous names. They left the child with Abelard's family to be raised, while Abelard tried to placate Heloise's uncle who was pretty apoplectic by now.
Abelard proposed a compromise, he would marry Heloise but it would have to be kept a secret. Heloise, however, was not down with this plan. She knew that being married would interfer with Abelard's prospects for advancement. Although, Abelard was a cleric, there no rules against being married, it was was preferred that they be celibate. She argued that philosophy and babies don't mix. How was her husband supposed to work while she was taking care of an infant? As far as Heloise was concerned, Abelard was going to change the world, marrying her would only ruin his future.
Of course, Abelard, being a guy and a medieval one at, wasn't about to let his woman tell him what to do. So marriage it was. However, Fulbert, wasn't a guy who was going to keep a secret this juicy, when he could tell the whole world that the brilliant Peter Abelard was his nephew-in-law. Although who knew what his real reasons were. Maybe he was trying to protect Heloise's reputation or just ticked off at Abelard, but he flapped his gums all over Paris.
Heloise wasn't about to put up with this, and when she was asked, she denied the marriage, which pissed off Uncle Fulbert royally. In retaliation, Fulbert beat her. Abelard whisked Heloise off to a convent to protect her from her uncle's wrath, while he tried to smooth things over. It didn't turn out quite as Abelard planned. Fulbert got it into his head, that Abelard was tossing Heloise aside and insulting his family. He got back at Abelard in the most loathsome manner possible.
Hold onto your stomachs, and any men reading this, you might want to look away right now. Fulbert hired thugs to castrate Abelard, to take from him that part which had ruined his niece. Or as Abelard put it "amputated from my body those parts with which I had done what they complained of." Ouch!
Of course things changed after his castration. For Abelard, it was a moment of clarity. The amorous haze had left him. He gave up his teaching position and retired to a monastery where he became a Benedictine monk. As for Heloise, he persuaded her to take the veil. Still only in her twenties, she reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately the cloistered life didn't sit well with either of them. The monks of St. Denis kicked him out because he tried to prove that the monastery wasn't in fact founded by St. Denis after all (now what was the point of this, apart from having to prove that he was right?). Abelard went off and founded his own school the Abbey of Paraclete, where he installed Heloise (it wasn't uncommon for Abbey's to contain both monks and nuns), after he left to rescue the monastery of St. Gildas-de-Rhuys.
While at St. Gildas, the monks tried to poison him when he tried to get them to give up their concubines and to live according to the rules of St. Benedict. More trouble followed, he was tried for heresy several times and forced to burn his own works for being heretical.
During this time, Heloise tried to reconcile herself to a life as a nun. She eventually became the Abbess at Paraclete, but for fifteen years she and Abelard had no contact with each other, until Abelard wrote his Historia Calamitatum, which was a letter which Abelard wrote to a friend, kind of an "if you think you life is bad, let me tell you about mine," kind of thing. It is this letter which survives which gives us the story in Abelard's own words of his affair with Heloise. Heloise somehow ended up with a copy of the letter and reading it was moved to write to Abelard to chastise him for his categorization of their love as merely lust.

She writes movingly of her feelings for him but she doesn't let him off the hook either, after all they were still technically married. "You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune, that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you. Surely, the greater the cause for grief the greater the need for the help of consolation, and this no-one can bring but you.Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you?"
Abelard replies that he hasn't written because he knew that she had good sense, and that he had confidence in her. Not exactly the words of a former lover. 8 letters have survived from the years when they were both cloistered, 5 from Abelard and 3 from Heloise. It's clear from her letters that Heloise was not always content in her choices. Having tasted sexual passion, she still misses it, while for Abelard the castration gave him clarity and allowed him to continue on with his work.

Heloise writes to Abelard that she would rather have been his whore than his wife in her first letter to him. In a sense she's arguing against marriage, because her love was pure, and not for any external reward. In any other time, this probably would have been music to a guy's ears!

"God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore."

Pretty strong stuff for a nun to be writing in the 12th or any other century! She reveals herself to him in her letters but Abelard (just like a man) can't deal with it. He begs her in another letter:

"Say no more, I beg you, and cease from complaints like these which are so far removed from the true depths of love!"

It's like the 12th century version of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Abelard seems to have projected his love for Heloise into a love of God and the Holy Spirit when he became a monk. He tries to convince her in another letter that it is God who truly loves her not him. But Heloise will have none of that. She writes to him, that even at prayer, she can't help thinking about the pleasures that they shared. It is a remarkable document of a woman's passion. In her letters she shows herself to be a vibrant, intelligent, passionate woman at a time where women for the most part were seen and not heard.

Abelard died in 1142, and Heloise died 21 years later. After her death, she was buried alongside him in the church where she was Abess. They are now buried together, although there is some question about who exactly is buried in the tomb, in Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris, where countless lovers have held hands over the graves over the centuries.

Reading Heloise's letters in particular, the reader is given a remarkable glimpse into the life of a female cleric in the 12th century. In her surviving letters she writes to Abelard asking for hymns and advise on what to do when she became the Abbess of the Paraclete. It also gives a rare glimpse into the inner world of a medieval woman, letting us know that passion and orgasms wasn't something that was invented in the 20th century.

Since their deaths, the two lovers have been celebrated by countless poets from Christina Rossetti to Alexander Pope, playwrights as recently as Howard Brenton's play In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise which premiered last year at Shakespeare's Globe in London, to a late 1990's movie with Belgian actor Derek de Lindt called "Stealing Heaven" based on the book by Marion Meade. There's even a scene in Being John Malkovich where John Cusack as the puppeteer does a show with Heloise and Abelard puppets.

Recently a medieval scholar in New Zealand, Constant Mews, contends that several previously anonymous letters can be attributed to Heloise and Abelard. This letters would have been written during their secret affair, a sort of medieval version of text messaging.

Their love story brings up that age old question about student/teacher relationships. It's one of the remaining taboos in our society. Did Abelard seduce Heloise, or was she a willing participant? From his autobiography we know that he set out to seduce Heloise from the beginning. It's not known exactly how old Heloise was at the time, she could have been 16 or her early twenties. Abelard was in his late thirties at this time, old enough to know better. But then of course this was in an age when most women were married at 12 and had borne several children before they were out of their teens.

The entire love affair (pre-castration) lasted less than two years, which is longer than any of Paris Hilton's relationships but still their lives were incredibly impacted in a short amount of time. Looking at it with 21st century eyes, you wonder how much of their relationship was love, and how much of it was the hero worship of a brilliant student for her charismatic teacher? Where should one draw the line, particularly in this age of sexual harrassment. Also, what made Heloise give in to Abelard's desire for her to take the veil? The marriage could easily have been annulled since he was no longer able to function as a husband. Was her love for Abelard that great, and her trust and respect for him so large, that she would acquiesce to what he wished without a thought to her own desires? Or was she just obeying her husband?

It's clear that the love story of Abelard and Heloise will be intriguing scholars and readers for even more generations.