Friday, December 5, 2008

Tart of the Week: Lady Hester Stanhope

Hester was the first child born to the Earl of Stanhope. Her mother had died after giving birth to her 3rd daughter, leaving three young girls and a devastated, and unfatherly husband. Life in the Stanhope house was not the ideal situation. The earl, needing an heir, quickly remarried a woman who could care less about the daughters from his first marriage. The earl himself was reportedly unkind to his children and busied himself in his work. It's no wonder Hester grew up to be a rebellious teenager. By the age of twenty she managed to get herself kicked out of her house for her various rebellions. Hester had nowhere to go - except of course, Uncle Pitt's House.

Yes, the Prime Minister just happened to be Hester's uncle by way of her mother. You would think the rebellious and striking young lady and the stuffy politician may not have been the best combination but the odd couple actually worked. Pitt was notoriously asexual and never had a wife or children but Hester's presence brought out out his fatherly side and he loved having Hester around. Hester, in turn, loved living with her uncle and her intelligence and wit made her a welcome asset to his home. She soon proved herself to be a great political hostess, much like Georgiana and the Duchess of Gordon. This new position also allowed her to meet many new people.

One of those people just happened to be Granville Leveson-Gower, Harriet's longtime beau. The dashing Tory was flirtatious and Hester fell hard for him. She had been courted by many of her uncle's friends but Granville was a hard man to resist, with his blue eyes and dark hair. Unfortunately, Granville was just flirting and had no serious intentions for Hester; yes she had great political connections, but what he needed was a wife with money. Hester flew into a rage at his rejection. As Granville was preparing to depart for his new ambassadorial mission in Russia Hest sent him a frantic letter threatening suicide if he refused to marry her. Granville, did was any typical man would: he showed the letter to his girlfriend (Harriet) and left anyway. Hester promptly poisoned herself but survived. Forever afterward she despised Harriet and had no problem showing it. Like any rejected, love-sick woman, she wrote twenty page letters to Granville telling him how horrible he was and when that didn't seem to get his attention she claimed she was just about everyone.

But more pressing matters were soon to distract Hester from heartbreak. Pitt was ill. Hester tended to him night and day but it was becoming obvious that the former prime minister was dying. After Pitt's death, Hester was once again homeless and bored. A series of illness and lousy men caused her to make the rash decision to leave England and travel through exotic lands.

Hester's entourage consisted of her doctor (who was secretly in love with her), her faithful maid, and 20 year old Michael Bruce who later became her lover. Many adventures met our heroine in these eastern lands and news would constantly reach England of Lady Stanhope's scandalous escapades. Once, a shipwreck in Rhodes left the party without any clothes so they were forced to adopt Turkish garb. Hester chose to wear men's clothing since she refused to veil her face. Feisty! Eventually she stopped traveling and settled down to live in Turkey with her party. Vistitors from Europe began to visit the eastern lands knowing they could safely stay with Lady Stanhope. Life was good.

Unfortunately good things cannot last forever. First, Michael returned to England to help his dying father, promising daily letters and money. Neither arrived. Next her faithful maid died and her doctor returned to England to settle down and have a family. A life of isolation brought Hester back into the same state of crazy that Granville put her in years earlier. She became eccentric like a female Howard Hughes and plunged into debt. Guests were only allowed to see her hands and face, she shaved her head and wore a turban, she only appeared at night, Hester had finally lost it. While her servants stole her possessions from under her nose, Hester became ill and died penniless and alone in 1839.


  1. Serena, the wife of Princess Margaret's son came from this the same Stanhope family right?

  2. Yay! Lady Hester Stanhope! I read once on a Regency Romance novelist's blog once that "though it's probably certain the likes of Lady Hester Stanhope never spent their time embroidering, your heroine probably would"; she was one of a kind!

    ... and more than a little crazy. Thanks so much for doing this!

  3. Hester was one of the first of my scandalous women. I've read several really good biographies of her and Jennifer Saunders played her in a TV movie that's available on DVD.

  4. S- Wow, I have no idea! Unfortunately I'm not up on my royals anymore (blush)

    E-Thanks so much for reminding me to do her! I was just about to say check out Scandalous Women for a more detailed acount of her adventures but Elizabeth beat me to it!

    E- Do you mean the Jennifer Saunders? Like, makes-me-laugh-my-pants off Jennifer Saunders? Because that would be amazing!

  5. I have been researching Lady Hester Stanhope's for quite a number of years now, and although I do like your blog I feel that each time someone is writing about Lady Hester it is always unfair. In French a tart means a "poule", a lady paid for her charms, not very bright but lovely and of the showy kind. Nothing to do with Lady Hester in this special context. She was wilful, of the bossy kind and although flirtatious at times (a byway to power when you are a bright woman in the eighteenth century)the tart image has nothing to do with her.
    And yes the wife of Margaret's son comes from one of the Stanhopes branches. Lady Hester's became extinct in 1967. Roger Day (one of her sister Lucy's descendants) wrote a good book (although his style is somewhat heavy)about his great (4x) aunt: Decline to Glory (1997).

  6. I'm sorry if you took offense to the post. Criticizing Lady Hester Stanhope was certainly not my intent. Every Friday I post a "Tart of the Week" and by "tart" I don't mean prostitute. If you look through the past tarts I'm sure you will find a variety of 18th century women we all know and love for the very scandalous reasons that set them apart in their time. "Tart" does not have a cement meaning on this blog, nor does it have a negative one.