Friday, November 28, 2008

Tart of the Week: Harriet Lady Bessborough

I have been waiting quite a while to present this much-awaited tart her week. The youngest child of Lord and Lady Spencer was born in Wimbleton 16 June 1761 and named Henrietta Frances Spencer. Although her birth name was Henrietta, she was rarely ever referred to as such and was known as Harriet throughout her life. The Spencer household was very devoted to their children, however Harriet did not receive as much attention as her older brother and sister. Georgiana, the eldest was her mother's favorite, and George, as the Spencer heir also was doted upon. So the youngest Spencer child was commonly left out of many things including certain family vacations. Despite her lack of family contact, Lady Spencer made sure Harriet had the best education. Instead of being schooled at home like her siblings, Harriet was sent to convents in France for her education where she met the dauphine, Marie Antoinette. Still, Harriet grew up to be rather frail and quite soft spoken and always looking for love and approval.

By the time Harriet came of age she was a ravishing beauty with connections to the Devonshires, a very good match for any suitor. The man who won her hand in marriage was a cousin of the Duke of Devonshire, Frederick Ponsonby, the Viscount Duncannon. The naive Harriet was happy with her husband at first and children followed promptly. As time went on Duncannon's true nature appeared. He was extremely jealous of the attentions his wife attracted from other men and would sometimes degrade her in public. At home, the abuse continued and family members worried it was physical. Harriet was already under a lot of strain due to poor health and this increased every time she had a child. It is also quite possible she may have made a failed suicide attempt at one point which left her partially incapacitated. Meanwhile debts began to pile up around her because of both her and her husband's gambling habits.

It may come as no surprise to you that all these stresses caused Harriet to find relief in other men's arms and there was no shortage of other men. Harriet's beauty and charm along with her weak disposition made her irresistible to many men. The first of her many affairs was Lord John Townsend, a Foxite. He was soon followed by the rakish Charles Wydham, a friend of the Prince of Wales. Her affair with Wydham culminated at the same time as Harriet's third pregnancy which would produce the future Caroline Lamb. Given the different attitudes and appearances of brothers and their sister, it is highly probably this was not her husband's legitimate daughter. Naughty must run in the family!

It was her affair with the unpredictable Richard Brinsley Sheridan that Harriet found herself in way over her head. The two were friends before lovers but their affair but Sheridan haunted Harriet over, years after the affair had ended. Sheridan was known to show up to her unannounced and make demands. Their relationship was also the final blow to Sheridan's lovely wife, Elizabeth who soon died (prematurely) afterward, likely of a broken heart. The affair was exposed to the public and Duncannon instantly flew into a rage. He threatened to divorce Harriet and leave her to a life of social ostracism. Harriet was horrified but was saved by her brother in law, the Duke of Devonshire, who cooled his cousin's rage. William always did seem to like Harriet.

It was a while before Harriet had another affair. In the meantime she still suffered through bad health and her daughter, Caroline or Caro proved to be quite a handful. Her next affair was with the much younger Tory, Granville Leveson-Gower. This one lasted over 15 years and was deep-rooted, loving relationship that withstood Granville's many ambassadorial missions to far away countries. The two were each other's confidants and trusted advisers. Two children were the result of the relationship, they both conveniently slipped under Duncannon, now Lord Bessborough's radar. Dummy. When it came time to for Granville to marry the affair instantly ended and Granville's bride to be was none other than Harriet's niece and namesake, Harryo, Georgiana's second daughter.

Granville's marriage to Harryo was a happy one. Eventually, Harriet and Granville's children became part of Granville and Harryo's family. Harriet dealt with the loss of her true love stoically and settled down to being a grandmother and even made amends with her stupid husband. When she died in 1821, she requested her eternal resting place to be next to the person she loved the most in life, her sister, Georgiana.


  1. That's very interesting! Thanks!

  2. thanks!

    you continue to make my days....


  3. Oh good I'm glad you both liked it; I just find Harriet to be fascinating!

  4. hey so i just went and spent a few hours in barnes and noble, picked up "doomed queens" (thanks for the advice) and also bought "elizabeth...the struggle for the throne" by david starkey. have you read it? and if so...what do ya think? hmmmm i hope that i made a good choice :)

  5. Oh good! I hope you enjoy your new books :) I haven't heard anything about the Starkey book but it sounds fabulous. There are so many bios on Elizabeth it is hard to know which one is worthwhile! So many difficult decisions take place in Barnes and Noble...

  6. She seems rather a selfish and stupid woman, not to mention a hypocrite.
    She berated Earl Grey for how he allegedly treated her sister, yet SHE readily abandoned her children in order to chase a man who dumped her for her neice. Dummy.

  7. Selfish maybe; stupid...not so much. She only berated Grey after her sister's death in the height of her grief, which Harriet never did to anyone being non-confrontational by nature. She also never actually abandoned her children in order to chase Leveson-Gower, they were older by the time of her affair. She was very graceful when her lover picked her niece over her and the new couple lived happily ever after, which is a unique outcome for so many tarts' stories.

    Harriet's biography is fascinating, I highly suggest checking it out; it may clear up her story a bit for you. And please, don't feel the need to comment anonymously, everyone has a right to their opinions!

  8. Very interesting- it is nice that she reconciled with her husband in the end.It sounds like she was a good mother, also.

  9. I'm rambling again, but here I go (and off topic to boot)...

    For all you holiday shoppers out there...there's an engraving of the Spencer sibling portrait shown in this post on eBay. Though, as was the case with the original 1780's engraving, their poor brother was left out.

    The link is ten miles long, but the eBay store is Bloom Fine Art and Antiques. You can also find it by simply searching for the D of D---that way you can find all the goodies out there. Even Georgiana switch plates!

    Happy shopping!