Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lady Hester Stanhope: Expatriat, Astrologer, Eccentric

Lady Hester Stanhope was an adventurous woman of the early 19th century who chose to leave her native England and spend her life, first traveling around Europe, and then living the remainder of it in an abandoned monastery on a mountaintop in Lebanon among the Arabians. As a female expatriate living in an patriarchal culture, Lady Hester used her money and influence to live an unmolested life; however when her luxurious lifestyle outstripped the pension granted her by the British crown, her ability to purchase security ended.

However, Lady Hester, brilliant and innovative, or as some would accusingly say...disturbingly deluded, or even slightly insane, managed to otherwise survive and maintain to some degree, her eccentric lifestyle. Lady Heather, through either self-deluded insanity, intelligent design or genuine talent, convinced the natives that she could read the stars, and used their awe and their fear to maintain a position of power among the common people that lived in the hills and valleys surrounding her adopted home.

Presumably, Lady Hester's supposed talents were in constant demand by her neighbors. History tells us that she utilized their belief in her abilities to calm the passions of the violent; induce the unjust and the oppressor to make reparation for their wrong-doings; and other good uses, of which the following anecdote, related by herself, will furnish an example: 
“An Arab suspected his wife of talking too much with strangers in his absence, and one of his neighbors confirmed his suspicions. He went home, proceeded to strangle the unfortunate woman, and, when she became insensible, he dragged her to some distance, and commenced interring her: the first heap of sand which he threw upon her recalled sensation; she manifested symptoms of life, and he repented of his vengeance; he brought her to me half dead; told the story of her supposed guilt, but owned he was premature in strangling her, as he should have first got me to consult her star, to ascertain if she really deserved to die or not. I sent the woman to the harem, had her bled, and taken care of till she recovered, and then I summoned the man before me. ‘My good friend,’ said I, ‘your wife’s star has been consulted; take her back in peace, and thank God you have her; for it is written in the stars, “On vain surmises thou shalt not strangle thy wife, neither shalt thou hearken to the slanderers of her honor.”’ The man immediately held out his hand to his gentle rib; she kissed it, and forth he walked, desiring her to follow him, with the most perfect indifference. I asked the woman if she were afraid of another act of violence. She calmly replied, ‘Is he not my husband? Has he not a right to kill me, if he suspects me of doing wrong?’”

Lady Hester believed in the science of astrology to the fullest extent. She believed that we are all children of some one of the celestial fires which presided at our birth, and of which the happy or malignant influence is written in our eyes, on our foreheads, in our fortunes, in the lines of our hands, in the form of our feet, in our gesture, in our walk. She believed that, from these various elements, she could read the character and destiny of any individual who was but for a few moments in her presence. In accordance with her belief, she thought that skillful astrologers should be appointed to every district, to consult the heavenly bodies at the birth of every child and the nature of each natal star to be registered by them.

Either through self-delusion or genuine talent, Lady Hester retained her power over the commoners by manipulating their superstitious fears. However, the neighboring chiefs chose not to believe in her abilities and subjected her to robbery and harassment.   It may be assumed that greed, rather than disbelief, was more of a motivational factor for this change of heart since the chiefs resented the fact that Lady Hester could no longer pay the generous tribute to which they had grown accustomed before her fortunes dwindled.

Lady Hester was quite the eccentric, especially given the position of women in the times which she lived. She lived an outstandingly unusual life, and became quite the legend in her own time. A traveler, who, in 1832, was allowed to visit her—a favor rarely granted to Europeans, described a visit with Lady Stanhope:

“I was introduced into her cabinet by a little negro child. It was so extremely dark, that it was with difficulty I could distinguish her noble, grave, yet mild and majestic features, clad in an Oriental costume. She rose from the divan, advanced, and offered me her hand. She appeared to be about fifty years of age; but she possessed those personal traits which years cannot alter. Freshness, color, and grace, depart with youth; but when beauty resides in the form itself, in purity of expression, in dignity, in majesty, and a thoughtful countenance, whether in man or woman, this beauty may change with the different periods of life, but it does not pass away—it eminently characterized the person of Lady Hester Stanhope.

She wore a white turban, and on her forehead was a purple-colored woolen fillet, which fell on each side of her head as low as her shoulders. A long, yellow Cashmere shawl, and an immense Turkish robe of white silk, with flowing sleeves, enveloped all her person in simple and majestic folds, while an opening of these folds upon the bosom displayed a tunic of rich Persian stuff, covered with flowers, which was attached round the neck by a clasp of pearls. Turkish yellow morocco boots, embroidered with silk, completed this beautiful Oriental costume, which she wore with that freedom and grace, as if she had never used any other from her youth.”

A variety of motives have been ascribed to the unusual conduct of Lady Hester: eccentric imagination, a turn for adventure, a love of power, an intolerance for the constricted life of an England lady in her homeland, or simply because she could. Lady Hester Stanhope—simply eccentric or something be the judge.

To read more about Lady Hester Stanhope, and her adventures and delusions, please see my blog post from September 27, 2011.

Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Smiles and Good Reading,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Old-Fashioned Regency Romance Novel
A Very Merry Chase
Teresa's Regency Blog MyLadyWeb Women's History & Women Authors
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  1. Wonderful post! Lady Stanhope is one of the most fascinating of English eccentrics. Thank you Teresa.

  2. She was the niece of Sir William Pitt--the Prime Minister through much of the Napoleonic Wars, and his letters to her and his concern about her welfare are among the most charming and considerate letters of the period--so she comes from quite an aristocratic and powerful Tory family. She was also the fiancee of Sir John Moore, the first commander of the British forces in Spain at the beginning of the Peninsular War, and it was his tragic death during the retreat from Corunna, which set her off on her journeys, so to speak. Losing her beloved uncle and her fiance so close together must have had such a terrible impact...It is, however, interesting to compare her experiences with those of the other great travellers of the period: Byron, Shelley and John Galt.

  3. I have enjoyed learning just this little bit more about Lady Hester from this second posting and from the excellent comment above.
    To think that she was influential in saving this Arab man's wife.

    Thanks for posting!

  4. Interesting people, those who choose to live in the desert!

  5. Fascinating!! Great post!

  6. I am just jealous that the Crown paid her a living, and I have to work! :D

    Excellent information; thank you, Teresa.

  7. Love this! Is she any relation to Anne Stanhope, wife of Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset? Or am I just finding connections where there are none?

  8. Lady Hester Stanhope was born in 1776. She was the eldest child of Charles, third Earl of Stanhope and Lady Hester, daughter of William Pitt, the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham. I'm not certain, but I believe that Anne Stanhope would have been an ancestor of Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington, who was a contemporary of Hester's father.

  9. I love everyone's comments. I am definitely of Debbie's opinion and am envious that Lady Stanhope received her living from the crown and not only didn't have to work, but had quite the fine lifestyle, too.

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  12. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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