Monday, January 23, 2012

Lady Hester Stanhope

  In December, my daughter and I took a trip to Lebanon.  When we  lived in the Middle East in the 80's, we had  heard about the splendor of Beirut as the "Paris of the Middle East".   At the time few people went there because of the civil war.  Peaceful now, we were eager for the opportunity to visit.

  Besides Beirut, we seriously considered  a visit to Joun (Joon, Djoun) which is in the south.  This was my daughter's idea.  She wanted to see the final home of Lady Hester Stanhope.
  Lady Hester falls directly into the category of eccentric early 19th century women travelers.  Her mother had died when she was very young, and her father, an inventor, ostracized his six children.  Hester was the only one who stood up to him and was subsequently disowned.  However her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, invited her to live with him.  In fact,when he was premier in 1804, 28-year-old Hester was his hostess,  That was a happy high point for her.  She was witty and outspoken and could talk about politics and philosophy and other intellectual topics to her heart's content.  She had her first love affair during this period, but it was rather scandalous and the fellow was assigned to a posting overseas.  Her uncle died of ill health in 1806, and had made provisions for a small pension for her and her sisters.  However she didn't have the mobility as before.  She moved to Wales, but still was restless.  So in 1810 she set off, with her maid, a young doctor, and her brother James, for Gibralter.  She met a dashing young man along the way-- Michael Bruce, and together they traveled to Turkey and Greece, and then Egypt.  Along the way, she devised a plan to go to France, and ingratiate herself with Napoleon, with the purpose of  finding a way to get information back to England.  Fortunately the ambassador to France didn't issue a passport. 
Lady Hester Stanhope would have worn a necklace like this
  Here starts the Desert Queen segment of her life.  After they arrived in Egypt, Hester set about learning Arabic and Turkish.  On one of their expeditions they lost all of their clothes, so she put on what was available--Turkish attire--and found it comfortable.  From then on she dressed in flamboyant Turkish costume.   Arab leaders were impressed with her presence and unusual style, and received her, calling her Queen Hester.  She showed uncommon courage in her desert journeys among the Bedouin.  She amazed the Arabs with her man's dress and refusal to wear a veil .  Then Michael was recalled back to England, and that romance seemed to fizzle.  Hester decided to stay in the Middle East, and  eventually ended up in Joun, where she built a house on top of a hill.  She spent money she didn't have, and finally the British government cut off her pension to pay her debts.  At this point she became truly eccentric and reclusive, and penniless.  Her maid died; the other servants stole from the house, and she walled herself in her house before dying  alone with hundred of stray cats.  The faithful doctor, Charles Meryon, recorded her story.

So we seriously considered hiring a car and driving to see her house.  But then we learned that all that is left of Lady Hester's house is about two feet of ruins. Reluctantly we gave up that expedition and chose to visit  Byblos--the oldest inhabited port city in the world.

But the tragic story of Lady Hester Stanhope is haunting, and I can see that we might make it there some time in the future.

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