She was a wonder, a legend. The writer Alexander Kinglake said that when he was a child in the 1820s Lady Hester Stanhope's name was as well known to him as Robinson Crusoe's, though he thought Crusoe was more believable. A century later, her table-talk (retailed in six volumes by her doctor-companion, Charles Meryon, and first published in 1845-46) was still being studied for the School Certificate. Admired as the intrepid Englishwoman who 'conquered' the East, even the male-chauvinist parts of it, by the force of her personality, her intelligence and especially her conversation, she was also vilified for her unconventionality (wearing male Arab dress and riding astride); the sexual liberties she took, with several male partners, none of them proper husbands (she claimed men had been created by God to arouse women); her views on English society and Christianity, both of which she came to loathe; her temper; her huge debts (which she expected the British government to settle); and her supposed madness. It was hard to dismiss the last, in view of her much publicised belief in the imminent collapse of the world into chaos, as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah (either Jewish or Muslim: she wavered on this), whose triumphant entry into Jerusalem she would accompany as his 'Queen', riding a white horse and up to her waist 'in blood'. Hence the dominant image of her as 'poor mad Hester'. Successive biographers - and there have been a number of them, though curiously Kirsten Ellis doesn't mention the last and best, Lorna Gibb - have struggled with this.
LRB 23 October 2008 | PDF Download