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MONTHLY BLOG 116, THE LONG EIGHTEENTH CENTURY’S MOST AMAZING LADY RECLUSE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Image of Lady Hester Stanhope
(1776-1839)
Garbed as an Oriental Magus

More than matching the fame of the most notable male recluses of eighteenth-century Britain was the renown of the amazing Lady Hester Stanhope.She not only cut herself off from her aristocratic family background to live remotely but did so, at first in grand style and then as a recluse, in the Lebanon.

Her story indicates that there were some remarkable options open to independent-minded women, with independent fortunes but no family attachments. In fact, there was quite a substantial amount of female solitude in the eighteenth century.The caricature view, which asserts that every woman was under the domestic tutelage of either a husband or a father was just that – a caricature.

There were plenty of female-headed households listed in contemporary urban enumerations; and a number of these were formed by widows living alone. Many lived in the growing spas and resorts, where low-cost lodgings were plentiful. Some would have other family members living with them; but the poorest were completely alone. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the protagonist Anne Elliott meets in Bath an old school-friend, the widowed Mrs Smith. She is impecunious and disabled. Her lodgings consist of two small rooms; and she is ‘unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant’. Nonetheless, solitary living was not the same as being a recluse. Local gossip networks helped to counter isolation, as Jane Austen well understood. Hence, although socially remote from Bath’s smart visitors, Mrs Smith gets all the up-to-date news ‘through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter’.As a result, Anne Elliott is surprised to discover how much information about herself and her family is already known to her old friend.

Lady Hester Stanhope was utterly different. Lively, charming, and wealthy, she was the daughter of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and, in her late twenties (1803-6) acted as political hostess for her uncle Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Her social elevation and experience of life at the heart of government gave her immense self-confidence. But Pitt’s death in 1806 left her looking for a role.

In retrospect, Stanhope’s subsequent adventures indicate something of the social plight – or, put more positively, the challenges – facing talented and spirited upper class women, who did not wish (or manage) to marry or to go into business. There were plenty of female commercial entrepreneurs, usually of ‘middling’ social origins.And there was a positive ‘femocracy’ of high-born women who pulled the political strings behind the scenes.5 But these were generally married ladies, hosting salons and gatherings for their particular party affiliation, under the ‘shelter’ of their husband’s rank and wealth. The options were much more limited for a single aristocratic female, albeit one with a modest state pension granted after the death of Pitt (at his request). In 1810 Stanhope began to travel extensively in the Middle East; and she never returned to Britain. Initially, she had a sizeable entourage with her; and she attracted the attention of crowds as she toured. By the end of her life, however, she was running out of money and had become a complete recluse.

During her long self-exile, she did a number of remarkable things. Firstly, she adopted her own version of male oriental dress. She sported a velvet robe, embroidered trousers, soft slippers, a swathed turban. and no veil. So attired, she caused a sensation on her travels. In 1813, crowds gathered to see the ‘Queen of the Desert’ as she rode triumphantly on horseback into the remote and beautiful city of Palmyra, having crossed the territory of potentially hostile Bedouins. That moment was, for her, one of intense joy. Her garb and demeanour signalled that she had cut herself off from her previous life; and, even more pointedly, that she rejected any submissive female role, whether in the occident or orient. She was visibly her own person. Indeed, she was a grand personage, meeting local power brokers and Ottoman officials as a potentate in her own right.

A second notable initiative happened in 1815. Stanhope at the age of 39 broke new ground in terms of female self-employment – literally, when she tried some pioneering archaeology.She won permission from the Turkish authorities to excavate the ancient port of Ashkelon, north of Gaza. There were disputes, both then and later, about the outcomes of this search for fabled treasure. But Stanhope’s method of basing dirt-archaeology upon documentary evidence from medieval manuscripts showed that she was not attempting a random smash-and-grab raid. But, either way, it was not an adventure that she ever repeated.

Instead, it was a moment of religious revelation which constituted Stanhope’s third claim to fame – and which governed her behaviour for the rest of her life. At some stage c.1815 she was told by Christian sooth-sayers that she would become the bride of the Messiah, whose return to Earth was imminently due. Nothing could be more aptly dramatic. Stanhope accepted her destiny; and settled down to wait. She found two noble and distinctive horses, which were carefully tended for years, awaiting the moment when the returned Messiah and his bride would ride forth to judge the world at the Second Coming.

Excited prophecies of the End of the World can be found in any era,7 and were particularly rampant in Europe in the febrile aftermath of the French Revolution and the prolonged Napoleonic wars. At different times, individuals have claimed to be the returned Messiah – or to be closely connected with such a figure – or to know the exact date of the Second Coming. In the Christian tradition, it is rare for women to claim divinity or near-divinity on their own account. However, in 1814 Joanna Southcott, aged 64, announced that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and, briefly, attracted a large following, until she died of a stomach tumour, without producing the miraculous child. During her lifetime, she had instituted her own church, with a male minister to officiate at the services. And the Southcottian movement has survived as a small sect, with numerous twists and turns in its fortunes, into the twenty-first century.8

By contrast, Lady Hester Stanhope’s vision remained an individual destiny. Visitors approached her in her Lebanese retreat, impressed by her magus-like reputation. But Stanhope did not attempt to found a church or a supporting movement. Instead, she settled in to wait patiently. That response is a not uncommon one when a divine revelation is not immediately realised. True believers keep faith. It is the timing, not the vision, which is inaccurate. So the answer is to wait, which is what Stanhope indomitably did. Living initially in first one and then another disused monastery, she retreated eventually to a conical hill-top site with panoramic views at Joun, eight miles (13k) inland from Sidon. There she lived as the de facto local magnate. She was accepted within the religious mix of Muslim, Christian and Druze communities that has long characterised the Lebanon; and she tried to protect the Druze from persecution on grounds of their distinctive blend of Islam, gnosticism and neo-platonism. Doctrinal rigidity was very far from her personal mindset.

Only with time did Stanhope become a real recluse. By the mid-1830s, her original English companions had either died or returned home. Her funds ran low and she was besieged by creditors. The servants, allegedly, began to steal her possessions. Lady Hester Stanhope received her few last visitors after dark, refusing to let them see more than her face and hands. Reportedly, she suffered from acute depression. The Messiah did not come. Yet there was a sort of glory in her faithfulness. Her life’s trajectory was utterly distinctive, not one that could be emulated by others. Buoyed by sufficient funds, she made an independent life in an initially strange country, far from the political salons of early nineteenth-century London. And she persisted, even when impecunious. Stanhope died in her sleep aged 63, still awaiting her destiny – and having made her own legend.

ENDNOTES

1 There are many biographies: see e.g. K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008); and a pioneering survey by C.L.W. Powlett, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (1897).

2 B. Hill, Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850 (2001).

3 J. Austen, Persuasion (1817/18; in Harmondsworth, 1980 edn), pp. 165-7, 200.

4 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006); H. Barker, Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 2017).

5 E. Chalus, Elite Women in British Political Life, c.1754-90 (Oxford, 2005).

6 For a sympathetic account, see https://womeninarchaeology.com/2016/05/05/lady-hester-lucy-stanhope-the-first-modern-excavator-of-the-holy-land/.

7 J.M. Court, Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism (2008); C. Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millenialism (Oxford, 2011).

8 J.K. Hopkins, A Woman to Deliver her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution (Austin, Texas, 1982); J.D.M. Derrett, Prophesy in the Cotswolds, 1803-1947 (Shipston-on-Stour, 1994); P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995; 2000), pp. 106-8. 124, 139; J. Shaw, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a female Messiah and her Followers (2012).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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