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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 58, LIVING INTENSELY IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: WHY DO PEOPLE QUIT THEIR DAILY LIVES AND GO TO JOIN CRUSADES IN DISTANT LANDS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My previous BLOG/ 57 wrote about political leaders who might hope to ride and direct the tides of History.1 But it’s not only leaders. Historical outcomes are the sum of all the actions and inactions of everybody, combined together. We don’t all have the same power to direct. Yet everybody plays some part, even if by way of abstention. Hence we can all try, if we want, to change the roles which might seem allocated to us. It’s not a very simple thing to do, certainly. As is well known, it’s much easier to make good resolutions than to achieve them. Furthermore, good intentions can also, proverbially, achieve the reverse of the effect intended. Yet things can, upon occasion, be very different.

This BLOG is about the motivations of people who make dramatic changes, quitting their daily lives and going to join crusades in distant lands. Obviously the precise combination of reasons varies from individual to individual. There are usually strong ‘push’ factors, impelled by dissatisfaction with daily life at home. At the same time, however, there’s generally one or more strong ‘pull’ factor as well, attracting via the appeal of a distant cause that’s on the side of History.

Political commitment can have that effect. The thousands of left-wingers from across the world (and especially across Europe), who went in the 1930s to fight for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, were a case in point.2 They were attracted by the lure of action, as well as by their support for Spain’s democratic government. Many were communists. Even if not drilled in the niceties of Marxist theory, they were accustomed to thinking of their own great cause as marching inevitably through History towards a triumphant outcome.

2015-10-No1-Hammersmith&Fulham-International-Brigade

Fig. 1. Memorial to Hammersmith & Fulham volunteers, who fought for the International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 – installed in Fulham Palace Gardens SW6 in 1997.

The fact that the great cause of anti-Fascism needed an urgent helping hand was not an obstacle. For the many communists in the International Brigades their commitment was encouraged by the Marxist analysis of History, which saw the processes of change as a constant struggle. Of course, there is always opposition and conflict. But it is precisely through complex conflicts that fundamental change will emerge.3 Thus the role of struggle, if need be in the form of real fighting, was not an impediment for those of high spirits and with an active temperament.  Religious motivations are even more common in calling people to action. What can be more powerful and exhilarating than fighting, either literally or symbolically, in God’s cause? It is not even necessary to be highly spiritual to heed that message. It is the call to action which is the lure, with the double promise of fighting in the winning cause of righteousness and, while so doing, of gaining divine goodwill. The rewards, whether spiritual or this-worldly (or both), will follow. It’s a high promise which provides sustenance through the possible times of loneliness, boredom, and confusion which often afflict people who are uprooted from their homes. Indeed, the promise of divine reward encourages those seriously dissatisfied with their current life to take drastic action to put things right.

Particularly electrifying in religious motivation is the call to action that comes when ‘the End is Nigh’. Generally, people muddle on from day to day without worrying about long-term trends. But religious teachings, particularly those which view History as a linear journey from the creation of the world to the last judgment, provide such a mental framework. There was a beginning. There will be an ending, often after a phase of apocalyptic upheaval and turmoil, when God’s final judgment will be revealed.

Believers should accordingly be prepared. They might also look, anxiously or eagerly as the case might be, for signs of the imminent unfolding of these great events. All attempts at second-guessing divine intentions have been consistently discouraged by orthodox religious leaders in all the great linear faiths. Nonetheless, predictions of the imminent End of the World recur in every generation, and especially in times of turmoil.4 The message, for believers, is intensely exciting and empowering.5 It overshadows all routine matters. And heeding the call provides a chance for changing lifestyles. It encourages some to leave home to follow a special teacher or leader. It sometimes leads to violence, when believers fight against unbelievers. And it can even result in mass suicides/murders, if embattled cultists decide to take their own lives and those of their young.

These were all dramatic ways of ‘bearing witness’, to alert an unbelieving world. One non-violent move was undertaken by an aristocratic English lady named Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839). In her youth, she had a busy social life, becoming hostess for her unmarried uncle, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. But, with his death, she lost her role. What to do? She travelled in the Near East, causing a sensation among the Bedouins when visiting Palmyra. She dressed in an exoticised eastern costume, with a turban and Turkish slippers (see Fig.2). And, above all, in 1810 she announced that the End was nigh; that the Messiah would soon return to the Holy Lands; and that she would be waiting. Which she did. She lived for the next 29 years until her death in Sidon (on the Lebanon coast), at first in grand style, later in desperate poverty, still waiting.6

2015-10 No2 Lady Hester_Stanhope

Fig. 2 Lady Hester Stanhope, in her own version of oriental garb, who lived in Lebanon, for almost thirty years, awaiting the return of the Messiah and the Last Judgment.

Stanhope’s experience, extraordinary as it was for a woman of her social class, was nonetheless a classic example of what can happen when an apocalyptic vision is not immediately realised. Generally, dashed hopes turn into disillusionment. Ordinary life resumes. Yet not always. Sometimes, people turn to dogged waiting. In Stanhope’s case, she left no cult behind her. Indeed, she may have realised, by the end of her life, that her hopes had been in vain. Nonetheless, she probably found consolation in the sheer pertinacity of her waiting. And that’s what can happen, not just for individuals but across generations. A group of followers can take up the cause, even after the leader has died, not only waiting but also recruiting successors to hand down the message through time.

In England, the Muggletonians survived from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.7 Their views were kept in semi-secrecy, circulated only between families and close friends. Others, by contrast, wait in full public view. The Seventh-Day Adventist church was founded in the aftermath of the ‘Great Disappointment’ of October 1844, when the world was supposed to end but didn’t. An American group, initially known as Millerites after the first prophet William Miller, decided to continue waiting, Today the huge movement, renamed as Seventh-Day Adventist, has millions of adherents world-wide.8

Three comments to conclude. Firstly, the confidence that one is fighting, whether literally or symbolically, on the side of History and/or God is individually empowering, especially when worldly as well as other-worldly hopes/grievances are intertwined. Such beliefs can get people to do surprising things. For those without any previous certitudes, moreover, doing something drastic can seem the best way of gaining new faith through action.

Secondly, the force of such beliefs may be creative and affirmative, but may also unleash powers of destruction, especially when encountering opposition. Because the stakes are so high, so are the passions.

Lastly, curbing a militant commitment to fighting on the side of God or history is not easy. The main antidote is disillusionment, when the euphoria fades. Yet that can take a long time. Hence the secular authorities, generally cautious in matters of private belief, may intervene in cases of violence or potential violence. Currently, various governments are running ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, seeking to get militant Islamists to renounce armed struggle and/or to prevent others from joining them. That can’t be simply done, however, by flatly opposing the great cause. The empowering and exhilarating nature of commitment needs full acknowledgement. Only then, can it potentially be diverted into an alternative re-empowerment, in the cause of everyday, not apocalyptic, action. Different outlets for strong energies – calmer ways of navigating the tides of history.

1 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Riding the Tides of History: Why is Jeremy Corbyn like Napoleon Bonaparte?’ BLOG/57 (Sept. 2015).

2 Details in K. Bradley, International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 (1994); A. Castells, Las brigadas internacionales de la Guerra di España (Barcelona, 1974); and M.W. Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Philadelphia, 1995).

3 See G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978).

4 See listings in www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events; and discussions in E. Weber, Apocalypses (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); P.J. Corfield, ‘The End is Nigh’, History Today, 57 (March 2007), pp. 37-9.

5 P.J. Corfield, End of the World Cults (Historical Association Podcast, 2015) – available via www.history.org.uk/podcasts/#/p/504.

6 See K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008).

7 C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (1983).

8 R.W. Schwarz and F. Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Nampa, Idaho, 2000); M. Bull and K. Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream (San Francisco, 1989).

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