Friday, August 19, 2011

Lady Jane Digby

This is from Edward Rice's biography of Richard Francis Burton, describing the time when Burton was British consul in Damascus, Syria. This was the 1870s. Burton's wife Isabel was with him, and she entertained a wide circle of mainly European guests:
One of the most colorful members of the salon was Lady Jane Digby, "notorious and polyandrous," as Thomas Wright described her. It was true she had married often and always on the highest levels. She was first the wife of Lord Ellenborough, then of Prince Swartenberg, and after that of a number of other gentlemen. Wrights says, six, but he was relying on gossip, and he overlooked the uncounted affairs, which included interludes with several kings, among the King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Ludwig's son, Otto, when he was King of Greece. After the last few relationships in Greece, one with a Count Spyridon Theotoky and another with an Albanian swashbuckler, General Xristodoloous Hadji-Petros, who took her off into the reckless life of the Balkan mountains -- the general was over sixty, Jane in her thirties -- she left Europe and made her way to the Orient, where she married a true Bedawin shaykh. . . . the shaykh, Medjuel El Mezrab, was the leader of an important sub-tribe of nomads. Isabel had to admit that "he was a very intelligent charming man man in any light but that of a husband. That made me shudder." However, it was a marriage that eventually lasted twenty-six years, during which Jane attempted to "tame" her husband -- it took her fifteen years to induce him to use a knife and fork. . . . Both Isabel and Lady Jane were inveterate smokers, and with Abd el Kadir and Burton they spent endless evenings on the terrace of the house with their water pipes.
Isabel Burton described Lady Jane like this:
A most beautiful woman, though sixty-one, tall, commanding, and queen-like. She spoke nine languages perfectly . . . she lived half the year in Damascus, and half with her husband in his Bedawin tents, she like any other Bedawin woman, but honoured and respected as the queen of her tribe, wearing one blue garment, her beautiful hair in two long plaits down to the ground, milking the camels, serving her husband, preparing his food, sitting on the floor and washing his feet, giving him his coffee, and while he ate she stood and waited on him, and glorying in it. She looked splendid in Oriental dress . . . she was my most intimate friend, and she dictated to me the whole of her biography.
Alas, after Lady Jane died, her family insisted that her memoirs be burned, and Isabel did so, a sort of warm up for burning so many of her husband's papers after his death. The portrait was made in 1831, when Lady Jane was 24.

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