Lady Hester Stanhope, who arrived in Istanbul in 1810, perpetuated the tradition of the well-connected, pre-Victorian, aristocratic traveller, elevating the role to new levels of eccentricity. Stanhope’s unconventional life has been the subject of countless biographies, essays and anthologies, and her residence on Mount Lebanon under the protection of the Druses, her visit to Palmyra during which, by her own account, she was famously welcomed as ‘Queen of the Desert’, and her subsequent decline and death in 1839, in complete isolation and debt, have achieved almost mythical status. Born into an aristocratic family, Stanhope had acted as the de facto first lady for her uncle, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, before setting of East in 1810. She would never return to England. Several letters addressed from Lady Hester Stanhope can be found in the Arcadian Library, chronicling some of her political allegiances, her travels in the Middle East and how she lived with Bedouin Women.
By the early nineteenth century the travels of women such as Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Craven and Mary Elgin had established a pattern and precedent for well-heeled and intellectually inquisitive female adventurers. Istanbul, with its artistic splendours, its sophisticated urban culture and well-established European diplomatic communities, provided the ideal destination for independent women travellers, although the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 stimulated alternative travel routes to the Eastern Mediterranean alongside a new interest in Egyptology and ancient civilizations. By 1830, the consolidation of British territorial rule in India and the development of the overland route from Europe via Suez and the Red Sea had also begun to provide opportunities for a much broader class of female travellers to take in the sights while en-route with brothers, fathers and husbands to administrative, military or commercial enterprises in the Indian subcontinent. The early decades of the century consequently witnessed an explosion of women’s travel and travel writing, which in the eighteenth century had been the preserve of only a handful of wealthy individuals.
Lady Hester Stanhope, who arrived in Istanbul in 1810, perpetuated the tradition of the well-connected, pre-Victorian, aristocratic traveller, elevating the role to new levels of eccentricity. Stanhope’s unconventional life has been the subject of countless biographies, essays and anthologies, and her residence on Mount Lebanon under the protection of the Druses, her visit to Palmyra during which, by her own account, she was famously welcomed as ‘Queen of the Desert’, and her subsequent decline and death in 1839, in complete isolation and debt, have achieved almost mythical status. She grew up motherless, after the age of 4, in a political and intellectual environment, including three years managing the household of her uncle, William Pitt the Younger. In 1810, thirty-three years old, she left England, never to return. She was accompanied by her physician, Dr Charles Lewis Meryon, whose subsequent six-volume account of her travels is a major primary source for the story of her life and opinions (1845).
The immediate reason for her visit to Istanbul was a widespread fear that the city might soon be absorbed into the French sphere of influence and thus become out of bounds to English travellers. In a letter to George III, written from the Palacio de St Antonio, residence of the Governor of Malta, in July 1810, Lady Hester told the King that she had abandoned her original plan of going to Sicily, fearing an imminent French invasion, and was about to embark for Greece, hoping, she said, ‘to reach Constantinople before the destruction of the Turkish Empire, which I believe near at hand.
You, Sir, may perhaps think this plan a wild one, but where else am I to go? I have no wish to return to England, I hate the climate, I despise the degeneracy of public men and my dear brother is absent’ (Stanhope, 1810). She had also dreamed up an even wilder plan to obtain a passport from the French Embassy in Turkey, return to Paris, interview Napoleon and report back to London with intelligence which could be used in the war against him [Stanhope’s sympathies for Napoleon are expressed in a brief note to Vicomte du Ponte, held in the Arcadian Library]. Not surprisingly, it was firmly vetoed by British diplomats in Istanbul, led by Stratford Canning.
Istanbul and its sights by now provided a well-trodden path for European travellers, with the additional excitement for women of the obligatory visits to the baths or to a harem, as well as forays in disguise into male-only gatherings in palaces and mosques. Arriving in November, Stanhope, in Meryon’s account, saw ‘the sights that are usually shown to strangers. By means of a firman [edict], we entered four of the principal mosques. I forbear giving descriptions of them, as they are to be found at length in several works’. In Constantinople, he added, ‘all that one sees is odd and strange, but it is difficult to make another person understand in what the strangeness consists’ (Meryon, 1845: p. 51). With Stanhope’s lover, Michael Bruce, now in tow, they also watched the Friday procession of the Sultan to the mosque, Lady Hester riding unveiled, on horseback on a side-saddle, and Meryon admiringly recording that there was ‘probably no other example of a European female having ridden through the streets of Constantinople in this manner on that day; and it may be reckoned as proof of her courage that she did so without insult’ (1845: p. 55). Lady Hester entertained to dinner the Commander of the Turkish fleet, the ‘Captain Pasha’ (now Hafiz Ali), and wore a sword in his honour. Afterwards she dressed up as a man to go on board one of his ships. She visited the women’s public baths near Hagia Sophia and in the countryside at Bursa; she went to the village of Belgrade in the countryside near Istanbul. By August 1811, however, she had decided that another winter in Istanbul would be too much and in October left with her companions for Rhodes and onwards to her destiny in the Syrian Desert. During her short time in Istanbul she trod the path but shed no new light on the city, seemingly more obsessed by her own romantic entanglements and political projects than observing those around her.
After leaving Istanbul, Lady Hester eventually settled in the foothills of Mount Lebanon where she claimed, with some justification, to wield considerable local power. More a long-term resident than a traveller, and a woman whose ideas and impressions of the East were recorded in her personal letters and by her biographer-companion, rather than in any published travel writing, she nevertheless achieved enormous fame for her unorthodox lifestyle and her characteristically confident, but often perceptive, commentary on the society and politics of desert life. Her own account, in a letter to the botanist Joseph Banks, of her famous expedition into the desert with local Bedouin in the late winter of 1813, displays all the idiosyncrasies of her lifestyle and her opinions. Writing from Latakia the following July, she told Banks that she thought it very important to investigate ‘the morals, character and customs of the Bedouin Arabs, that great barrier between the Eastern and Western world’ and for this purpose she had travelled and lived among them (Stanhope, 1813).
Lady Hester had ridden defiantly into Damascus in September 1812, in Meryon’s words ‘a woman, unveiled, and in man’s attire’, entering ‘in broad day light one of the most fanatic towns in Turkey’ (1845: pp. 366 – 367). After several months, and against the advice of the Pasha of Damascus, who ‘washed his hands’ of her, she set off again via Homs and Hama into the desert with the Bedouin and onwards to the ‘magnificent ruins’ of Palmyra. Nothing could be more accurate, she told Banks, than Wood and Dawkins’s description of the place, ‘which I saw to great advantage as there was nothing but feasting and rejoicing the whole time I remained there, which added much to the beauty of the scene’. She had learned a great deal, both from the local Bedouin and also from a group of Wahhabis who had given her interesting details of ‘a country we know little about’. It was a remarkably cool reference to the much feared expansionist Saudi rulers of Najd in central Arabia, and she offered to pass on all her information in person to Banks, even to the unlikely extent of bringing local Arab dignitaries with her to London. Chance, she said, not her own merit, had put it in her power ‘to do in this country pretty much what I please with all the leading people, for I am upon as good terms with the Turks as with the Arabs’ (1813).
It is not easy to separate fantasy from reality in the combined narratives of Lady Hester Stanhope and her biographer, Charles Meryon, whose admiring account of Lady Hester’s life contributed to the well-known images of eccentricity bordering on madness, especially when juxtaposed with his more down-to-earth descriptions of his duties as travel-companion and his solid observations of their joint expedition and his own separate excursions. The story we have of her, enhanced by successive admirers from Lamartine and Kinglake onwards, verges on Orientalist fantasy and is, sadly, not counterbalanced by any substantial narrative from her frequently bemused hosts. There is no doubt, however, that Lady Hester travelled with courage and panache, often, as she herself remarked in her letter to Banks, into regions and situations which other male travellers had feared or failed. Meryon rather pompously thought she had been improved by her travels, ‘noble by birth and haughty by nature’, he concluded, she had carried out from England ‘all the habits of her order’ (1845). Travel, in other words, and the encounter with different cultures, could be a life-enhancing and socially levelling experience.
Stanhope died in 1839, in poverty and isolation in her house on Mount Lebanon. She became one of the most famous of all European women travellers to the East, even though, or perhaps because, she was a woman on the margins of both Western and Eastern society and far removed from the increasingly middle-class female project of travel and travel writing.
, 1845. Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope, as related by herself in Conversations with her Physician; comprising her Opinions and Anecdotes of some of the most Remarkable Persons of her Time, 3 volumes. London: H. Colburn