Blessington, Marguerite, Countess of (1789–1849)
Blessington, Marguerite, Countess of (1789–1849)
Blessington, Marguerite, Countess of (1789–1849)
Irish author who published a number of popular novels of fashionable life and for many years presided over the most brilliant salon in London. Name variations: Marguerite Gardiner; Marguerite Power; Lady Blessington; Margaret, Sally. Born Marguerite Power on September 1, 1789, at Knockbrit, near Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland; died in Paris, France, on June 4, 1849; daughter of Edward (or Edmund) Power (a landowner, magistrate and newspaper editor) and Ellen (Sheehy) Power; educated at home and for a short period at boarding school; married Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer, in 1804 (died 1817); married Charles John Gardiner, 1st earl of Blessington, in 1817 (died 1829); no children.
Published first book (1822), and in same year embarked with husband on a lengthy European tour, visiting Italy and France; following husband's death (1829), returned to London in reduced financial circumstances; for many years, supported herself and her partner, Count d'Orsay, by her writing, while entertaining the leading figures in the arts and politics at her home, Gore House in Kensington; endured acute financial difficulties (mid-1840s); fled to Paris to escape debtors (1849), dying there shortly afterwards.
The Magic Lantern, or Sketches of Scenes in the Metropolis (1822); Grace Cassidy, or the Repealers (1833); Conversations with Lord Byron (1834); The Two Friends (1835); Flowers of Loveliness and Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman (1836); The Victims of Society (1837); Gems of Beautyand Confessions of an Elderly Lady (1838); The Governess, Desultory Thoughts and Reflections and The Idler in Italy, Vols I and II (1839); The Idler in Italy, vol III, and The Belle of a Season (1840); The Idler in France (1841); Lottery of Life and Other Tales (1842); Strathern (1843); The Memoirs of a Femme de Chambre and Lionel Deerhurst (1846); Marmaduke Herbert (1847).
However melodramatic the plots of Lady Blessington's novels, few could have been more unlikely than the story of her own life. Born in poverty and obscurity in the Irish countryside, she was a plain child who became a dazzling beauty. Married against her will at 14 to a vicious husband, whom she left after just a few months, she went on to marry into the aristocracy and to become London's most celebrated hostess. Despite her scandalous reputation, her wit, intelligence and generosity made her the confidante of many of the most eminent men of her day, and her close friends included the poet Lord, George Gordon Byron, the novelist Charles Dickens, and the future prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Renowned for the extravagance of her lifestyle, she was also an indefatigable worker, who supported herself and her establishment by a constant stream of literary works, which included novels, travel books, and memoirs, as well as journalism. Nevertheless, it is clear that the disruption and unhappiness of her early years left an indelible mark on her, in her unconventional private life, in her improvidence and compulsive generosity, and in her need for admiration and attention. Ultimately, she was to find herself bankrupt and ignored by many of those whom she had regarded as her friends. Even in that final disaster, however, she retained the courage, optimism, and sense of style which had enabled her to make her first, unlikely escape, to reshape her identity, and to shine for so many years as "the gorgeous Lady Blessington."
Marguerite Power was born in 1789, at Knockbrit, near the town of Clonmel in County Tipperary, one of several children of Edward Power, an impoverished landowner, and Ellen Sheehy Power . A gentle and ineffectual woman, Ellen Power was too weak, according to Blessington's biographer, J. Fitzgerald Molloy, "to influence her husband or avert his ruin" or, indeed, to have much impact on the life of her gifted and strong-willed daughter. Edward Power was an extremely handsome man, with a reputation as a dandy, known as "Beau Power" or "Shiver the frills" to his neighbors. His character was considerably less attractive than his appearance. Described by Frances Gerard as "hasty in temper, extravagant in habits, fond of play, horses, wine and revelry, inattentive to business, improvident in expenditure," Power's career was punctuated by increasingly desperate efforts to recoup his financial losses. Although born a Catholic, he converted to Protestantism, almost certainly in the hope of improving his fortunes, and for a time served as a magistrate. Political and agrarian unrest was currently rife in the countryside, and Power became notorious for his brutal treatment of suspected law-breakers; on one occasion, indeed, he was actually tried for murder but was acquitted. He subsequently became editor of a local newspaper, the Clonmel Gazette, but this, in common with all of his schemes, was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, his family suffered financially as a result of these successive failures, and emotionally as a result of his ill-temper, although his daughter was to inherit both his extravagance and his expansive personality.
Woodbridge, Margaret (b. 1902)
American swimmer. Born in 1902.
In the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Margaret Woodbridge was awarded a silver medal in the 300-meter freestyle and a gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
Schroth, Frances (b. 1893)
American swimmer. Born April 11, 1893.
In 1920, in Antwerp, Belgium, Frances Schroth took bronze medals in the 300-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle and a gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
Guest, Irene (1900–1979)
American swimmer. Born on July 22, 1900; died in 1979.
Irene Guest won the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle and a gold in the 4×100 freestyle relay in the Antwerp Olympic games of 1920.
As the only plain child in an outstandingly handsome family, the young Marguerite asserted herself by her precocious intelligence and by her storytelling skills. Her education was apparently rudimentary, although she did spend a short period at a boarding school. However, her stay there was marred by humiliating delays in the payment of her fees, and her education was cut short when her father found the expense of a daughter's education insupportable. She returned
home to yet another financial crisis, and her father, by now deeply in debt, saw in her a new opportunity to recoup his own fortunes. Her childhood plainness had disappeared, and, as an extremely beautiful girl, she had already attracted the admiration of a number of officers at the nearby army garrison.
In 1804, when she was just 14, Marguerite received an offer of marriage from one of these officers. Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer's reputation was generally admitted to be appalling, and Marguerite herself was strongly opposed to the match, but her father forced her to accept, or according to some accounts, actually sold her to Farmer. According to Blessington's own version of events, her husband quickly proved himself to be a sadist, prone to periodic fits of insanity and to "ungovernable outbursts of passion," who locked her in her room while he was away, and was physically violent towards her. After just three months, Marguerite fled to the safety of her parents' home.
The marriage was clearly at an end; a formal separation was arranged, and shortly afterwards Farmer was forced to leave the army in disgrace. Subsequently, he joined the East India Company and went abroad, leaving Marguerite to make the best of, what was for a woman, an extremely difficult situation. Unable to remarry, traumatized by her experiences, she received little sympathy from her family: her father's financial circumstances were as unstable as ever, and her parents regarded her as an impediment to their other daughters' chances of finding suitable marriage partners. At some point, she left Tipperary and by 1809 was living in Dublin. From there, she moved on to London, where she became the mistress of Charles Gardiner, first earl of Blessington. Immensely rich, with estates in Ireland, a town house in London, and an income of £30,000 a year, Gardiner was also extravagantly generous. Having reportedly paid £10,000 to her previous lover, he now lavished gifts on Marguerite. More unusually, he was willing to marry her, and in 1817 this became possible, when Farmer suddenly died as the result of a fall from a window during a drinking bout. A few months later, on February 16, 1818, Marguerite became the countess of Blessington. The combination of her husband's wealth and her own beauty, charm, and intelligence quickly established her as one of London's leading hostesses, with an eclectic guest-list, which included politicians such as Lords Castlereagh and Palmerston, actors such as John Kemble and Charles Mathews, and the artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, an old acquaintance, who in 1809 had painted the first portrait of the young Marguerite.
In 1822, the Blessingtons left England, with the intention of making an extended tour of France and Italy, and taking with them an entourage which included Marguerite's sister, Mary Ann Power , and Count Alfred d'Orsay, a handsome and aristocratic dilettante, and a well-known figure in London society. Arriving at Genoa, Lady Blessington eagerly anticipated her meeting with the most celebrated English poet of the day. Lord Byron was presently living in the city, having been forced to leave England following the breakdown of his marriage, but the scandalous rumors about him merely enhanced his glamorous image in the eyes of his devotees, among them Marguerite, who confided her excitement to her diary. "Am I indeed in the same town with Byron? And tomorrow I may perhaps behold him!!!!! I never felt before the same impatient longing to see anyone known only to me by his works. I hope," she added, on a more prosaic note, "he may not be fat … for a fat poet is an anomaly, in my opinion." In common with most of the contemporary literary public, the countess identified the man with his work; having met him, she professed herself disappointed by his failure to meet her "preconceived notion of the melancholy poet," finding him "witty, sarcastic and lively enough" to have written Don Juan, but finding little trace in him of his romantic hero, Childe Harold. No prude herself, she was startled by "the perfect abandon with which he converses to recent acquaintances, on subjects which even friends would think too delicate for discussion," and she continued throughout their acquaintance to be confused by his apparent inconsistency. As she complained, "the day after he has awakened the deepest interest, his manner of scoffing at himself and others destroys it, and one feels as if one had been duped into a sympathy, only to be laughed at." However, she conceded that "there is something so striking in his whole appearance, that could not be mistaken for an ordinary person," and she was quickly won over by his attentions to her, and by his behavior to others: the local people, she noted, "seem all to know his face, and to like him; and many recount their affairs, as if they were sure of his sympathy."
Byron for his part enjoyed the company of "Miladi," whose conversation was both witty and stimulating, and whom he considered "very pretty." However, he did not fall in love with her. As he reassured his mistress Countess Guiccioli , who was wary of this suspected rival, "what little communication I had with this new Goddess of Discord was literally literary." Besides, he went on, he had reached his "years of discretion and would much rather fall into the sea than in love any day of the week." Perhaps, too, he suspected that beneath the "flippancy" which he deplored in Marguerite, was a shrewdness which detected the insecurity underlying his pose of the haughty noble. As she remarked, with the perspicacity of one whose own social status was decidedly precarious, "she had never met anyone with so decided a taste for aristocracy," a vanity which "resembles more the pride of a parvenu than the calm dignity of an ancient aristocrat." Similarly astute was her comment that "Byron is a person who, without reflection, would form engagements which when condemned by his friends and advisers, he would gladly get out of … without reflecting on the humiliation such desertion must inflict."
However, entertaining her company, Byron might well have found such perception uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the Blessingtons' departure for Rome in May 1823 was an emotional occasion for all concerned. According to Marguerite, Byron, who was shortly to leave for Greece, "had a conviction that he should never return," and "yielding to this presentiment, made scarcely an effort to check the tears that flowed plentifully down his cheeks." However, this account of their parting, from Lady Blessington's Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron (1834) may have owed more to hindsight than to accuracy—Byron did, indeed, die in Greece in the following year, but his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, on reading this version of events, felt that such behavior was entirely uncharacteristic of him. In general, Byron's biographers have regarded the Conversations as an essential source on the poet's character, but one which has to be approached with some caution, since Marguerite tended to present the facts in the light most favorable to herself.
Friends are the thermometers by which we may judge the temperatures of our fortunes.
Guiccioli, Teresa (c. 1801–1873)
Italian noblewoman. Name variations: Countess Guiccioli. Pronunciation: GWEE-cho-lee. Born Teresa Gamba in Italy around 1801; died in Rome on March 26, 1873; daughter of Count Gamba; married Count Guiccioli, around 1817; married Marquis de Boissy, in 1851.
An Italian woman, best known for her relationship with Lord Byron, Teresa Gamba married Count Guiccioli when she was 16 and met Byron a few months later. After about a year, the count objected to her liaison with Byron, and Teresa returned to her father's house. From then until Byron's death in 1824, however, she maintained her relations with him. Following his death, she is said to have returned to her husband. In 1851, she married the Marquis de Boissy and in 1868 published, in French, My Recollections of Lord Byron.
Arriving in Rome, the Blessingtons set up house at the Palazzo Nigroni, and a visit to their salon became an essential part of every English traveler's visit to the city. D'Orsay was by now an established member of their household and, during their stay in Rome, married Lady Harriet Gardiner , Lord Blessington's 15-year-old daughter by his first marriage. The marriage was purely one of convenience and unsurprisingly, given the gulf of age and experience between the two partners, lasted only a few months. Throughout this period, the d'Orsays lived under the Blessingtons' roof, and this arrangement continued after the breakdown of the marriage, despite continuing gossip about the count's relationship with Lady Blessington.
In 1829, the whole party moved on to Paris, where they intended to stay for some time, and where they established themselves in their customary splendor. Lord Blessington rented Marshal Ney's magnificent town house and fitted it up in the most luxurious style: as Marguerite wrote to a friend, "a queen could desire nothing better." Shortly afterwards, however, Lord Blessington, then aged 46, died suddenly of an apoplexy, leaving his affairs in utter confusion. He had no heir, his only legitimate son having died a few years previously, and, as a result of his extravagant way of life, his annual income had declined from £30,000 in 1818 to £23,000 at the time of his death. Marguerite's own income was now just £2,000 per annum, which, while adequate to support her, was far too little to fund the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. Moreover, Lord Blessington had left behind him a tangle of debts and litigation, which was to harry her for the rest of her life.
Lady Blessington stayed on in Paris during the Revolution of 1830, returning to England in the following year, in company with d'Orsay. She quickly resumed her position at the center of London's literary and political worlds: "Everybody goes to Lady Blessington," noted Hayden in his diary. Her guests, who included the most notable figures in the worlds of politics and the arts, were drawn not just by the lavishness of the entertainment offered, but also by their hostess' personality. Now in her 40s, she remained as charming and as attractive as ever: one of her contemporaries noted her beauty and vivacity, "a voice merry and sad by turns, but always musical, and manners of the most unpretending elegance … one of the most lovely and fascinating women I have ever seen." However, others were less generous: the diarist Charles Greville, for instance, complained about the standard of conversation, and blamed this on the hostess, whom he described as "vulgar, ignorant and commonplace," her talk "never enriched by a particle of knowledge, or enlivened by a ray of genius or imagination." Respectable society, too, was outraged by her scandalous private life. In about 1836, she set up house openly with d'Orsay, and while the couple entertained the most brilliant and cultivated men in London at Gore House in Kensington, few women would risk entering such an irregular establishment.
Financial responsibility for the maintenance of Gore House, the lavish hospitality, and d'Orsay's personal expenses rested entirely on Lady Blessington's literary efforts. In 1822, she had published her first work, The Magic Lantern, and in the same year, Sketches and Fragments. Now, with her income from her husband's estate much diminished, authorship became a financial necessity rather than an amusing pastime, and over 15 years, she produced 18 books, many of them multi-volume novels. While some of these, such as her first novel, Grace Cassidy (1833) had an Irish background, most were set in fashionable London society, many of the characters supposedly being based on celebrated individuals. As the Edinburgh Review remarked, her literary works "are strongly characterised by the social phenomena of the times…. The characters that move and breathe throughout them are the actual persons of the great world, and the reflections with which they abound belong to the philosophy of one who has well examined the existing manners." Her own eventful life was reflected in a number of her works: many of her heroines, for instance, were the victims of tyrannical or cruel men. She also published accounts of her travels, in The Idler in Italy (1839–40) and The Idler in France (1841), and of her friendship with Lord Byron, in Conversations (1834). Although financial necessity dictated that she write with an eye to popularity rather than literary excellence, the Review did note some development in her work over the course of her career, observing that "in her writing there has been a marked and progressive improvement, as if by the self-study that belongs to application, powers previously unknown to herself had been gradually developed."
For a time, her novels, with their dramatic incident and vivid description, were extremely popular, particularly with subscribers to the new circulating libraries, and brought her a substantial annual income of between £2,000 and £3,000. These earnings, however, were not sufficient to meet the expenses which she and d'Orsay were incurring, and their debts mounted steadily: in 1841, the count's liabilities totalled £107,000, and, in order to escape his creditors, he was for a time forced to confine himself to Gore House. Lady Blessington herself lost a considerable amount of money when the publisher of a society periodical with which she was associated died insolvent, and her literary earnings declined as her books began to go out of fashion. Her troubles were intensified in 1845 by the outbreak of the Great Famine in Ireland, which seriously diminished her income from her husband's estates there. The couple's financial difficulties were now acute. Dogged by creditors' demands and haunted by the fear of imprisonment for debt, they were now little better than prisoners in their own house.
Finally, in April 1849, under immediate threat of arrest, d'Orsay fled to Paris, taking only his valet and one portmanteau, to be followed a few days later by Marguerite. In the following month, Gore House and all its contents, including Lawrence's early portrait of her, was put up for sale. The affair attracted enormous public interest: 20,000 curious sightseers visited the house over the three viewing days, and the auction itself lasted 13 days. It was attended by many of Lady Blessington's former guests, who now clamored to bid for her belongings, with little apparent feeling for the woman whose hospitality they had enjoyed on so many occasions. According to the countess' French manservant who was present, and who wrote her a report on the event, the only person to show any emotion was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who, he observed, had tears in his eyes as he watched the dispersal of so much magnificence.
The sale of Gore House and its contents fetched a total of £13,000, and, after settlement of the creditors' demands, a balance of £11 was paid to Lady Blessington. Characteristically, and at the age of 60, she regarded the ending of one disastrous chapter in her life as freeing her to begin another, and immediately began planning the recovery of her fortunes. She and d'Orsay established themselves in an apartment off the Champs Élysees, and she hoped to benefit from the fact that Prince Louis Napoleon, who during his exile in England had been among her guests, was now head of the French government. She was to be disappointed in this: the prince-president proved unhelpful, although, as Blessington did not hesitate to remind him, his own situation in a volatile political climate was hardly more secure than her own. Meeting him by chance in the street, she parried his enquiry as to whether she was intending to stay long in Paris with the retort, "I don't know—are you?"
For Lady Blessington, however, there was to be no new chance. Just two months after her arrival in Paris, on June 4, 1849, she died very suddenly in her apartment. D'Orsay, who survived her for three years, was ostentatiously grief-stricken and turned his energies to designing a monument for erection over her grave at St. Germain, where he himself also intended to be buried. The grandiose memorial bore little relation to the woman whom it commemorated, but the inscription on it, composed by her friend, the novelist Walter Savage Landor, comes closer to capturing her essential spirit. "Underneath lies all that could be interred of a once beautiful woman. Her own genius she cultivated with zeal, in others she fostered its growth with equal assiduity. The benefits she conferred she could conceal, but not her talents. Elegant in her hospitality to strangers, she was charitable to all." In its honesty and generosity, it is a fitting tribute to a courageous and life-enhancing personality, whose gift was for life itself rather than for literature.
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Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland