Digby el Mesrab, Jane (1807–1881)

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Digby el Mesrab, Jane (1807–1881)

English adventurer who was condemned by Victorian England for early scandals but revered among Arabs after her marriage to a Bedouin chief. Name variations: Jane Digby; Jane Digby el Mezrab; Jane Digby Law, Lady or Countess Ellenborough; Baroness von Venningen. Born Jane Elizabeth Digby on April 3, 1807, in Norfolk, England; died in Damascus, Syria, on August 11, 1881; buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Damascus; daughter of Jane Elizabeth Coke (Lady Andover, 1777–1863) and Admiral Sir Henry Digby (1763?–1842); married Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough (divorced); married Baron Karl von Venningen (divorced); married Spiro Theotoky (divorced); married Medjuel el Mesrab (a Bedouin sheik); children: (first marriage) Arthur Dudley Law (1828–1830); (with Prince Schwarzenberg) Mathilde Selden; (second marriage) Heribert von Venningen and Bertha von Venningen; (third marriage) Leonidas Theotoky.

"She was neither nymphomaniac nor courtesan," writes Jane Digby's biographer, Margaret Fox Schmidt , "although she has been described as both by writers who did not know the facts. Jane never used her charms to gain wealth or power; her private income was more than sufficient to live well." Rather, she was the female counterpart of the Byronic hero, suggests Schmidt, the sinner who defies the rules that seek to harness the human spirit. Intelligent in all areas except matters of the heart, she spoke nine languages and was considered a talented artist and a magnificent horsewoman. "Her attraction for men never faded; it crossed all geographical boundaries and captivated three kings (including a father and son), two princes, a German baron, an Albanian brigand general and several Bedouin sheiks to name but a few." She was grist for the works of many writers, including Honoré de Balzac and James Michener. "Part of her fascination," continues Schmidt, "stems from her refusal to fit any conventional mold."

The necessity of loving and being loved is to me as the air I breathe and the sole cause of all I have to reproach myself with.

—Jane Digby

Jane Digby was born in England on April 3, 1807, during the age of elegance. A descendant of two colorful houses of aristocracy, the Digbys and the Cokes, she spent her first two years at Holkham Hall, the Coke family mansion, on the Norfolk marshlands near the North Sea. The entrance hall was 50' high, the walls were adorned with paintings by Titian, Holbein, and Gainsborough, and the rooms were generally filled with guests.

Her maternal grandfather Thomas William Coke, known as Coke of Norfolk, had been a Whig member of Parliament for 56 years, even refusing a peerage to remain in the House of Commons. An outspoken opponent of Britain's war against her colonies, he drank a toast nightly to George Washington. Jane's mother Jane Elizabeth Coke had been married previously to the viscount Andover who was killed in a hunting accident. Preferring to be known as Lady Andover rather than Mrs. Digby, Jane Coke retained her titles when she married the naval hero Henry Digby, even though Digby eventually was made an admiral and knighted. Captain Digby was not a peer, but he was wealthy and had made a name for himself at the Battle of Trafalgar.

In 1809, Jane's parents moved to Forston Manor, five miles from Dorchester, in Dorset, for the birth of Jane's brother, the son and heir Edward Digby. Two years later, her brother Kenelm was born. The family divided their time between Forston Manor and Holkham, where Jane and her brothers and cousins delighted with their living quarters in one of the towers while "boldly ferreting out" the ghost of Lady Mary Coke who walked the corridors. There, too, intrigued by the independent ways of the gypsies, Jane wandered off for a day with a band of them. Up went a nine-mile fence around Holkham; up went a governess-for-hire sign. But the newly hired governess was soon under the spell of her young charge, for the bright and unrestrained Jane Digby was usually sorry she had caused pain with her antics. At that time, Jane's greatest ambition was to learn to shoot a pheasant from a saddle at full gallop. She would eventually be successful.

In 1823, the family moved to Harley Street and began preparation for 16-year-old Jane's debut into post-Regency London, a society that prided itself on backroom liaisons and frontroom decorum. The Jane Digby who was presented at the court of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick was tall and fair, with blue-violet eyes, long lashes, golden hair, elegant bearing, and "lips that would tempt one to forswear Heaven to touch them" wrote one dazzled swain. Her most ardent suitor, anxious for an heir, was the 34-year-old widower, Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, described as handsome and vain, especially when it came to his abundant brown locks. "Young Law, Lord Ellenborough's son," wrote Harriette Wilson , "was a very smart, fine young gentleman, and his impatience of temper passed, I dare say, occasionally for quickness." Even though the beautiful Miss Digby was far more comfortable on a horse than in the drawing room, they were married on September 15, 1824.

But the marriage died aborning. The honeymoon in Brighton was a disaster, with rumors that Lord Ellenborough spent his passion on the daughter of the hotel's pastry cook rather than his unformed, teenage wife. The couple settled at Edward's country estate at Roehampton, just outside London, and Edward proceeded to occupy most of his time attending to political affairs in the city, though he had few friends in the House of Lords because of his biting tongue. At first, the young Jane enjoyed her freedom as woman of the manor and passed her days acquiring a wardrobe of ornate gowns that caused titters from the judgmental. By age 19, bored and lonely, Jane found clothes were little consolation for the cold marriage that held her prisoner. Marguerite, the Countess of Blessington portrayed the couple under the guise of Lord and Lady Walmer in her book The Two Friends.

At first, Jane turned to her cousin George Anson, to whom she had been close since childhood, for loving solace. By the time she gave birth to a son, Arthur Dudley Law, on February 15, 1828, there were rumors as to paternity. But Edward, Lord Ellenborough, had realized his sole purpose for marriage. He was so delighted that, at her request, he agreed to separate bedchambers. The physical aspect of their marriage was over, and Edward turned his attention to his Cabinet post as Lord Privy Seal in Wellington's ministry.

Then, in May 1828, at one of her soirees, Princess Esterhazy introduced Jane to Bohemian Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, 27-year-old attaché to Prince Esterhazy at the Austrian embassy. The prince, a diplomat and captain in the Second Uhlans (mounted lancers), cut a dashing figure with his hussar jacket draped casually over one shoulder. They became lovers almost immediately. But 21-year-old Jane Digby, who knew more about horses than the fine art of extramarital finesse practiced by England's high-born, had a disastrous penchant for candor. Wrote French satirist Edmond About: "One fine morning she climbed on the rooftops and shouted distinctly to the whole of the United Kingdom, 'I am the mistress of Prince Schwarzenberg!' All the ladies who had lovers and did not say so were greatly shocked; English prudery reddened to the roots of its hair." Meanwhile, Edward, busier than ever, was made president of the Board of Control for India.

The lovers met daily. Though Edward was warned, he shook off the rumors as mindless. Then in February 1829, under the pretext of joining her son and his nursemaids for the sea air, Digby arrived at Brighton's Norfolk Hotel where she was well known. Felix arrived a little later. A hotel waiter saw Felix enter Lady Ellenborough's suite at an unfashionable hour. He then listened outside the door. The Austrian legation, uncomfortable with the rumors, called Felix home to Austria in May. By this time, Jane was three months pregnant.

Intent on following Felix, who had written to say that though it was impossible to marry for the sake of his future, he saw no reason why they could not devote their lives to each other, Jane asked Edward for a separation. Edward, possibly out of guilt over his neglect of her, was generous financially. All concerned agreed that it would be better if the pregnant Jane were out of the country during the divorce proceedings. On August 31, accompanied by her childhood governess, she left for Basel, Switzerland, and on November 12, had a daughter, baptized Mathilde Selden. A few months later, on February 1, 1830, her son Arthur, who had remained behind, died of a convulsion.

Coke, Jane Elizabeth (1777–1863)

English noblewoman. Name variations: Lady Andover. Born Jane Elizabeth Coke in 1777; died in 1863; daughter of Thomas William Coke, known as Coke of Norfolk (a Whig member of Parliament for 56 years), and Jane Dutton Coke; sister of Ann Margaret Coke (later viscountess Anson); married Charles Nevinson Howard, viscount Andover, in 1796 (died in a hunting accident, 1800); married Henry Digby (a naval admiral), on April 17, 1806; children: (second marriage) Jane Digby el Mesrab (1807–1881); Edward St. Vincent Digby (b. 1809); Kenelm Digby (b. 1811).

Wilson, Harriette (1786–1855)

English courtesan and writer. Born Harriette Dubochet in 1786; died in 1855 (some sources cite 1846).

Harriette Wilson was no stranger to scandal. During her long career, she was the mistress of the earl of Craven, the duke of Argyll, the marquess of Worcester, the duke of Beaufort, and the duke of Wellington. In 1825, she published what was purported to be the opening chapter of her Memoirs of Herself and Others. The publisher J. Stockdale, under the pseudonym Thomas Little, added a postscript that the forthcoming book "would not fail to produce the greatest moral effect on the present and future generations." Wilson then promised her coterie to keep names out, in exchange for remuneration. The duke of Wellington would not be railroaded. "Publish and be damned," he told her. Before publication, Wilson moved to Paris where she happily spent the profits of the highly successful serialization of her memoirs, all eight-volumes.

In 19th-century England, divorce was so scandalous that it took a private act of Parliament for a marriage to be severed. Because of Edward's political stature and many enemies, their divorce, known as the Ellenborough case, played across the front page of the Times on April 1, 1830, while the Norfolk tryst, which took up 41 pages of the Report of the Minutes of Evidence in the House of Commons, sold for three shillings on streetcorners. "I could hear them kissing," testified the Brighton waiter, "and a noise that convinced me that the act of cohabitation was taking place between them." Jane's name became an object for satire, and ribald jokes would follow her throughout her days. Honoré de Balzac, drawing upon Digby for a character in his novel Le Lys dans la vallée, wrote: "Never did a nation more elaborately scheme for the hypocrisy of a married woman by placing her always between social life and death. For her there is no compromise between shame and honor; the fall is utter, or there is no fall; it is all or nothing." But Edward did not get off easily in the press, either; many felt he too was at fault. Once the dust settled, however, his career flourished.

Felix had taken up his new diplomatic post in Paris, where Jane and Mathilde joined him in February 1830. Though Felix loved Jane, he also loved his career and began to resent her sacrifice. Because of their relationship, she could not be presented at the shaky court of Charles X, soon to be the court of the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, duke of Orléans, nor accompany him to functions. Another novel, The Exclusives, written by Lady Charlotte Bury , appeared in 1830, with the easily recognizable Felix and Jane portrayed under the names Lord and Lady Glenmore. By late December 1830, Felix was having an affair with Mme d'Oudenarde while Jane gave birth to their son Felix who lived only a few weeks. After a major quarrel in May 1831, Felix left Paris for Bohemia. Digby wrote a poem to her son:

"And thou, too, pity and forgive
Thy tainted birth, dishonored name.
Alas, t'is best thou dost not live
To share my destiny of shame."

Digby moved to Munich where Ludwig I, spearheading a Bavarian renaissance, was on the throne. It was at Tambosi's, a coffee house frequented by artists, musicians, and actors, that they met. Though all assumed they were lovers, Schmidt claims that the more than 70 notes and letters that passed between them "raise the intriguing possibility that Ludwig was to Jane exactly what she called him—'my best and dearest friend'—and nothing more."

For the ensuing months, August 1831 to March 1832, Jane saw Ludwig almost daily. Meanwhile, she was being ardently courted by Baron Karl von Venningen, whom she had met while riding. Felix continued to write, keeping her dangling at arm's length with over 200 letters. By March 1832, though still in love with Felix, she was pregnant with Venningen's child. Pursued by Karl, Jane went to Italy to have her child, and Heribert von Venningen was born on January 27, 1833. On November 16, Jane wed the determined Venningen in a civil ceremony in Darmstadt.

Now respectably married, she could meet Ludwig's counterpart, the Queen Theresa of Saxony of Bavaria, and be received into Munich society. In 1834, while living in Weinheim, near Heidelberg, Jane gave birth to a daughter Bertha. (By all admittance, especially Jane's, her greatest failure was with her children: Arthur was dead; Mathilde grew up with her namesake, Felix's sister, the Princess Mathilde Schwarzenberg ; and Heribert was left in Palermo with a Sicilian family for his first three years. By age 20, Bertha would be confined to an insane asylum and add fuel to the rumor that she was the child of King Ludwig, sharing the genetic strain of his grandson, the Mad king Ludwig II.)

Jane respected Venningen but "his want of demonstration and warmth of feeling," she wrote Ludwig, "stifles a passion I fain would feel." Without love, she said, "life is a dreary void." In the summer of 1835, the Venningens returned to Munich, and it was there, at the Bavarian court, that the 28-year-old Jane met 24-year-old Spiridion Theotoky, a Greek count from Corfu. Though Karl hustled her out of Munich back to Weinheim, Jane and Spiridion entered into an affair that brought more scandal. Impetuous and unwilling to be reined in by society, Digby rode her horse madly through the countryside for late-night trysts. Supposedly, Karl confronted her about the rumors, they quarreled, and she and Spiridion rode off in tandem. Then Karl caught up with their carriage, dueled with Spiridion, wounded him, and escorted his wife home.

In the spring of 1839, Jane dropped all pretenses. Leaving two more children and one more husband behind, she joined Theotoky in Paris. Amazingly, Karl genuinely wished her well and would continue a friendly correspondence for the next 30 years. In March 1840, Jane gave birth to Leonidas, Count Theotoky; two years later, in 1842, the divorce decree was handed down. For some reason, the scandal was ignored by the German press, but Digby would be romantically linked to any man she came near. She met Balzac only once, when he visited Weinheim in 1835 and had strolled with her in a park for two hours. When Jane became the basis for a character or two in his books, some were certain that they had been involved.

In March 1841, now Mrs. Theotoky, at least in the eyes of the Greek Orthodox Church, she and her French maid Eugenie accompanied Spiro to the Aegean island of Tinos where his father was governor. Expected to chafe under the primitive conditions of the island, Jane did just the opposite. She loved Spiro, became a devoted mother to her son, and cherished the informality of family life on the Greek island. Within months, she was speaking Greek fluently. In spring 1842, they moved to Corfu, where Spiro managed his father's estate at Dukades for the next two years. The Theotokys entertained lavishly, with Jane quickly taking on the customs of the area.

Then came the revolution in Athens in 1843. Greeks were demanding a constitution and the ousting of King Otto, the hand-picked British-Russian-French monarch. In 1844, when Spiro Theotoky became one of King Otto's aidede-camps, the couple moved to Athens, and Jane quickly incurred the envy of Queen Amalie . But Spiro was straying, and the Theotoky marriage had cooled, held together only by their son Leonidas. While vacationing at a villa in Naples in 1846, young Leonidas heard voices, ran to a balcony to see who was talking, peered over, and fell to the marble floor below. Jane watched horrified. Convinced that the death of her beloved Leonidas was penance for the way she had treated her earlier children, a shattered Jane separated from her husband. Nothing is known of her whereabouts from 1846 to 1849.

In 1849, Jane was back in Athens, holding court for the ministers of Britain and France; she had been taken under the wing of Sophie, the duchess of Plaisance . She was also in love with Cristos Hadji-Petros, a brigand chief and freedom fighter who had been involved in the Greek War of Independence from Turkey. When he was put in charge of the garrison at Lamia, a rugged outpost to the north, Jane went with him. Writes Schmidt: "When Athens society learned the shocking news that [Jane] Theotoky was playing blue-eyed banditti queen with Hadji-Petros in Lamia, there were screams of outrage on all sides. Most outraged was Queen [Amalie]." Amalie sacked Cristos from government employ. When Jane learned that Cristos had shown his true colors by propositioning Eugenie, she "vanished from Athens, leaving Hadji-Petros behind."

By April 1853, the 46-year-old Jane was sailing toward Syria on a horse-buying expedition with Eugenie. Landing at the port of Beirut, they decided to make a tour of the desert by caravan, south to Jerusalem, north to Damascus, then on to the city of Palmyra once ruled by Zenobia . (Digby kept a journal of the trip, which would come into the possession of her English biographer E.M. Oddie; though the notebooks can no longer be accounted for, a substantial amount of her travel log appears in Oddie's The Odyssey of a Loving Woman.)

Digby, unlike her British contemporaries, fell in love with Syria and its populace. One month into the journey, she was bargaining for a thoroughbred horse in a city of Bedouin tents near the Jordan River. "My heart warms towards these wild Arabs," she wrote. "They have many qualities we want in civilized life, unbounded hospitality, respect for strangers or guests, good faith and simplicity of dealing amongst themselves, and a certain high-bred innate politeness." On her arrival in Damascus, the British consul, hearing of the beautiful Englishwoman who was determined to continue on to Palmyra, tried to warn her of the danger of a woman traveling alone through a country filled with desert tribes who would be glad to relieve her of her riches. He insisted that she at least hire an escort of Arabs who knew the route and the waterholes. So Jane engaged the protection of the Mesrabs, a poor band of the Anazeh Bedouin tribe, who had previously escorted Lady Hester Stanhope on a similar caravan. Medjuel el Mesrab, brother of their sheik Mohammed, was chosen to negotiate with her. Lady Anne Blount , who later met Medjuel in Damascus, described him as a well bred, educated, and "agreeable man." He could read, write, and was an authority on desert history. Digby and Medjuel shared a love of horses and an easy command of languages.

About midway in the journey, when the caravan was raided, all but Medjuel fled. Since protectors were known to give in easily and share the bounty, Medjuel's resistance confused the marauding tribe and sent them into retreat. The escort party returned, and the caravan continued on to Palmyra. Though the Mesrab family was against Medjuel's marrying a foreigner and though the British consul in Damascus warned her that Muslim law permitted men four wives and that Anazeh tribal law punished infidelity in a wife with decapitation, Jane married Medjuel in a Muslim ceremony in late 1854.

It was a good marriage. Jane adapted so well to Bedouin ways, she was soon accepted; her official Arabic title was Sitt Mesrab. After a brief visit with her family in England in 1857, she wrote her mother: "I would gladly be as you are, but I cannot change my nature. I am different. How different I hardly realized. … I regret much of the past, but over the future I feel sanguine." She and Medjuel agreed to spend part of the year with his nomadic tribe in the desert and part in Damascus living a semi-Western lifestyle.

Jane renovated a house just outside the gates of Damascus to her taste: half English, half Arab. She designed a breathtaking garden with lily pond, added a greenhouse, and filled the courtyard with geese, turkeys, guinea hens, gazelles, falcons, dogs, a tamed pelican, and over 100 cats. Medjuel bred Arab horses; Jane had magnificent stables built for him. She impressed the Bedouins with her shooting skill and her way with injured animals. To allay the Arab superstition that fair hair boded evil, she dyed hers jet black.

In the desert, she dressed as a tribal woman, her head covered in a dark kerchief. She learned to milk the camels, toughened her feet in order to go barefoot, and rode horse and camel with ease. Jane helped her husband conduct English tours to Palmyra. On one such tour, she met Emily Beaufort , Lady Strangford, and the two became close friends. Another Englishwoman told biographer A.M.W. Stirling that when she met Jane Digby, Jane was "swathed in a veil and Arab garments, and riding at the head of a cavalcade of wild Arabs—a veritable Queen of Banditti—in surroundings that rendered her gracious, courteous manners, her air of grande dame and her sweet low voice more singularly impressive, even though her beauty—and but her glorious eyes—was scrupulously concealed from view."

In the summer of 1860, after a plague of worms and a bitter winter had decimated the food crops, Syrians were starving. When three Druses, a sect that was neither Christian nor Muslim, were murdered in the town of Sidon, the Druses retaliated by killing four Christians near the site. There were numerous counterreprisals until the Druses began a full-scale uprising, and 6,000 Christians were massacred in Syria. Digby was held in such high regard that she was spared, and she risked her life venturing into the Christian quarter of the city to help others. "In defiance of Medjuel's orders," writes Schmidt, she "rode into the city" dressed as a Bedouin, "accompanied by a single terrified Arab servant who carried several leather water bottles and a basket of food and medicine. The narrow alleys through which Jane rode were littered with corpses putrefying in the sweltering heat." She also took in the Christians who appeared at her door for sanctuary and helped defray the cost for the 12,000 refugees protected in the stronghold of the Algerian Abd el Kadar.

Jane supplied Medjuel's tribe with guns for their many skirmishes with the Turks and rival tribes and, on many occasions, accompanied her husband into battle. During one particularly intense skirmish in 1873, a false rumor flashed back to Damascus that she had been killed, and the obituaries in Victorian London were not flattering. But by 1877, the 73-year-old Digby could no longer ride by Medjuel's side; her amazing energy was beginning to fade. In late July 1881, she came down with a virulent attack of dysentery; with her husband near, she died on August 11.

The day of her funeral, Medjuel agreed to endure Anglican custom and ride in the black carriage as chief mourner. Halfway to the Protestant Cemetery, however, he bolted from the carriage and fled, an act, thought those attending, of a barbarian. But as the minister was consigning the coffin to the earth, Medjuel came galloping through the gate of the cemetery astride Jane's favorite Arabian mare, gazed into the open grave, then galloped away. "Love was always the dominant theme of her life: love pursued, love won, love rejected," wrote Schmidt. "Despite her many defeats, she remained her own woman—she followed neither 'the highway of virtue nor the miry path of the courtesan.' She followed the dictates of her heart. No one has ever done that with more style than Jane Digby."


Oddie, E.M. The Odyssey of a Loving Woman. 1936.

Schmidt, Margaret Fox. Passion's Child: The Extraordinary Life of Jane Digby. NY: Harper, 1976.

suggested reading:

Lovell, Mary S. Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.