Mar, Frances, Countess of (1690–1761)

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Mar, Frances, Countess of (1690–1761)

Sister of the well-known woman of letters Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who married a Scottish Jacobite, followed him into exile, and fell victim to severe depression which incapacitated her for much of her life . Name variations: Lady Mar. Born Frances Pierrepont in 1690; died in 1761; second daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, earl of Kingston, and Lady Mary Pierrepont (daughter of William Fielding, earl of Denbigh); married John Erskine, 6th or 11th earl of Mar, on July 20, 1713 (died 1732); children: daughter Frances Erskine (b. 1715).

Frances Pierrepont was the younger sister of Mary Wortley Montagu, born only one year after her more famous sister, and they seem to have been very close. Their mother died in 1692, having given birth to four children in three and a half years. We first glimpse the adult Frances in 1711, scolding her sister for having illicit meetings with Edward Wortley against their father's instructions. Mary had to elope in 1712 to marry her less wealthy suitor; Frances married the following year. This time there was no difference in social rank; Frances' husband was John Erskine, earl of Mar. However, the 37-year-old widower was a supporter of the Tory cause, a fervent Scottish Jacobite, while Frances' family was staunchly Whig. Lady Mary was particularly displeased with the alliance, as she intensely disliked Lord Mar and was convinced of an unhappy outcome.

By 1715, the year that her daughter Frances Erskine was born, Lady Mar was living with her husband close to Whitehall Palace in London; like Mary and Wortley, the couple was attempting to win favor at the court of the new king, George I of Hanover. It was soon evident that Lord Mar could not expect to receive a position, and in August he left London to lead a Scottish rebellion; the Jacobite rebels were attempting to replace the Hanoverian ruler with James Stuart, the "Old Pretender." Despite her husband's defection, Frances continued to live in Whitehall and move in court circles. Her husband asserted that she had known nothing of his plans and her family was so supportive of the new regime that no action was taken against her. Frances was even able to stay in contact with Mar after his rebellion was defeated, and he fled to France; Lady Mary, returning from Turkey, met her favorite sister in Paris in 1718.

Frances had been given permission by the king to join her husband at the Pretender's court in Italy. There she found life difficult; some of the Jacobites suspected her of being sent by the king and her father of being a spy. Losing confidence in the Pretender's cause, Mar resigned his post and the couple settled in Paris, living on Frances' inheritance. She visited England occasionally but clearly felt the strain of her exile, and she was showing signs of mental instability by 1727.

Mary kept up a devoted and lively correspondence with her sister throughout the years of her exile, constantly attempting to revive her spirits, particularly following the deaths of their father and younger sister in 1726 and 1727. But despite her sister's resilient good cheer and advice ("galloping all day and a moderate glass of champagne at night in good company"), Frances became more and more withdrawn. In November 1727, she wrote to Mary in terms that are clearly indicative of severe depression:

I fear a time will come when I shall neither write nor see anybody…. [M]y solitudecomes from causes that you are too happy to have experienced, and gives me no other inclination but to doze upon a couch, or exclaim against my fortune, and wish … forgetfulness could steal upon me, to soften and assuage the pain of thinking.

In March 1728, Lady Mar returned to England in a state of mental breakdown and a battle for custody of her began between Lady Mary and Lord Mar's brother, Lord Grange. Grange had purchased his exiled brother's confiscated estates and was paying a substantial rent to Lady Mar. Lord Grange, who was rumored to have already locked up his own wife, attempted to carry off Frances and her daughter to Scotland, but the party was intercepted by Lady Mary with an officer and a judicial warrant, ordering Lady Mar to be returned to London.

In July 1728, a lunacy inquisition found Lady Mar to be of unsound mind; the investigators were unable to discover a reason for her insanity, unless "by the visitation of God." The Chancery Court awarded custody to her sister. Mary received an allowance from the estate for her support, and Frances seems to have been comfortably cared for (despite the poet Pope's accusation that the avaricious Mary had starved her sister) in her own residence in London. Frances appears to have made a temporary recovery in 1731 when Lord Grange, in a renewed effort to free her from her sister's influence, visited her. He found her judgment and memory sound, despite her moodiness and depression. However, she was soon in decline once again, and he observed that the "fancies which now perplext her brain were, like the clouds, fleeting, inconstant, and sometimes in monstrous shapes." Frances remained in Mary's care while her daughter joined the ailing Lord Mar in France. Mar died in exile in 1732.

As soon as Lady Mar's daughter, Frances Erskine, came of age in 1736 she concentrated her efforts on winning custody of her mother. She had always aligned herself with her father's side of the family, and she was to marry her cousin James Erskine, Lord Grange's son, several years later. Mary was doubtless reluctant to surrender her sister but, as she had fallen passionately in love with a handsome young Italian, she was now free to follow her heart, without the duty of caring for Lady Mar.

While Mary Wortley Montagu was about to embark upon the most notorious period of her life, Frances, Lady Mar, then faded from the spotlight of history. We can only assume that she spent her remaining years in her daughter's care, probably in Scotland. She died at the age of 71 in 1761.

sources and suggestions for further reading:

Dictionary of National Biography, s.v., Erskine, John, 6th or 11th Earl of Mar. London: Smith Elder, 1894.

Halsband, Robert. The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Selected Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. London: Longman, 1970.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Acting Director, Women's Studies Program, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada