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A Group of Scottish Women
Jane, Duchess of Gordon (1749 - 1812)


Two hundred years ago vagrant swine were as common in the streets of all the capitals of Europe as dogs are to-day. [Lord Gardenstone, a well-known Scottish judge, became so attached to a pig of his acquaintance that he allowed it to sleep at the foot of his bed. When the animal grew too big for this sleeping-place it used to retire for the night on the heap of clothes which the judge had just removed, thereby, as Lord Gardenstone pleasantly remarked, keeping them nice and warm until it was time to put them on again in the morning.] If you had been alive then and had chanced to be passing down the High Street of Edinburgh on a certain spring morning of the year 1760, you would not have been much astonished at seeing a number of these unalluring animals wandering in and out of the narrow alleys and wynds that debouch upon the main thoroughfares of the city, performing with rough and ready efficiency the duties which are now relegated to the street scavengers. But you would certainly have been given cause for surprise – if you were still young enough to be surprised at anything – had you met an exceptionally good-looking girl riding astride on the back of one of these pigs, which her sister, another equally pretty child, was violently belabouring with a broom-handle. Such, however, was the spectacle that presented itself to the wondering gaze of an old gentleman who was on his way to pay an afternoon call upon Lady Maxwell of Monreith in Hyndford’s Close. Later on, the elderly visitor was much scandalised to learn that the two girls who were amusing themselves in this peculiar fashion were none other than Lady Maxwell’s own daughters. He would no doubt have been still further shocked had he been able to look forward into the future and realise that the pretty girl who was beating the pig with such vigour would one day become the famous Lady Wallace, while her sister who sat the animal with such unladylike skill, was eventually destined to make a name for herself in the history of the world as Jane, the beautiful and witty Duchess of Gordon.

In the whole annals of the scheming and intrigue which played so sordid and important a part in the political history of the eighteenth century, there is probably no figure which stands out so clearly as that of Jane, Duchess of Gordon. Few women have occupied a more conspicuous position on the political stage of England; none have succeeded in putting such advantages of birth and station as they possessed to better use, for the purpose of securing the aggrandisement of their own family and the advancement of the party with which they had chosen to cast in their lot.

“Jenny of Monreith,” as she was generally called, was the second and loveliest daughter of Sir William Maxwell, and was born in Edinburgh, about the year 1749. Hyndford’s Close was a narrow, gloomy back-street of Edinburgh, and the house which Lady Maxwell and her daughters inhabited was thoroughly in keeping with the squalid surroundings of the neighbourhood. To reach the dining-room it was necessary to traverse a dark passage and pass by the open door of the kitchen, so that guests were made aware on arrival of the nature of the viands which were being prepared for them. In this same passage the finer garments of the Maxwell family were usually exposed, after washing, to dry on a screen; while the coarser articles of dress, such as petticoats, were hung decently out of sight at a back window. “so very easy and familiar were the manners of the great in those times” (we read in Chambers’s Traditions of Edinburgh) “that Miss Betty, afterwards Lady Wallace, used to be sent with the tea-kettle across the street to the Fountain Well, for water to tea.” This was the atmosphere in which the Maxwell girls were brought up; so it is not perhaps to be wondered at if their natural high spirits occasionally found an outlet in such a pastime as that of riding the neighbours’ swine along the High Street.

“The Scotch may be compared to a tulip planted in dung,” said Oliver Goldsmith. “You may see a well-dressed duchess issuing from a dirty close.” And the poet might well have brought Jane Maxwell forward as a typical example. Of the two sisters, she was perhaps the greater hoyden, the more boisterous and wild, the least controlled, as she was certainly the more intelligent and beautiful. The propriety of her juvenile manners might indeed be open to unfavourable criticism, but no fault could certainly be found with her qualities of body or of mind. We need only recall the supreme part she played in the political arena of her time, and the unfailing wit of her conversation, to admit the justice of her claim to be called “the cleverest woman of her day.” We have but to look at the famous portrait painted by Romney, [This picture was long attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, but in 1882, when it was exhibited at Burlington House, the hanging committee recognised and catalogued it as the work of Romney. Nine years later it was sold by the duchess’s great grand-nephew, Sir Herbert Maxwell, to Mr. Wertheimer, for 5,500 guineas.] when she was six-and-twenty, to appreciate the exquisite beauty of outline and colouring which caused her to be popularly known as “the flower of Galloway” and to be continually surrounded by a host of admirers.

That Jane Maxwell was extraordinarily beautiful and witty there is no doubt, but the more captious among her contemporaries have declared that she lacked one of the most essential parts of beauty. As in girlhood she seems to have possessed all the characteristics of a romping schoolboy, so in later life she is said to have lacked feminine delicacy, both in face and mind. And if she possessed more wit than her great rival the Duchess of Devonshire and the other eminent women of her time, she was certainly much coarser than they either dared or desired to be. With her brothers and sisters she shared the privilege of inheriting a measure of the blunt, rough character of her father, a typical specimen of the shrewd, old-fashioned Scottish laird. Dean Ramsay tells a story of a certain Monday visit paid by Jane’s brother, Sir William Maxwell, to the Earl of Galloway, when that nobleman had been newly appointed Lord-Lieutenant of the county. “I am very glad to have seen you,” said Lord Galloway to his departing guests, “but you are not perhaps aware that I have a day of my own for receiving. I set apart Friday for seeing my county friends, and shall always be glad to see you on that day whenever you will honour me with a call.” “My lord,” replied Sir William with some asperity, “I ken but ae Lord wha hae a day o’ his ain, and, God forgi’e me, I dinna keep that day; and d----- me if I’ll keep yours!”

It was not to be imagined that so pretty and accomplished a girl as Jane Maxwell would be long allowed to remain unmarried. While still in her teens she became engaged to a young officer in the army. But her lover was suddenly ordered abroad with his regiment, and, after a brief absence, the report of his death reached the ears of his fiancée. She thereupon allowed herself to accept the heart and hand of a more eligible suitor, and in her eighteenth year married Alexander, fourth Duke of Gordon, who was desperately in love with her. It is said that while on her honeymoon she received a letter from her soldier lover stating, no doubt, that the report of his death had been “grossly exaggerated” and that he was returning home to claim his bride. On receipt of this news the duchess swooned away and was found in an unconscious condition in the garden by her husband, who read the fatal letter and thus learnt for the first time that he only occupied a secondary position in his wife’s affections.

The Duke of Gordon was one of the handsomest noblemen of his time, but quite unsuited both by temperament and character to be the husband of so ambitious and energetic a woman as Jane Maxwell. He has been described as being the “greatest subject in Britain, not from the extent of his rent-roll, but from a much more valuable property, the number of people whom Providence had put under his government and protection.” But neither the size of his rent-roll nor the number of his dependants could prevent him from experiencing the hardships of a severe financial crisis, from which his fortunes were with difficulty extricated.

The duke and duchess were, indeed, an ill-matched couple – he finding his pleasure in country pursuits and field-sports, and taking little interest in public affairs; she reserving all the energies of her nature for political purposes, an active and determined partisan, in whom and round whom all the intrigues of the Whig party centred and revolved. A horse, a hound, a gun: these satisfied the simple needs of the duke. Worldly ambition, love of power, a passion to succeed: these alone meant life and happiness to the duchess. Small wonder, then, that two persons who possessed such divergent interests and tastes should fail to find much in common.

The duchess may very probably have been lacking in some of the wifely virtues of sympathy and tolerance. But as a mother she affords a truly noble example of self-sacrifice and maternal solicitude. She had two sons and five daughters, and, in her efforts to provide suitable husbands for the latter, deemed no exertion too severe, no sacrifice too great. As a successful matchmaker she is probably unique in our national history. The devoted and designing mothers of the present day, who compose that pathetic human dado which lines the wall of every ballroom, and strive with such infinite toil and patience to secure satisfactory matches for their unmarried daughters, might well follow her example, even if they did not care to emulate all her peculiar methods. In the fulfilment of her purpose she left no stone unturned; her pertinacy overcame every difficulty; her zeal swept aside all obstacles. Barriers, as George Meredith says, are for those who cannot fly; and Duchess Jane had always soared high. No eligible young man was safe from her clutches until he had got married. She bestowed infinite pains upon the education of her daughters, but none of them inherited a tithe of her mother’s intelligence or beauty, and the dowry with which the duke was able to provide them was an insignificant one. Nevertheless, they all contrived to marry well – to use a term which implies matrimonial success from a purely worldly point of view – a result which they owed entirely to the indefatigable labours of the duchess. She is probably the only instance in history of a mother who has allied three of her five daughters in marriage to English dukes, and the fourth to a marquis. [Charlotte married the Duke of Richmond, Susan the Duke of Bedford, and Louisa the Marquis Cornwallis.]

A typical example of the lengths to which she condescended in the pursuit of these objects is given by Samuel Rogers, the poet, who declared that he could vouch for the truth of the story, having had it from the duchess’s own lips. Lord Brome, the eldest son of Lord Cornwallis, fell in love with her Grace’s daughter Louisa, and a marriage was arranged between them. At the last moment, however, Lord Cornwallis tried to break off the match, on the plea that there was madness in the Duke of Gordon’s family. The duchess thereupon proceeded to interview Lord Cornwallis, and assured him that, while she thoroughly respected his reason for disapproving of the marriage, he might set his mind at rest upon the question of a possible taint of insanity, as there was “not a drop of Gordon blood in Louisa’s body!” Lord Cornwallis appears to have been satisfied with this statement, and in due course the marriage took place. Thus readily did the duchess sacrifice her honour on the altar of her daughter’s happiness. Again, another daughter, Georgiana, became engaged to the Duke of Bedford, but her fiancé died before the marriage could be celebrated. The duchess did not despair. Bidding Georgiana array herself in widow’s weeds, a dress that was particularly becoming to her, she sent for the Duke of Bedford’s brother and heir to comfort the girl. The young man found the fair one clad in black and looking so bewitching in her distress that he at once fell passionately in love with her, and eventually married her.

The duchess’s struggles to provide her daughters with suitable husbands were not always crowned with success. She occasionally suffered rebuffs which might have disheartened a less dauntless mother, but which only inspired her to still more strenuous efforts. She entertained at one time a project of marrying her eldest daughter, Lady Charlotte Lennox, to Pitt, and would take her to drive to Wimbledon whenever she knew the Prime Minister to be there. This scheme was frustrated by Henry Dundas, Pitt’s intimate friend and trusted lieutenant, who did not wish his Chief to make such a connection. With all the guile of an astute politician, Dundas devised the expedient of pretending to be about to offer his own hand and heart to the Lady Charlotte, a project which he confided to Pitt. His object was easily and immediately attained. Pitt at once ceased his attentions, and withdrew from the field in favour of his rival, an example which the latter speedily followed as soon as he had gained his point. Perhaps the duchess recalled this incident when she remarked contemptuously to Dundas one night, as the guests were leaving an assembly in London, “Mr. Dundas, you are used to speak in public; will you call my servant?”

In 1802 she was accused of having taken her youngest daughter, Lady Georgiana, to Paris, in an attempt to secure Eugène Beauharnais as a son-in-law. Here again she did not meet with the success to which she aspired, and the fact that on her return she was reported as saying that she hoped to see Bonaparte “breakfast in Ireland, dine in London, and sup at Gordon Castle,” did not enhance her popularity.

On one other occasion her designs met with failure. William Beckford, the eccentric author of Vathek, who lived at Fonthill, was reputed to be a man of enormous wealth. What more upon earth could be desired by a managing mother for her daughter? The duchess determined to pay a surprise visit to Fonthill to judge for herself as to the suitability of such a man for the post of son-in-law. Beckford, however, made up his mind to outwit her, and having received a hint as to the date of her arrival, resolved to give her what he calls a “useful lesson.” By his commands Fonthill was put in order for her reception, and arrangements for her welcome were made upon a lavish and extensive scale. This done, says Beckford in his Memoirs, “I ordered my mayor-domo to say on the duchess’s arrival that it was unfortunate – everything being arranged for her Grace’s reception, Mr. Beckford had shut himself up on a sudden, a way he had at times, and that it was more than his place was worth to disturb him, as his master only appeared when he pleased, forbidding interruption, even if the king came to Fonthill.” [The Memoirs of William Beckford, pp. 337-9. (1859.)] The duchess, though somewhat surprised at Beckford’s apparent peculiarities, accepted the situation calmly. She expressed herself as much gratified by her mode of reception and by the luxury of the house, and was all the more anxious to see her host. “Perhaps Mr. Beckford will be visible tomorrow?” was her daily consolation. But to-morrow came, and to-morrow, and the day after, and still no Mr. Beckford! The duchess remained seven or eight days, magnificently entertained, and then went away without ever having seen the owner of Fonthill. He meanwhile sat in his study, surrounded by a number of new books, recently arrived from London, and chuckled to himself at the thought of his solitary guest and her complete discomfiture. The duchess was naturally indignant at the treatment she had received at the hands of her unwilling host, and subsequently took every opportunity of heaping contumely upon his head. She must indeed have rejoiced when in later life he was reduced to such financial straits that he was forced to sell all the pictures and works of art which had adorned Fonthill on the occasion of her famous visit. Beckford’s ideas of hospitality were always somewhat strange, as may be gathered from the fact that when Samuel Rogers went to stay at Fonthill, the poet was informed that neither his servant nor his horses could be admitted, but that his host’s steeds and domestics should be placed at his entire disposal. But the visit of the Duchess of Gordon was the only occasion upon which he played the part of absentee host so thoroughly and with such malevolence.

In a volume of Public Characters, published in 1799, there is a quaint description of the beautiful duchess and of the effect she produced upon society. From this we learn that she had the power of making “all persons who came within the sphere of her action” pleased with themselves, a faculty that implies the possession of the most consummate tact. “She was eminently distinguished for her engaging deportment, for being the life and soul of elegant parties, especially those met for festive amusement, for her agility and grace in the performance of those exercises which display beauty and symmetry on the one hand, and for the gaiety, spirit, and brilliancy of humour which so agreeably set off acute and vigorous understanding on the other.” The author of this curious biographical work remembers being at an inn at Blair one evening with a party of county gentlemen who had recently been staying at the Duke of Athol’s mansion close by, where they had been fellow-guests of the Duchess of Gordon. Her charms, her beauty, her accomplishments, even her manners, were the theme of universal praise “for several hours,” and “were renewed with equal warmth in the morning.” Conversing with the youngest member of the company, whom he knew to be possessed of “vigorous talents and punctilious discernment,” “Pray, Charles,” said the chronicler, “what appears to you to be her Grace’s secret for enrapturing your father and all our worthy friends?” The reply of the talented and discerning Charles must be given in full: “Careful forbearance of her display of superiority in rank, in the distribution of her attention,” said he; “no marked consideration of that diversity in other, when met together at the same table; and giving every one an opportunity of speaking on a subject on which she supposed he could speak well.” (I feel sure that Charles supposed he could speak well on any subject.) “Not all her engaging qualifications,” continued this youthful prig, “made such an impression on my father as the conversation in which he was enabled to bring forward his favourite opinions on planting trees and potatoes, as most beneficial to gentlemen and the poor. His good neighbour was no less captivated by her Grace’s discourse with him on sheep-farms.” It is disappointing to think that we must be kept in perpetual ignorance of the duchess’s views of the same conversation. But one cannot help admiring the tact which enabled her to discuss such tedious subjects as the rotation of crops or the conduct of sheep-farms with the worthy squire and his good neighbour, without displaying any signs of the weariness which such topics must inevitably have produced in the mind of such a sprightly and intelligent woman of the world. That she was not invariably so tolerant of bores is well known. The frankness of her expressed sentiments was not always agreeable to her hearers, for she made a practice of what is called “speaking out her mind,” a euphemism adopted by candid friends to describe that essentially personal criticism, punctuated by what are known as “home truths,” which is always so very hard to bear. Even the author of Public Characters admits that the duchess did not ever suffer fools gladly, but could be severe at times, and records an occasion on which she abused a “well-known peripatetic, and exposed his conduct in so humorous and strong satire that it is said she almost recalled to his recollection that there is such a feeling as shame in the human mind.” I cannot help wishing that the author had given us some hint as to the nature and humour of the satire, or, for the matter of that, had explained to us what on earth is a “peripatetic,” and why he should be incapable of shame. On these questions, however, he maintains a discreet if irritating silence.

The secret of the duchess’s great success lay not so much in her with and beauty – “she is beautiful indeed,” wrote Mrs. Delany, “very natural and good-humour’d, but her very broad Scotch accent does not seem to belong to the very great delicacy of her appearance” [The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delany, vol. v. p.215] – as in her determinations to succeed at all hazards. “Any contest I shall rise in – never fall, I assure you,” [An Autobiographical Chapter in the Life of Jane, Duchess of Gordon.] she once wrote to Francis Farquharson, an intimate friend and adviser of the Gordon family; and from this sentence one can gain the key to her whole character. She was determined, masterful, undaunted. “I have been acquainted with David Hume and William Pitt,” she used to say, “and therefore I am not afraid to converse with anybody;” [Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, p.143.] and converse she did, freely and fluently, though not always in a language that was understood by her listeners. “Rax me a spaul o’ that bubbly jock,” she once observed at dinner to a flustered Englishman who was carving a turkey and at the same time boasting somewhat prematurely of his intimate knowledge of the Scottish vernacular.

Her energy and vitality were a source of constant wonder to her friends. Horace Walpole gives in one of his letters a description of her daily life, and relates how she “first went to Handel’s music in the Abbey; she then clambered over the benches and went to Hastings’ trial in the Hall; after dinner to the play; then to Lady Lucan’s assembly; after that to Ranelagh, and returned to Mrs. Hobart’s faro-table; gave a ball herself in the evening of that morning, into which she must have got a good way; and set out for Scotland the next day.” [The Letters of Horace Walpole, vol. ix. P.318.] Hercules himself, as Walpole remarks, could not in the same time have achieved a quarter of her labours.


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