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A Group of Scottish Women
Jane, Duchess of Gordon (continued)

If the Duchess of Gordon was tireless in the performance of her social duties, her exertions in the wider sphere of politics were even more remarkable. Her desire to enrol the name of Gordon in the lists of fame side by side with those of Pitt and Dundas, her qualities of masculine determination and independence, her caustic wit, as well as the rank, sex, and beauty which exempted her from those restraints usually imposed on a woman by the exigencies of social intercourse, combined to make her the most active and useful partisan of Pitt’s administration. As the blandishments of the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire were of infinite assistance in the electoral campaign of Charles James Fox in 1784, so were the talent for intrigue and the personal attractions of Jane, Duchess of Gordon, assets of inestimable value to William Pitt and his advisers. In her splendid town house in Pall Mall – a house that was once the property of the Marquis of Buckingham, afterwards became the headquarters of the War Office, and is now, alas! an automobile club – she collected a crowd of all the most distinguished Whigs of the day, as well as a number of admiring satellites and sycophantic hangers-on. It is even said that, relying on her immunity from any obedience to the recognised usages of society, she would send for members of Parliament who showed signs of wavering in their allegiance, and use every means in her power to confirm their adherence to the Government. [The Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel Wraxhall, vol. iii. p.267. (1836.) (In the Life of Sir James Mackintosh, vol. i. p.189, we read of her unsuccessful efforts to detach that distinguished philosopher from his party.)]

As a firm follower of Pitt, and consequently of the Queen, she was naturally unpopular among the partisans of the Prince of Wales. On one occasion the Prince’s secretary uttered some ribald remark at the expense of her Majesty in the presence of the duchess. “You little, insignificant, good-for-nothing, upstart, pert, chattering puppy,” said she; how dare you name your Royal Master’s Royal Mother in that way?” She was not, indeed, a woman whom it was safe to irritate or offend, and the freedom of her speech, too often of a coarse and unrefined nature, gained her an unusual number of enemies. Once, when the Earl of Buchan was speaking with unnecessary eloquence of the brilliant talents of his family, she ingenuously inquired whether it were not the case that they had been inherited from the mother, and were consequently “all settled on the younger sons.” When Sir William Nairne was raised to the bench in 1786 the duchess asked him what title he had chosen. “I am Dunsinnan,” replied the eminent lawyer. “You astonish me,” said her Grace, “for I never knew you had begun.” And similar examples of her dry humour are numerous, but could not, for the most part, be printed in these pages without incurring the just strictures of even the least censorious reader. A certain lack of reserve in speech and thought was evidently a heritage of the Maxwell family. Lady Wallace, the duchess’s sister, wrote a play entitled The Whim which contained passages so freely expressed that it was refused the Lord Chamberlain’s licence. The duchess herself was an adept in the art of vituperation, and possessed a fine uninterrupted flow of language and an extensive vocabulary which she was never ashamed to use. She evidently agreed with that other Scotswoman who, while lamenting a relative’s continual use of oaths, was wont to add apologetically that “Nae doot, ‘tis a great offset to conversation.” [The use of strong language was prevalent at that time among all classes of society. There is a well-known story of how that staunch old Jacobite, Lady Strange, when some tactless individual referred to Charles Edward in her presence as “The Pretender,” rebuked him by exclaiming, “Pretender, indeed, and be damned to you!” Sir William Stirling Maxwell, in one of his essays, recounts an amusing anecdote of an old Scottish lady of distinguished family who, while driving home from a ball one night, was awakened by the carriage being stopped by the old coachman, who put his head in at the window to tell her that he had seen a falling star. “And what ha’e ye to do wi’ the stars, I wad like to ken?” asked his indignant mistress. “Drive on this moment and be damned to you!” adding in a lower tone, “as Sir John wad ha’ said, if he had been alive, honest man.”]

The duchess was a dangerous enemy, but a good friend. Her friendships, “once formed were very sincere and not easily shaken,” says a contemporary. [Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, by R. Gillies, vol. i. p.298.] By her indomitable perseverance and courage she acquired a measure of political power such as probably no woman, with the brilliant exception of the Duchess of Lauderdale, has ever possessed in this country before or since. It was through her influence that her husband, who lacked both her initiative and energy, received the Great Seal of Scotland, while his brother, Lord William Gordon, was made Deputy Ranger of St. James’s and Hyde Parks, a sinecure then much in request.

In 1787, when the Prince of Wales’s debts had reached the alarming total of £200,000, and both Pitt and Dundas were anxious that matters should be arranged without any disclosures being made in the House of Commons, the Duchess of Gordon was entrusted with the delicate task of settling the affair. The allowance of the heir-apparent had always been a meagre one, at any rate in the opinion of his friends. The King had appropriated to his own use the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall during his son’s minority, and declined to give any account of their expenditure. Public opinion was consequently on the side of the prince, and the government of the day thought it wise policy to accommodate him. At Pitt’s suggestion the duchess spent many evenings in the prince’s society, talking with all her accustomed freedom upon the subject of his debts, and thus paving the way for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who subsequently interviewed him and gave the much-needed promise of financial aid. Later on, when the question of George III.’s insanity was the subject of a select committee, and had divided the nation into two opposing and bitter parties, the Duchess of Gordon threw the whole weight of her influence into the balance on the side of Pitt, and consequently drew down much odium upon her own head.

She did not, however, confine her exertions entirely to the promotion of party or family interests, and at a time when the defeat of General Burgoyne’s army was arousing sentiments of patriotism and loyalty throughout the country, was one of the first to offer her personal assistance. Determined to employ her enormous influence in promoting the enlistment of the required troops, she left London in the very depth of winter, just as the gay season was commencing, and set out for the Highlands, where her presence inspired the peasantry to form a corps of volunteers. It must have been a great sacrifice to this leader of Society to leave the centre of gaiety and fashion and make a laborious pilgrimage by coach to the snow-swept North. But the Duchess of Gordon was not to be stayed by any minor considerations of personal discomfort. When duty, whether national or maternal, called her, she obeyed without a question. In 1793 when the French Republic, then in the throes of an internal revolution, declared war against Great Britain and Holland, the Duke of Gordon offered to raise another regiment of Highlanders to send abroad. His wife’s efforts to further such a project were as strenuous as they were successful. The feeling in Scotland for “Jenny of Monreith,” with her broad Scots accent and her still broader sense of humour, was a very deep one. Wearing a military bonnet on her head, she rode to all the country fairs, and, following the example of another duchess, her great rival, distributed kisses to all men who were willing to enlist. In the striking but not very flattering portrait of her by Gainsborough, which was exhibited a Burlington House in 1907, she is shown as wearing the headgear of the famous Highland regiment which she assisted in raising, which is now one of the most sacred possessions of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders (late 92nd). It is said that she would hold a guinea between her lips and allow the fortunate recruit to take it as a bullfinch takes seed from its mistress. One young Highland blacksmith, whom every recruiting sergeant had besieged in vain, was unable to resist the Duchess’s lure, took the kiss and the guinea, and then threw the latter to the assembled crowd to show that his motives were anything by mercenary. Several farmers are said to have “taken the shilling” so as to obtain one of her Grace’s kisses, and then paid the £1 fine, termed “smart money,” which enabled a recruit to withdraw his enlistment. A kiss from Duchess Jane was well worth a pound, said they, and probably they were right. The corps thus raised, and known as the Northern or Gordon Fencibles, was afterwards reviewed in Hyde Park by George III., being the first Highland regiment seen in London since the review of the Black Watch in 1743.

It was on this journey to the Highlands that the duchess was deeply shocked at discovering the methods – more drastic than her own – in use in some parts of Scotland to encourage recruiting. One day, as she was passing through a provincial town where a battalion was at drill, she observed a sergeant beating some unfortunate recruit with what appeared to be unnecessary violence. On inquiring the nature of the crime which demanded such stringent punishment, “No crime at all, if it please your Grace,” replied the sergeant; “this is in our corps the way we have of making volunteers!” [Was the duchess the heroine of Dean Ramsay’s famous story of the witty woman who administered so well-merited a snub to a conceited Perthshire cavalry colonel? He had been complaining of the inefficiency of his officers, and saying that the whole duties of the corps devolved upon himself. “I am my own captain,” he declared, “my own lieutenant, my own cornet, and my –“ “Your own trumpeter!” added the lady.] On her return to London the duchess took occasion to mention this incident to Pitt, who no doubt promised to give the matter his attention, just like any modern Prime Minister. (Perhaps he even sent a memorandum on the subject to the Secretary of State for War, who handed it to the Military Secretary, who forwarded it to the Adjutant-General, who referred it to the Inspector-General (or Director) of Recruiting, who initialled and passed it on to the Director of Auxiliary Forces, who communicated its contents to the Officer commanding the unit concerned, who ordered a Court of Enquiry to assemble. That Memorandum may still be drifting along the sluggish channels of military correspondence, to return to the War Office in time to find that the question of the treatment of Volunteers has been settled by the simple process of their total abolition.)

The presence of the duchess was always sufficient to secure the success of any social entertainment. In 1775, she appeared at a masquerade held at Banff – much to the scandal of the local elders – in the house of a certain Mr. Abercromby. On this occasion she was dressed as a flower-girl, but changed this simple costume before supper for a superb court dress. When she unmasked and disclosed her entrancing beauty and the glitter of her diamonds to the public gaze, the admiration of her fellow-guests knew no bounds. “I had read the Arabian tales,” says an officer of Marines who was present (and evidently possessed those imaginative qualities usually attributed to members of his amphibious profession), “and was transported to the regions of that fanciful work.” [Personal Memories, by Pryse Lockhart Gordon, vol. i. p.37.]  This same officer, who afterwards joined the Duke of Gordon’s Fencibles, was entertained as a poor subaltern at Gordon Castle by the duchess and her daughters – “beautiful and interesting nymphs” he calls them. [Ibid., p.67.] He describes the ardour with which Lord Monboddo, another of the duchess’s guests, remarked to him, “Sir, her Grace had a brilliancy and radiance about her like the rays round the head of an apostle!” [Ibid., p.399.] Her laugh, too, as another contemporary tells us, had “a mesmeric influence, was unequalled, and, once heard, could not be forgotten”; [Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, vol. i. p297.] so it is not surprising that she won all hearts.

The duchess was always ready to lend the weight of her influence to the advancement of literature and art, in which she took a deep, if not very intelligent, interest. “Her Grace’s present ruling passion is literature,” wrote Mrs Grant of Laggan, in 1808. “To be the arbitress of literary taste and the patroness of genius – a distinction for which her want of early culture and the flutter of a life devoted to very different pursuits, has rather disqualified her. Yet she has strong flashes of intellect, immediately lost in the formless confusion of a mind ever hurried on by contending passions and contradictory objects, of which one can never be obtained without relinquishing the others.” [Memoirs and Correspondence of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, vol. i. p.182] Byron, too, in one of his letters, [The Letters of Lord Byron, p.92. (Moore, 1875.)] says that his cousin, Lord Alexander Gordon, told him that the duchess requested he would introduce his “poetical lordship to her Highness,” as she had bought his volume, in common with the rest of the fashionable world, and wished to claim her relationship with the author.

It was through the kindness of the duchess –

“Her Grace,

Whose flambeaux flash against the morning skies,

And gild our chamber ceilings as they pass,” –

That Robert Burns, like herself a native of Ayrshire, was introduced to the delights of the New Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh, where he suffered such acute discomfort and felt so thoroughly out of place. Of the ploughman-poet she once confessed that she had never met a man whose conversation “so completely carried her off her feet.” [Allan Cunningham’s Life of Burns, vol. i. p.131] Burns paid several visits to Gordon Castle, [In 1787 Burns paid a brief visit to Gordon Castle, which in his diary he calls a “fine palace, worthy of the noble, the polite, and generous proprietor.” The duke and duchess were both extremely kind to him. “The duke makes me happier than ever great man did,” he writes; “noble, princely, yet mild and condescending and affable – gay and kind. The duchess charming, witty, kind and sensible. God bless them!”] and, indeed, the intimacy of the friendship that existed between the duchess and the poet gave rise to a great deal of ill-natured gossip at the time.

Sir Walter Scott, however, does not seem to have been very favourably impressed by her charms, though he would sometimes attend her soirées and read portions of Marmion to her guests. [Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, vol. i. p.323.] “The duchess stayed here [Edinburgh], a day or two on her way to Ireland,” he writes to Lady Abercorn in December 1809. “I rather wonder that your viceroy [Charles, 4th Duke of Richmond.] has not contrived to parry this visitation from la chère maman. She is not, begging her Grace’s pardon, altogether the conciliatory sort of person that is best calculated to endure, and to restrain, and to mitigate, all the little heart-burnings which must arise in every court whether regal or vice-regal.” [Familiar Letters of Walter Scott (D. Douglas. Edin., 1894), vol. i. p.157.]

The duchess, on the other hand, accused Sir Walter of not paying her sufficient attentions, a neglect for which he apologised by declaring that he had but little time at his disposal, and that he should therefore be an object of pity rather than abuse. They were, however, as he says, very civil whenever they met, though there was evidently little love lost between them. Mrs. Grant of Laggan relates how she saw Walter Scott at the duchess’s house in Edinburgh in 1809. On this occasion her Grace told Mrs. Grant that her respect for the prejudices of the Scotch was so great that she never “saw company,” played cards, or went out in Edinburgh on a Sunday. In England, added the duchess, she was not so particular, because there every one else did what they pleased, and she naturally followed the fashion, but was unwilling to introduce habits of laxity in the matter of Sabbath observance into Scotland. “I stared at these gradations of piety,” writes the sage old lady, “growing warmer as they came northward; but was wise enough to stare silently.” [Memoirs and Correspondence of Mrs. Grant of Laggan, vol. i. p.199.]

One of the duchess’s many guests at Gordon Castle was Dr. James Beattie, poet and essayist, who maintained a prolific correspondence with her. His epistolary style was of a somewhat florid description. “ I pray that you Grace may enjoy all the health and happiness that good air, goat’s whey, romantic solitude, and the society of the loveliest children in the world can bestow,” [The Letters of James Beattie, L.L.D., vol. ii. p.51. (1820.)] he wrote when she was staying at Glenfiddich, the duke’s shooting-box in the Grampians. In 1780 he sent the duchess some whisky contained in bottles bearing upon the seal a representation of the Three Graces, “whom I take to be you Grace’s near relations,” he says, “as they have the honour, not only to bear one of your titles, but also to resemble you exceedingly in form, feature, and manner. If you had lived three thousand years ago, which I am very glad you did not, there would have been four of them, and you the first.” [Ibid., p.81.] In return for all this flattery the duchess gave her correspondent a copy of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous picture of herself.

The Duke of Gordon, himself a writer of comic songs, [“There is Cauld Kail in Aberdeen” was his.] had encouraged the musical genius of his butler, a man of the name of Marshall, whom Burns has termed “the first composer of strathspeys of the age”; and the duchess was one of the first to patronise Neil Gow, the “father of Scotch ball music,” who wrote the famous “Farewell to Whisky,” and whom she met at Athol House. Under her protection Scottish music began to rise towards a deserved eminence. She introduced and popularised dancing as an accomplishment worthy of study, and by making it fashionable at routs and assemblies, did good work in diminishing the passion for gambling, which had hitherto been the sole amusement indulged in at evening parties by members of the upper class. Reels and strathspeys took the place of rouge-et-noir and faro; round games were abandoned for country (if not for round) dances. “If,” says the author of Public Characters,  in a burst of inspired oratory which compares favourably with the impassioned tirades against so-called “smart society” nowadays so prevalent in the pulpit and the press – “if the flow of hilarity tends more to beauty than anxiety, avarice, and rage; if a fine young woman appear to more advantage interweaving in the animating dance than with her whole soul wrapt up in the odd trick” – “bridge” had not then been invented, or I fear the rival attractions of the ballroom would have been scarcely strong enough to oust so alluring a game; - “if it is better to enjoy innocent pleasure than to lose sums that may involve circumstances or distress relations; then is dancing superior to gaming; and the person who has substituted so delightful a recreation in the place of so pernicious a pursuit, and who has substituted it into those circles in which it chiefly prevails, and which inferior classes are so apt to envy, has produced a beneficial change on society.” “Such,” concludes the chronicler, pausing a moment to take breath, “has resulted from the countenance of the Duchess of Gordon.”

That countenance, however – of which Wraxall writes that it was overclouded by occasional frowns of anger or vexation, but much more frequently lighted up with smiles – was destined to be sadly darkened by the shadows of adversity and unhappiness. The violent conduct of her brother-in-law, Lord George, who incited the mob to the famous riots of 1780, caused the name of Gordon to be publicly execrated, and did incalculable harm to her prestige. In 1808 her youngest and best-beloved son, Alexander, died suddenly in his twenty-third year, and the shock of his death completely prostrated her. But she retained her good looks to the end of her life, and when Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe called upon her four years before she died, he found her looking “perfectly beautiful, covered with lace veils and artificial roses,” and surrounded by what he called the “three ugly yellow London babies” of the Duchess of Manchester. Occasionally she would retire to her little house at Kinrara, on the banks of the Spey.

“Here lived the lovely Jane, who best combined

A beauteous form to a superior mind,”

playing the part of Lady Bountiful, and spending her time in “embellishing that mountain residence, and improving the situation of the inhabitants in its neighbourhood.” [Correspondence of Sir John Sinclair, vol. i. p.159.] At Badenoch she established a “farming society” for her tenants, and started a manufactory of woollen stuffs designed to give employment, as she said, to “Highland spinsters.” “Now I have lost my daughter,” she writes in 1804, “agriculture and adorning nature are my only delights.” [Ibid., p.180.] And again, “Books, peace, and solitude are the blessings I value.” [Memoirs of a Literary Veteran, vol. i. p.295.] But permanent rural seclusion was not suited to her tastes. Her love of gaiety did not ever altogether desert her. And five years before she died we read of her presence adding much to the brilliancy of the winter season at Edinburgh. Her health and spirits were no longer what they had been, but her conversation was still as lively as ever, her looks as bright and attractive.

Her last days were fraught with tragedy. As the years advanced she had gradually lost that unique political power which it was her one ambition to retain. She had lost – if, indeed, after the tragedy of her honeymoon she had ever possessed – the love and affection of her husband, with whom she was no longer on speaking terms. She accused him of meanness; he retorted by accusing her of extravagance: and no doubt both these accusations were founded upon a solid basis of truth. Estranged from most of her relations, she led a wandering life, having no fixed home and few loyal friends, until eventually this “Empress of fashion,” as Walpole calls her, died in London, at Pulteney’s Hotel, Piccadilly, on April 11, 1812. It is said that her body was exhibited by the waiters of the hotel to a curious public, who were only too ready to pay their shillings to view the remains of so illustrious a woman.

Once, long before, when she was regretting the removal from her old house in George Square, Edinburgh, to the more fashionable New Town, but declared that really the Old Town was intolerably dull, the ever-courteous Henry Erskine had replied, “Madam, that is as if the sun were to say, ‘It seems vastly dull weather – I think I shall not rise this morning!’” [Henry Erskine: His Kinsfolk and His Times, by Lt.-Col. Alexander Fergusson, p.278. (W. Blackwood, 1882.)] So, in the evening of her life, this social sun may perhaps have found the weather “vastly dull,” as she sank to rest beneath the political horizon which for so many years she had illumined and brightened by her presence.

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