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A Group of Scottish Women
Catherine, Duchess of Queensberry (d. 1777)

The houses of Scott and Douglas, of Buccleuch and Queensberry, have long been connected by ties of blood and friendship. Janet, daughter of David Scott of Branxholm, and Sir James Douglas of Drumlanrig, by their marriage in the year 1470, became the common ancestors of the two families. In later days these houses were still more closely allied. Francis, son of James, Earl of Dalkeith, who married Henrietta Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Rochester, inherited the Dukedom of Buccleuch through his grandmother Anna. He in turn married Lady Jane Douglas, eldest daughter of the second Duke of Queensberry, and thus the third Duke of Buccleuch succeeded in 1810 to the Queensberry title as well.

The name of Douglas has inspired poets, dramatists, and historians, from Scott and Home downwards,

[“Douglas, a name through all the world renoun’d –
A name that rouses like the trumpet’s sound! –
Oft have your fathers, prodigal of life,
A Douglas followed through the bloody strife.”
The Tragedy of Douglas (Prologue.)]

to the most enthusiastic eulogies in prose and verse, and an old rhymed saying, long common in the mouths of Scotsmen, declared that –

“So many, so good as the Douglasses have been
Of one sirname were never in Scotland seen.”

An early biographer of the Douglas family, writing in the middle of the eighteenth century, traces their pedigree as far back as the days of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the father of that monarch who pursued Moses with such malignant fidelity. According to this historian, a certain Gathaleus was the general of Pharaoh’s troops, who, with the assistance of his lieutenant Sayas, succeeded in defeating the ever-hostile forces of the Ethiopians. As a reward for this victory he was given the hand of Pharaoh’s daughter Scota. Gathaleus and his bride journeyed to Portugal, where they were joined by the faithful Sayas, and the descendants of these two families eventually came to Scotland and founded the house of Douglas. [The History and Martial Achievements of the Houses of Douglas, Angus, and Queensberry, p. v. (Edinburgh, 1769.)] “I shall add no more,” says this old chronicler, with an exhibition of self-restraint all the more commendable in one who obviously possessed so exceptionally vivid an imagination, “but give me Leave to ask all Christian Kings, Princes, and Noblemen, and the Flatterers who have wrote their Genealogies, conquests, Exploits and Battles, if they can produce a family equal in Nobility, antiquity, and Valour to the House of Douglas?” “What family,” he asks, “ever did, in Favour of their Country, what the Douglasses have done for the Honour and Advantage of Scotland?” [Ibid., p.xix]

On the 10th of March, 1720, Charles Douglas, 3rd Duke of Queensberry, a Privy Councillor, and Lord of the Bedchamber to George I., married Lady Catherine Hyde, second daughter of Henry, Lord Hyde, who afterwards succeeded to the earldoms of Rochester and Clarendon.

Lady Kitty was already one of the reigning toasts of her day. Her mother, a lovely woman whom Prior has immortalised as Myra in his Judgment of Venus, bequeathed her good looks to at least two of her eight children, - to Kitty, whose beauty was no less famous than her eccentricities, and to Jane, the “Blooming Hyde, with eyes so rare,” mentioned by Gay in the prologue to his Shepherd’s Week.

It may be urged that Kitty, Duchess of Queensberry, has no right to a place in these pages, since she was not by birth a Scotswoman. Indeed, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was malicious enough to suggest that she was not even a Hyde, but the daughter of Lord Carleton, - a calumny for which there does not seem to be the slightest justification. But if the duchess was not of Scottish birth, her husband was a Scotsman, and she herself was such a well-known figure in the society of the Scottish capital that the inclusion of her name in a list of the notable Scottish women of the past may perhaps be pardoned.

Of the duchess’s early life there is little record. It is said, on I know not what authority, that she was at one period confined in a strait-waistcoat, and by her crazy conduct in later years she certainly seems to have deserved, if she did not actually obtain, an occasional dose of physical restraint. A whole chapter could easily be filled with an account of her various eccentricities. Horace Walpole, who, though he lived to alter his opinion, was not at one time particularly fond of her, [“Thank God! The Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensberry!” – The Letters of Horace Walpole, Edited by Peter Cunningham, vol. ii. p86. (1857.)] relates a typical story of her Grace driving off post-haste to Parson’s Green to Lady Sophia Thomas, bearing news, as she declared, of paramount importance. “What is it?” asked the astonished Lady Sophia. “Why,” replied the duchess, “take a couple of beefsteaks, clap them together as if they were for a dumpling, and eat them with pepper and salt; it’s the best thing you ever tasted: I couldn’t help coming to tell you!” [Ibid., p.161] And away she drove back to town! (In this story the duchess reminds one of the night-watchman in one of Max Adeler’s tales who used to wake people up in the middle of the night to remark that bananas were the best bait for cat-fish.) Walpole’s only comment on such conduct is that “a course of folly makes one very sick!”

At a ball which the duchess gave at Drumlanrig the guests were all assembled and the band had started playing when the hostess suddenly declared that she was suffering from a headache and could not bear the noise. The dancing was stopped then and there, to the great disgust of the assembled company. Lord Drumlanrig had, fortunately, some experience of his mother’s peculiarities, and knew how to deal with them. He at once proceeded to seize the big armchair in which the duchess was sitting, and ran it violently round the room two or three times, saying that this was by far the best treatment for a headache. Whereupon his mother realised the humour of the situation, admitted that her temporary indisposition was cured, and graciously allowed the dance to proceed.

The duchess always appears to have found peculiar scope in the ballroom for a display of her eccentricities. At a masquerade which she once gave at her house in London, she had large notices containing regulations as to the conduct of the dance posted all over the walls, turned half her guests out of the house at midnight, kept the remainder to supper, and, in short, as Walpole tells us, “continued to do an agreeable thing in the rudest manner imaginable.” [The Letters of Horace Walpole, vol. ii. p.86.] On this occasion, too, she insisted on dressing her husband up in Scottish costume, which was then – it was only a few years after the Rebellion of ’45 – considered particularly offensive, if not openly disloyal.

She herself made a point of wearing at all times the garb of a Scottish peasant woman, and was curiously surprised at the uncomplimentary comment it evoked. [“Everybody’s eye would strike them that my dress was exactly according to form,” she writes, “if their ears had not been (by some ill accident or other) used to hear it unjustly condemned.” – Letters to and from Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk, vol. ii. p.99] On account of this habit of hers and edict was issued forbidding ladies to appear at Court in aprons. The duchess decided, however, to ignore it, and gaily presented herself at the next Drawing-room attired in her usual simple dress, which, becoming as it was, must have looked singularly out of place at St. James’s. The lord-in-waiting on duty attempted to stop her at the door, explaining as politely as possible that she could not be admitted in an apron. Whereupon the duchess lost her temper, tore off the offending garment, flung it in his lordship’s astonished face, and strode into the circle dressed in her rustic gown and petticoat. Such conduct naturally gave rise to unflattering criticism.

Again, when in her official capacity as lady-in-waiting the duchess was present one day in the Queen’s room while her majesty was dressing, she was suddenly so completely overcome with the humour of the situation that she was obliged to creep out of the window on hands and knees, in order to avoid giving way in the royal presence to an outburst of indecorous laughter. Her breaches of court etiquette were the result of light-heartedness and a frivolous disposition; they were not due to lack of education or savoir faire as in the case of her predecessor, Jane Warburton, Duchess of Argyll. [Jane was maid of honour to Queen Anne and afterwards to Queen Caroline, and, though well-born, was very indifferently educated. The removals of the court from palace to palace were superintended by a state official known as the “Harbinger.” On one occasion, when the ladies-in-waiting, on a rumour of a sudden move to Windsor, were consulting together about their baggage, “Well, for my part,” said Jane, “I shan’t trouble myself. Must not the ‘Scavenger’ take care of us maids of honour?” Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke, edited by the Hon J.A. Home, vol. iii. p.423] Lady Mary Coke, in her Journal, gives an account of an afternoon call paid on her in 1768 by the Duchess of Queensberry, who was then an elderly woman. Lady Mary happened to remark that she had heard of her Grace dancing at a ball at Gunnersbury, but had not had the pleasure of seeing her. “You may see me now,” said the old lady, and immediately proceeded to skip round the room with amazing agility. [Ibid., vol. ii. p.345]

The duchess’s practice of wearing clothes which were unsuited to her rank and position often got her into trouble at other places besides the Court. She once arrived at a military review dressed in her customary garb, and on trying to approach the duke was rudely pushed back into the crowd by one of the sentries who had naturally failed to recognise the great lady so disguised. Her fury at this insult was only appeased when her husband promised that a sound flogging should be administered to every man of the guard as a lesson in the folly of judging by appearances.

To the end of her life the duchess remained loyal to the fashion in dress which was in vogue when she was a girl, and flatly declined to make any change in her costume. Being a singularly handsome woman, she could afford to be eccentric on this point. Whitehead the poet, to whom she declared that the frequent alteration in feminine fashions was merely a lure to catch male attention, admitted this when he wrote the following verse in reply:-

“Your Grace will contradict in part
Your own assertion, and my song,
Whose beauty, undisguised by art,
Has charmed so much, and charmed so long.”

The lively Kitty was always in the very best of spirits –“the cheerful Duchess,” Gay called her [“Yonder I see the cheerful duchess stand,

For friendship, zeal, and blithesome humours known.”] – and combined a strong sense of humour with great tenderness of heart. Many of her friends had experience of her kindly nature. When old Lady Lichfield was stricken with blindness, the duchess would go and sit by her bedside night after night, cheering the invalid with her amusing society and that ceaseless flow of gossip and anecdote with which her conversation sparkled. Though a sweet-tempered woman as a rule, there was one thing that never failed to rouse her righteous indignation. “I declare to you, she writes in one of her letters to Dean Swift, “nothing ever enlivened me half so much, as unjust ill-usage, either directed to myself or to my friends.” This hatred of injustice and oppression caused her to become involved in the case of the poet Gay when his play Polly was prohibited by the Lord Chamberlain. She warmly espoused the cause of the dramatist, and consequently both she and the duke fell into dire disgrace in high quarters.

Gay had scored a huge success by his Beggar’s Opera, which was acted in London for sixty-three nights – a long run in those days – and afterwards scored a similar triumph in the provinces. The Italian Opera, then at the height of its popularity, unable to compete with Gay’s rival production, was forced to close its doors. Such was the enthusiasm evoked by the Beggar’s Opera that (according to Pope’s notes to the Dunciad) “ladies carried about with them the favourite songs of it in fans, and houses were furnished with it in screens.” The actress who took the part of Polly rose from obscurity to fame, rapidly became the favourite of the town, and her pictures were engraved – this was long before the days of pictorial post-cards! – and sold in great numbers. But when the play was published, certain puritanical persons, notably Dr. Herring, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, condemned it as vicious and likely to prove subversive of public morality. The fact that the hero was a highwayman and that he went unpunished, was, in the eyes of these critics, a distinct encouragement of vice. When, therefore, Gay wished to produce a sequel entitled Polly, the authorities declined to license it. The forbidden play was consequently published by private subscription in 1728, and the Duchess of Queensberry exerted herself violently on the author’s behalf, even going so far as to solicit subscriptions within the sacred precincts of St. James’s. Writing to Swift on the subject of the unsuccessful efforts made by the duchess to have the embargo removed from his play, Gay says that she was allowed to have shown “more spirit, more honour and more goodness, more understanding and good sense” than was thought possible in those times. [The Works of Jonathan Swift, edited by W. Scott, vol. xvii. P.269 (Edin., 1814)]

So anxious was the duchess to secure a licence for her poet that she even offered to read the play to King George in his closet, so as to satisfy his Majesty that there was no harm in it. But the King laughingly declined this offer, saying that he would be delighted to receive her Grace in his closet, but hoped to amuse her there better than by the literary employment she proposed. [Ibid., vol. xvii. P.199]

At last, owing to her continued importunity, the duchess was forbidden to appear at court. This punishment she accepted with her usual cheerfulness. When Lord Hervey said to her that, now she was banished, the palace had lost its chief ornament, “I am entirely of your mind,” she replied. [The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney, edited by Lady Llanover (1862), vol. i. p.199] And to the Vice-Chamberlain, whose duty it was to inform her that his Majesty had reluctantly determined to dispense with her society, she wrote a most spirited and characteristic letter. “The Duchess of Queensberry is surprised and well pleased,” she wrote, “that the King hath given her so agreeable a command as to stay from Court, where she never came for diversion, but to bestow a civility on the King and Queen; she hopes by such an unprecedented order as this is that the King will see as few as he wishes at his Court, particularly such as dare to think or speak truth. I dare not do otherwise, and ought not nor could have imagined that it would not have been the very highest compliment that I could possibly pay the King to endeavour to support truth and innocence in his house, particularly when the King and Queen both told me that they had not read Mr. Gay’s play. I have certainly done right, then, to stand by my own words, rather than his Grace of Grafton’s, who hath neither made use of truth, judgment, nor honour, through this whole affair, either for himself or his friends.” [Autobiography of Mrs. Delaney, vol. i. p.194.]

The Duke of Queensberry also sided with Gay in this affair, and showed his disapproval of the position taken up by the King by resigning all his appointments. Including that of Vice-Admiral of Scotland. He shortly afterwards attached himself to Frederick, Prince of Wales, then in opposition to the King, and was appointed one of his Royal Highness’s Lords of the Bedchamber.

The persecuted Gay was invited to take up his quarters with the Queensberry family, and spent the remainder of his life under their protection. At “Jenny’s Ha’,” a famous Edinburgh tavern opposite Queensberry House, the poet might often be seen in the company of Allan Ramsay and other congenial cronies. The duke undertook the management of his financial affairs; the duchess nursed him when he was ill, and both of them treated him, as he says in one of his letters, as though he had been their nearest relation or their dearest friend. [Swift’s Works, vol. xvii. P.268.] He became secretary to the duchess, and no doubt helped her to manage the little theatre which she had fitted up in Queensberry House, where dramatic performances were frequently given for the entertainment of her guests.

In 1739, ten years after the Polly affair, the duchess once again came into collision with the authorities, when she headed a party of intrepid ladies who successfully stormed the gallery of the House of Lords. The Peers had unanimously resolved to exclude ladies from a gallery which had long been assigned to their use, but was now kept for members of the House of Commons. But a number of fearless dames, led by the Duchess of Queensberry in person, presented themselves at nine o’clock one morning at the door of the House and peremptorily demanded the right of entrance. Sir William Saunderson, the official on duty, politely informed the deputation that the Lord Chancellor had issued an order forbidding their admittance, and that it was consequently impossible for his to let them in. Vainly did the duchess cajole and wheedle; the obdurate Black Rod declined to change his mind. When at last she tried the effect of threats, Sir William lost his temper and said that “By G-! they should never enter the House!” The duchess replied with equal indignation that “By G-! they would, in spite of the Lord Chancellor and the whole House of Peers!” Sir William reported this altercation to the Chancellor, and it was determined to keep the doors shut, and thus starve the ladies into submission or induce them to give up and go home. These inexorable females were not, however, to be got rid of so easily. They sent out to an adjacent cookshop, procured a supply of provisions, and manfully stood their ground from nine in the morning till five o’clock at night. By this time, of course, a huge crowd had gathered to watch the fun, and, while some of its members jeered at the ladies, others urged them to continue the siege, and even encouraged them by thumping loudly upon the doors of the House. Seeing that violent methods were not likely to prove effective, and having perhaps more regard for decorum than those modern “suffragettes” whose methods they to a certain extent anticipated, the duchess and her friends determined to accomplish their purpose by means of a ruse. They accordingly made up their minds to keep perfectly silent for the space of half-an-hour – a task which would tax the powers of endurance of the least garrulous of their descendants. At the end of this period the Chancellor, unaccustomed to such self-control on the part of the fair sex, came to the conclusion that the besieging party had gone home. He thereupon ordered the door to be opened, and the ladies, who had been awaiting this opportunity with exemplary patience, rushed in immediately, took possession of the gallery, and celebrated their victory in a thoroughly feminine and illogical fashion by interrupting the debate with laughter and conversation. [Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, edited by Lord Wharncliffe, vol. ii. p.37. (1861.)]

When Gay died, [A.D. 1732. (“Unpensioned with a hundred friends.” –The Dunciad.)] the duchess, who had long been his best friend was very deeply affected. “It is not possible to imagine the loss his death is to me,” she wrote, “but as long as I have any memory, the happiness of ever having such a friend can never be lost to me.” [Swift’s Works, vol. xviii. P.151.] And again, two years later, “I often want poor Mr. Gay,” she says; “his loss was really great, but it is a satisfaction to have once known so good a man.” [Life of Alexander Pope, by P. Carruthers, p.300. (1862)] The poet died in the Duke of Queensberry’s house, and was honoured by a magnificent funeral at his patron’s expense. On his tomb in Westminster Abbey was engraved, by his own express desire, the famous if frivolous couplet from one of his letters to Pope:-

“Life is a jest, and all things show it;
I thought so once, and now I know it.”

And the duchess induced the author of the Dunciad to write a suitable epitaph for the monument which she erected in the Abbey to her favourite’s memory.

The Queensberrys were eventually pardoned for their share in the affair of Gay and his forbidden drama, and in 1747 we hear of the duchess once more attending the Court. [Autobiography of Mrs. Delaney, ii. p.469.] She was also present at a royal party given in 1749 by the Duke of Cumberland at Richmond, where Walpole met her, “in the middle of all the principalities and powers,” in her usual “forlorn trim, white apron and white hood.” [Walpole’s Letters, ii. p.161.] When George III. ascended the throne the reinstatement of the Queensberrys to royal favour was complete. The duke regained his seat on the Privy Council, and was appointed Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, and, later on, Lord Justice-General. The Queen paid a visit to the duchess, who in turn appeared at a Drawing-room – for the first time for forty years – in such high spirits that she could not resist committing many minor breaches of court etiquette.

The excitement occasioned at this time by the famous “Douglas Cause” was shaking society to its very foundations. Public feeling ran high, especially between the kinsmen and supporters of the houses of Hamilton and Douglas, who were now called upon to range themselves behind the chiefs of their respective families. When the Duke of Douglas died in 1761, his estates, devolved upon his nephew Archibald, the only surviving son of Lady Jane Douglas. But the Duke of Hamilton, suspecting that this was a suppositious child, endeavoured to assail his claims, and affirmed that Archibald was not the son of Lady Jane at all. The case lasted for seven years, and during this time the excitement as to the issue of the trial was intense both in Edinburgh and London. Home, the dramatist, attributes the failure of his play, The Fatal Discovery, to the lack of public interest in anything but the Douglas Cause, [Autobiography of Alexander Carlyle, p.509] his former tragedy, Douglas, having been so popular as to evoke from an excited Scotsman in the gallery the celebrated remark: “Whaur’s your Wullie Shakespeare noo?” The Douglas Cause was indeed for a long time the only topic of conversation in Edinburgh, and elicited the most violent expressions of opinion from quite unexpected quarters. The old Dowager-Countess of Stair, one of the most interesting characters in Edinburgh society, round whose personality Walter Scott built his story of Aunt Margaret’s Mirror, was as staunch a supporter of the Douglas family as the Duchess of Queensberry herself. In the evidence adduced at the trial was an account given by Sir John Stewart of Castlemilk of Lady Stair coming into a room in the Duke of Hamilton’s house with a letter in her hand from the Earl of Dundonald in which he accused her of saying that the children of Lady Jane Douglas were fictitious. The old lady was terribly excited, and struck the floor three times with her stick, with every stroke calling the Earl a “d------d villain.” [This Lady Stair must not be confused with Margaret, Viscountess Stair, who died in 1692, and was suspected by the public of possessing necromantic powers. She, too, was an eccentric woman, and ordained in her will that her body should not be buried, but should stand upright in her coffin, promising that as long as it remained in that position the Dalrymples should continue to flourish. (See Chambers’s Domestic Annals of Scotland, vol. iii. p47.) To this Lady Stair is attributed the witty reply to Graham of Claverhouse, (commonly pronounced Clavers), the persecutor of the Covenanters, who had been inveighing against John Knox. “Why are ye so severe?” asked the old lady. “Ye are both reformers. He gained his point by clavers (talk) while you attempt to gain yours by Knocks!” (Sir Walter Scott tells this story in Old Mortality, making old Lady Elphinstone the heroine of it.)]

The claims of Archibald Douglas were finally upheld by the House of Lords, and the Duchess of Queensberry signalised this family triumph by giving a ball to all her supporters in her house in London. This entertainment was a very magnificent and successful affair. Lord Camden, the Lord Chancellor, invited himself, and afterwards wrote to the duchess asking permission to come in person and thank her for having sent an invitation to his wife and daughters, who were unable to be present. To this request the duchess sent the laconic reply: “Catherine Queensberry says ‘Content upon her honour,’” that being the form of assent given by the Peers at the close of the great case. [Lady Mary Coke’s Journal, vol. iii. p.40]

The duchess was not always so polite to those of her guests who tried to thrust their society upon her. She once told Lady Di Egerton, daughter of the Duchess of Bridgwater, that she would give a dance in her honour. But when the ball invitations were sent out, none reached the expectant Lady Di. Thereupon some member of the girl’s family wrote to her Grace to point out this neglect, which was obviously and oversight, and received the following stinging reply:-

“The advertisement came to hand: it was very pretty and very ingenious; but everything that is pretty and ingenious does not always succeed: the Duchess of Q. piques herself on her house not being unlike Socrates’s; his was small and held all his friends; hers is large, but will not hold half of hers; postponed, but not forgot; unalterable.” [Walpole’s Letters, ii. p.241]

The Duchess could, indeed, be extremely rude if she thought that the conduct of her acquaintances required correction. Her comments could be as biting, as caustic, and as satirical as those of old Lady Rosslyn herself. [Lady Rosslyn was “at home” to her friends one afternoon when a rather notorious woman was announced. Immediately several of her guests rose to go. “Sit still, sit still,” said the old lady, “it is na catching!”] When paying an afternoon call, if in her opinion the tea-set of her hostess was too extravagant, the duchess would upset it on the floor, as though by accident, and break it. Ladies who came to see her in Scotland, dressed in their best clothes, would be taken for long walks through the dirtiest lanes she could find, and at the end of the afternoon the duchess would suddenly seat herself on a convenient manure-heap and invite her guests to sit beside her, which some of them, out of sheer fright, consented to do.

At Queensberry House, in the Canongate, Edinburgh, and at Drumlanrig Castle, in Dumfriesshire, the duchess spent much of her time. Both houses had been built by the first duke, and eccentric individual, who only slept one night at Drumlanrig, and is said to have left the bills for the building of that place tied up with an inscription: “The Deil pyke out his een that looks therein!” [Chambers’s Traditions of Edinburgh.] In connection with Queensberry House – where, after Prince Charlie’s victorious entry into Edinburgh during the ’45, the loyal officers were imprisoned, and which is now a Refuge for the Destitute – a horrible story is told of the idiot son of James, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, one of the main instruments in carrying out the Union of England and Scotland. On the day that the Bill for the Union was passed, all Edinburgh went to the Parliament Close to hear the result of the debate. The idiot Lord Drumlanrig was left behind, with nobody to look after him but a little scullery-boy. On the return of the family to Queensberry House, they were horrified to discover the wretched maniac engaged in cooking the boy, whom he was roasting on one of the kitchen spits.

The duchess was devoted to her Scottish homes, but did not altogether approve of Scottish manners. One practice in particular – equally prevalent at that time in England – she especially detested. This was the dangerous and unattractive habit which some of her guests indulged in of conveying food from their plates to their mouths with a knife in place of a fork. “I have not met with any one in this country,” she writes to Lady Suffolk, in 1734, from Edinburgh, “who doth not eat with a knife, and drink a dish of tea.” [Letters to and from Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk, vol. ii. p.67. (1824.) Gay wrote to Swift in 1727, when the latter had been invited to Amesbury, begging him for the duchess’s sake to put his fork to all its proper uses, and “suffer nobody for the future to put their knives in their mouths.” [Swift’s Works, xviii. P.137.] Swift, in replying, asked Gay to tell her Grace that he always thought of her when he dined, although it was difficult to obey her injunctions when the forks had only two prongs and the sauce was not “very consistent.” He received many invitations to stay with the duchess – a “lady of excellent sense and spirits,” as he tells Pope – whom he had not seen since she was a girl of five; but was never able to avail himself of them. Kitty and her secretary used to collaborate in a most amusing correspondence with Swift. Gay would concoct the main body of the letter, to which the duchess added a piquant postscript. She was always pressing her correspondent to pay her a visit, declaring herself convinced that hostess and guest would get on well together. “The duke is very much yours,” she writes, as a further inducement to the convivial dean, “and will never leave you to your wine!” – a reference probably to a habit of the parsimonious Pope, who would produce a pint of wine for two guests, help himself to a couple of glasses, and then retire, saying, “Gentlemen, I leave you to your wine!” [Life of Alexander Pope, p.409.]

In 1731 we find the duchess once more urging Swift to visit her. “I only love my own way,” she says, “when I meet not with others whose ways I like better. I am in great hopes that I shall approve of yours; for, to tell you the truth, I am at present a little tired of my own. I have not a clear or distinct voice, except when I am angry; but I am a very good nurse, when people do not fancy themselves sick… Pray set out the first fair wind, and stay with us as long as ever you please… If I do not happen to like you,” she adds, with characteristic candour, “I know I can so far govern my temper as to endure you for about five days.” [Swift’s Works, xvii. p.409] Later on in the same year she again writes to him, with the assurance that though she is “neither healthy nor young,” she manages to keep up her spirits and lives as simply as possible. She has no objection to his talking nonsense, she declares, provided he does it on purpose; for “there is some sense in nonsense, when it does not come by chance.” [Ibid., xvii. p.407.] In spite of these constant lures, Swift declined to renew his early acquaintance with the duchess, save through the unsatisfactory medium of the post.

As a girl the beautiful Kitty had wrung a thousand eulogistic verses from the pens of all the poets of the day, from Pope,

[“The exactest tricks of body or of mind,
We owe to models of an humble kind.
If Queensbury to strip there’s no compelling,
‘Tis from a handmaid we must take a Helen.”
-Moral Essays.]

to Congreve. Prior described her début in society in a poem which is as well known as anything he wrote:-


Thus Kitty, beautiful and young,
And wild as colt untam’d,
Bespoke the fair from whence she sprung,
With little rage inflam’d:

Inflam’d with rage at sad restraint,
Which wise mamma ordain’d;
And sorely vext to play the saint,
Whilst wit and beauty reign’d:

“Shall I thumb holy books, confin’d
With Abigails forsaken?
Kitty’s for other things design’d,
Or I am much mistaken.

“Must Lady Jenny frisk about,
And visit all her cousins?
At balls must she make all the rout,
And bring home hearts by dozens>

“What has she better, pray, than I,
What hidden charms to boast,
That all mankind for her should die:
Whilst I am scarce a toast?

“Dearest mamma! for once let me,
Unchain’d my fortune try;
I’ll have an Earl as well as she, [Lady Jane Hyde married the Earl of Essex.]
Or know the reason why.

“I’ll soon with Jenny’s pride quit score,
Make all her lovers fall;
They’ll grieve I was not loos’d before;
She, I was loos’d at all.”

Fondness prevail’d, mamma gave way;
Kitty, at heart’s desire,
Obtain’d the chariot for a day,
And set the world on fire.

To this Horace Walpole, who in later life took a kindly view of the duchess, added an extra verse:-

“To many a Kitty, Love his car
Would for a day engage;
But Prior’s Kitty, ever young,
Obtained it for an age.”

He describes her in 1773, when she was an old woman, as looking “more blooming than the Maccaronesses,” and says that by twilight she would be mistaken for a young beauty of an old-fashioned century rather than an “antiquated goddess of this age.” [Walpole’s Letters, vol. v. p.477.] He was drinking her Grace’s health one day, and by way of a toast said that he wished she might live to grow ugly. “I hope then,” she replied at once, “that you will keep your taste for antiquities.” [Autobiography of Mrs. Delaney.]

At the age of seventy the duchess was still so young at heart that she was always to be seen wherever there was a lighted candle, and would go ten miles to a party. And to the end of her life she continued those eccentricities of dress and conduct which rendered her such a conspicuous figure wherever she went. Like old Lady Stair, the first person in Edinburgh to keep a black servant, the duchess had a negro page-boy whom she taught to ride and fence, and indeed spoilt in every conceivable way.

There is a picture of her as a milkmaid by Jervas in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which depicts her as a remarkably handsome woman, and though she contracted smallpox in her youth, that then universal disease left no mark upon her complexion. In her old age neither beauty nor high spirits forsook her. We may get some idea of the clothes she was in the habit of wearing from a description given by Mrs. Delaney. [Autobiography, ii. p.147.] In this we read that the duchess’s dress was of “white satin embroidered, the bottom of the petticoat brown hills covered with all sorts of weeds” – (except, of  course, widow’s weeds) – “and every breadth had an old stump of a tree that ran up almost to the top of the petticoat, … round which twined nastersians, ivy, honeysuckles, periwinkles, convolvuluses and all sorts of twining flowers which spread and covered the petticoat, vines with the leaves variegated as you have seen them by the sun…” and so on. She must, in fact, have looked more like a cross between a hothouse and a herbaceous border than a woman of fashion, and it is not to be wondered at that her appearance formed the subject of general comment.

The Duchess of Queensberry had two children, neither of whom survived her. Henry, Earl of Drumlanrig, her eldest son, was a soldier who served in two campaigns under the Earl of Stair, and in another under Charles Emanuel, King of Sardinia, when he particularly distinguished himself at the siege of Coni. In 1747 he obtained a commission authorising him to raise a regiment of Highlanders for service in Holland. His death was a tragic affair which affected his mother profoundly. In 1754, a short time after his marriage, he was travelling to Scotland in company with the duke and duchess and his newly-wedded bride, when, owing to the accidental discharge of a pistol, he shot himself, and succumbed almost immediately. His death was followed two years later by that of his younger brother Charles.

The duchess lived till the year 1777, when, if we are to believe Walpole, [Letters, vi. p.461.] she died of a surfeit of cherries. He compares her death to that of the old Countess of Desmond who “died of robbing a walnut tree,” and declares that the duchess’s beauty at the age of seventy-seven was as extraordinary as that of the countess at one hundred and forty. [Walpole declares that at the coronation of George III. she still “looked well in her milk-white locks,” and that “her affectation that day was to do nothing preposterous.”]

The character of this remarkable woman, who is said to have exercised a strong influence over Pitt and the other statesmen of her day, cannot be better indicated than by a quotation from one of her own letters.

“If any body has done me an injury,” she says, “they have hurt themselves more than me. If they give me an ill name (unless they have my help) I shall not deserve it. If fools shun my company, it is because I am not like them; if people make me angry, they only raise my spirits; and if they wish me ill, I will be well and handsome, wise and happy, and everything, except a day younger than I am, and that is a fancy I never yet saw becoming to man or woman, so it cannot excite envy.” [Swift’s Works, xviii. P.70.]

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