Often there has arisen some man who, either by his natural gifts or by his impudence or by the combination of both, has made himself a recognized leader in the English fashionable world. One of the first of these men was Richard Nash, usually known as "Beau Nash," who flourished in the eighteenth century. Nash was a man of doubtful origin; nor was he attractive in his looks, for he was a huge, clumsy creature with features that were both irregular and harsh. Nevertheless, for nearly fifty years Beau Nash was an arbiter of fashion. Goldsmith, who wrote his life, declared that his supremacy was due to his pleasing manners, "his assiduity, flattery, fine clothes, and as much wit as the ladies had whom he addressed." He converted the town of Bath from a rude little hamlet into an English Newport, of which he was the social autocrat. He actually drew up a set of written rules which some of the best-born and best-bred people follow slavishly.
Even better known to us is George Bryan Brummel, commonly called "Beau Brummel," who by his friendship with George IV.—then Prince Regent—was an oracle at court on everything that related to dress and etiquette and the proper mode of living. His memory has been kept alive most of all by Richard Mansfield's famous impersonation of him. The play is based upon the actual facts; for after Brummel had lost the royal favor he died an insane pauper in the French town of Caen. He, too, had a distinguished biographer, since Bulwer-Lytton's novel Pelham is really the narrative of Brummel's curious career.
Long after Brummel, Lord Banelagh led the gilded youth of London, and it was at this time that the notorious Lola Montez made her first appearance in the British capital.
These three men—Nash, Brummel, and Ranelagh—had the advantage of being Englishmen, and, therefore, of not incurring the old-time English suspicion of foreigners. A much higher type of social arbiter was a Frenchman who for twenty years during the early part of Queen Victoria's reign gave law to the great world of fashion, besides exercising a definite influence upon English art and literature.
This was Count Albert Guillaume d'Orsay, the son of one of Napoleon's generals, and descended by a morganatic marriage from the King of Wurttemburg. The old general, his father, was a man of high courage, impressive appearance, and keen intellect, all of which qualities he transmitted to his son. The young Count d'Orsay, when he came of age, found the Napoleonic era ended and France governed by Louis XVIII. The king gave Count d'Orsay a commission in the army in a regiment stationed at Valence in the southeastern part of France. He had already visited England and learned the English language, and he had made some distinguished friends there, among whom were Lord Byron and Thomas Moore.
On his return to France he began his garrison life at Valence, where he showed some of the finer qualities of his character. It is not merely that he was handsome and accomplished and that he had the gift of winning the affections of those about him. Unlike Nash and Brummel, he was a gentleman in every sense, and his courtesy was of the highest kind. At the balls given by his regiment, although he was more courted than any other officer, he always sought out the plainest girls and showed them the most flattering attentions. No "wallflowers" were left neglected when D'Orsay was present.
It is strange how completely human beings are in the hands of fate. Here was a young French officer quartered in a provincial town in the valley of the Rhone. Who would have supposed that he was destined to become not only a Londoner, but a favorite at the British court, a model of fashion, a dictator of etiquette, widely known for his accomplishments, the patron of literary men and of distinguished artists? But all these things were to come to pass by a mere accident of fortune.
During his firsts visit to London, which has already been mentioned, Count d'Orsay was invited once or twice to receptions given by the Earl and Countess of Blessington, where he was well received, though this was only an incident of his English sojourn. Before the story proceeds any further it is necessary to give an account of the Earl and of Lady Blessington, since both of their careers had been, to say the least, unusual.
Lord Blessington was an Irish peer for whom an ancient title had been revived. He was remotely descended from the Stuarts of Scotland, and therefore had royal blood to boast of. He had been well educated, and in many ways was a man of pleasing manner. On the other hand, he had early inherited a very large property which yielded him an income of about thirty thousand pounds a year. He had estates in Ireland, and he owned nearly the whole of a fashionable street in London, with the buildings erected on it.
This fortune and the absence of any one who could control him had made him wilful and extravagant and had wrought in him a curious love of personal display. Even as a child he would clamor to be dressed in the most gorgeous uniforms; and when he got possession of his property his love of display became almost a monomania. He built a theater as an adjunct to his country house in Ireland and imported players from London and elsewhere to act in it. He loved to mingle with the mummers, to try on their various costumes, and to parade up and down, now as an oriental prince and now as a Roman emperor.
In London he hung about the green-rooms, and was a well-known figure wherever actors or actresses were collected. Such was his love of the stage that he sought to marry into the profession and set his heart on a girl named Mary Campbell Browne, who was very beautiful to look at, but who was not conspicuous either for her mind or for her morals. When Lord Blessington proposed marriage to her she was obliged to tell him that she already had one husband still alive, but she was perfectly willing to live with him and dispense with the marriage ceremony. So for several years she did live with him and bore him two children.
It speaks well for the earl that when the inconvenient husband died a marriage at once took place and Mrs. Browne became a countess. Then, after other children had been born, the lady died, leaving the earl a widower at about the age of forty. The only legitimate son born of this marriage followed his mother to the grave; and so for the third time the earldom of Blessington seemed likely to become extinct. The death of his wife, however, gave the earl a special opportunity to display his extravagant tastes. He spent more than four thousand pounds on the funeral ceremonies, importing from France a huge black velvet catafalque which had shortly before been used at the public funeral of Napoleon's marshal, Duroc, while the house blazed with enormous wax tapers and glittered with cloth of gold.
Lord Blessington soon plunged again into the busy life of London. Having now no heir, there was no restraint on his expenditures, and he borrowed large sums of money in order to buy additional estates and houses and to experience the exquisite joy of spending lavishly. At this time he had his lands in Ireland, a town house in St. James's Square, another in Seymour Place, and still another which was afterward to become famous as Gore House, in Kensington.
Some years before he had met in Ireland a lady called Mrs. Maurice Farmer; and it happened that she now came to London. The earlier story of her still young life must here be told, because her name afterward became famous, and because the tale illustrates wonderfully well the raw, crude, lawless period of the Regency, when England was fighting her long war with Napoleon, when the Prince Regent was imitating all the vices of the old French kings, when prize-fighting, deep drinking, dueling, and dicing were practised without restraint in all the large cities and towns of the United Kingdom. It was, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has said, "an age of folly and of heroism"; for, while it produced some of the greatest black-guards known to history, it produced also such men as Wellington and Nelson, the two Pitts, Sheridan, Byron, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott.
Mrs. Maurice Farmer was the daughter of a small Irish landowner named Robert Power—himself the incarnation of all the vices of the time. There was little law in Ireland, not even that which comes from public opinion; and Robert Power rode hard to hounds, gambled recklessly, and assembled in his house all sorts of reprobates, with whom he held frightful orgies that lasted from sunset until dawn. His wife and his young daughters viewed him with terror, and the life they led was a perpetual nightmare because of the bestial carousings in which their father engaged, wasting his money and mortgaging his estates until the end of his wild career was in plain sight.
There happened to be stationed at Clonmel a regiment of infantry in which there served a captain named Maurice St. Leger Farmer. He was a man of some means, but eccentric to a degree. His temper was so utterly uncontrolled that even his fellow officers could scarcely live with him, and he was given to strange caprices. It happened that at a ball in Clonmel he met the young daughter of Robert Power, then a mere child of fourteen years. Captain Farmer was seized with an infatuation for the girl, and he went almost at once to her father, asking for her hand in marriage and proposing to settle a sum of money upon her if she married him.
The hard-riding squireen jumped at the offer. His own estate was being stripped bare. Here was a chance to provide for one of his daughters, or, rather, to get rid of her, and he agreed that she should be married out of hand. Going home, he roughly informed the girl that she was to be the wife of Captain Farmer. He so bullied his wife that she was compelled to join him in this command.
What was poor little Margaret Power to do? She was only a child. She knew nothing of the world. She was accustomed to obey her father as she would have obeyed some evil genius who had her in his power. There were tears and lamentations. She was frightened half to death; yet for her there was no help. Therefore, while not yet fifteen her marriage took place, and she was the unhappy slave of a half-crazy tyrant. She had then no beauty whatsoever. She was wholly undeveloped—thin and pale, and with rough hair that fell over her frightened eyes; yet Farmer wanted her, and he settled his money on her, just as he would have spent the same amount to gratify any other sudden whim.
The life she led with him for a few months showed him to be more of a devil than a man. He took a peculiar delight in terrifying her, in subjecting her to every sort of outrage; nor did he refrain even from beating her with his fists. The girl could stand a great deal, but this was too much. She returned to her father's house, where she was received with the bitterest reproaches, but where, at least, she was safe from harm, since her possession of a dowry made her a person of some small importance.
Not long afterward Captain Farmer fell into a dispute with his colonel, Lord Caledon, and in the course of it he drew his sword on his commanding officer. The court-martial which was convened to try him would probably have had him shot were it not for the very general belief that he was insane. So he was simply cashiered and obliged to leave the service and betake himself elsewhere. Thus the girl whom, he had married was quite free—free to leave her wretched home and even to leave Ireland.
She did leave Ireland and establish herself in London, where she had some acquaintances, among them the Earl of Blessington. As already said, he had met her in Ireland while she was living with her husband; and now from time to time he saw her in a friendly way. After the death of his wife he became infatuated with Margaret Farmer. She was a good deal alone, and his attentions gave her entertainment. Her past experience led her to have no real belief in love. She had become, however, in a small way interested in literature and art, with an eager ambition to be known as a writer. As it happened, Captain Farmer, whose name she bore, had died some months before Lord Blessington had decided to make a new marriage. The earl proposed to Margaret Farmer, and the two were married by special license.
The Countess of Blessington—to give the lady her new title—was now twenty-eight years of age and had developed into a woman of great beauty. She was noted for the peculiarly vivacious and radiant expression which was always on her face. She had a kind of vivid loveliness accompanied by grace, simplicity, and a form of exquisite proportions. The ugly duckling had become a swan, for now there was no trace of her former plainness to be seen.
Not yet in her life had love come to her. Her first husband had been thrust upon her and had treated her outrageously. Her second husband was much older than she; and, though she was not without a certain kindly feeling for one who had been kind to her, she married him, first of all, for his title and position.
Having been reared in poverty, she had no conception of the value of money; and, though the earl was remarkably extravagant, the new countess was even more so. One after another their London houses were opened and decorated with the utmost lavishness. They gave innumerable entertainments, not only to the nobility and to men of rank, but—because this was Lady Blessington's peculiar fad—to artists and actors and writers of all degrees. The American, N. P. Willis, in his Pencilings by the Way, has given an interesting sketch of the countess and her surroundings, while the younger Disraeli (Lord Beaconsfield) has depicted D'Orsay as Count Mirabel in Henrietta Temple. Willis says:
In a long library, lined alternately with splendidly bound books and mirrors, and with a deep window of the breadth of the room opening upon Hyde Park, I found Lady Blessington alone. The picture, to my eye, as the door opened, was a very lovely one—a woman of remarkable beauty, half buried in a fauteuil of yellow satin, reading by a magnificent lamp suspended from the center of the arched ceiling. Sofas, couches, ottomans, and busts, arranged in rather a crowded sumptuousness through the room; enameled tables, covered with expensive and elegant trifles in every corner, and a delicate white hand in relief on the back of a book, to which the eye was attracted by the blaze of diamond rings.
All this "crowded sumptuousness" was due to the taste of Lady Blessington. Amid it she received royal dukes, statesmen such as Palmerston, Canning, Castlereagh, Russell, and Brougham, actors such as Kemble and Matthews, artists such as Lawrence and Wilkie, and men of letters such as Moore, Bulwer-Lytton, and the two Disraelis. To maintain this sort of life Lord Blessington raised large amounts of money, totaling about half a million pounds sterling, by mortgaging his different estates and giving his promissory notes to money-lenders. Of course, he did not spend this vast sum immediately. He might have lived in comparative luxury upon his income; but he was a restless, eager, improvident nobleman, and his extravagances were prompted by the urgings of his wife.
In all this display, which Lady Blessington both stimulated and shared, there is to be found a psychological basis. She was now verging upon the thirties—a time which is a very critical period in a woman's emotional life, if she has not already given herself over to love and been loved in return. During Lady Blessington's earlier years she had suffered in many ways, and it is probable that no thought of love had entered her mind. She was only too glad if she could escape from the harshness of her father and the cruelty of her first husband. Then came her development into a beautiful woman, content for the time to be languorously stagnant and to enjoy the rest and peace which had come to her.
When she married Lord Blessington her love life had not yet commenced; and, in fact, there could be no love life in such a marriage—a marriage with a man much older than herself, scatter-brained, showy, and having no intellectual gifts. So for a time she sought satisfaction in social triumphs, in capturing political and literary lions in order to exhibit them in her salon, and in spending money right and left with a lavish hand. But, after all, in a woman of her temperament none of these things could satisfy her inner longings. Beautiful, full of Celtic vivacity, imaginative and eager, such a nature as hers would in the end be starved unless her heart should be deeply touched and unless all her pent-up emotion could give itself up entirely in the great surrender.
After a few years of London she grew restless and dissatisfied. Her surroundings wearied her. There was a call within her for something more than she had yet experienced. The earl, her husband, was by nature no less restless; and so, without knowing the reason—which, indeed, she herself did not understand—he readily assented to a journey on the Continent.
As they traveled southward they reached at length the town of Valence, where Count d'Orsay was still quartered with his regiment. A vague, indefinable feeling of attraction swept over this woman, who was now a woman of the world and yet quite inexperienced in affairs relating to the heart. The mere sound of the French officer's voice, the mere sight of his face, the mere knowledge of his presence, stirred her as nothing had ever stirred her until that time. Yet neither he nor she appears to have been conscious at once of the secret of their liking. It was enough that they were soothed and satisfied with each other's company.
Oddly enough, the Earl of Blessington became as devoted to D'Orsay as did his wife. The two urged the count to secure a leave of absence and to accompany them to Italy. This he was easily persuaded to do; and the three passed weeks and months of a languorous and alluring intercourse among the lakes and the seductive influence of romantic Italy. Just what passed between Count d'Orsay and Margaret Blessington at this time cannot be known, for the secret of it has perished with them; but it is certain that before very long they came to know that each was indispensable to the other.
The situation was complicated by the Earl of Blessington, who, entirely unsuspicious, proposed that the Count should marry Lady Harriet Gardiner, his eldest legitimate daughter by his first wife. He pressed the match upon the embarrassed D'Orsay, and offered to settle the sum of forty thousand pounds upon the bride. The girl was less than fifteen years of age. She had no gifts either of beauty or of intelligence; and, in addition, D'Orsay was now deeply in love with her stepmother.
On the other hand, his position with the Blessingtons was daily growing more difficult. People had begun to talk of the almost open relations between Count d'Orsay and Lady Blessington. Lord Byron, in a letter written to the countess, spoke to her openly and in a playful way of "YOUR D'Orsay." The manners and morals of the time were decidedly irregular; yet sooner or later the earl was sure to gain some hint of what every one was saying. Therefore, much against his real desire, yet in order to shelter his relations with Lady Blessington, D'Orsay agreed to the marriage with Lady Harriet, who was only fifteen years of age.
This made the intimacy between D'Orsay and the Blessingtons appear to be not unusual; but, as a matter of fact, the marriage was no marriage. The unattractive girl who had become a bride merely to hide the indiscretions of her stepmother was left entirely to herself; while the whole family, returning to London, made their home together in Seymour Place.
Could D'Orsay have foreseen the future he would never have done what must always seem an act so utterly unworthy of him. For within two years Lord Blessington fell ill and died. Had not D'Orsay been married he would now have been free to marry Lady Blessington. As it was, he was bound fast to her stepdaughter; and since at that time there was no divorce court in England, and since he had no reason for seeking a divorce, he was obliged to live on through many years in a most ambiguous situation. He did, however, separate himself from his childish bride; and, having done so, he openly took up his residence with Lady Blessington at Gore House. By this time, however, the companionship of the two had received a sort of general sanction, and in that easy-going age most people took it as a matter of course.
The two were now quite free to live precisely as they would. Lady Blessington became extravagantly happy, and Count d'Orsay was accepted in London as an oracle of fashion. Every one was eager to visit Gore House, and there they received all the notable men of the time. The improvidence of Lady Blessington, however, was in no respect diminished. She lived upon her jointure, recklessly spending capital as well as interest, and gathering under her roof a rare museum of artistic works, from jewels and curios up to magnificent pictures and beautiful statuary.
D'Orsay had sufficient self-respect not to live upon the money that had come to Lady Blessington from her husband. He was a skilful painter, and he practised his art in a professional way. His portrait of the Duke of Wellington was preferred by that famous soldier to any other that had been made of him. The Iron Duke was, in fact, a frequent visitor at Gore House, and he had a very high opinion of Count d'Orsay. Lady Blessington herself engaged in writing novels of "high life," some of which were very popular in their day. But of all that she wrote there remains only one book which is of permanent value—her Conversations with Lord Byron, a very valuable contribution to our knowledge of the brilliant poet.
But a nemesis was destined to overtake the pair. Money flowed through Lady Blessington's hands like water, and she could never be brought to understand that what she had might not last for ever. Finally, it was all gone, yet her extravagance continued. Debts were heaped up mountain-high. She signed notes of hand without even reading them. She incurred obligations of every sort without a moment's hesitation.
For a long time her creditors held aloof, not believing that her resources were in reality exhausted; but in the end there came a crash as sudden as it was ruinous. As if moved by a single impulse, those to whom she owed money took out judgments against her and descended upon Gore House in a swarm. This was in the spring of 1849, when Lady Blessington was in her sixtieth year and D'Orsay fifty-one.
It is a curious coincidence that her earliest novel had portrayed the wreck of a great establishment such as her own. Of the scene in Gore House Mr. Madden, Lady Blessington's literary biographer, has written:
Numerous creditors, bill-discounters, money-lenders, jewelers, lace-venders, tax-collectors, gas-company agents, all persons having claims to urge pressed them at this period simultaneously. An execution for a debt of four thousand pounds was at length put in by a house largely engaged in the silk, lace, India-shawl, and fancy-jewelry business.
This sum of four thousand pounds was only a nominal claim, but it opened the flood-gates for all of Lady Blessington's creditors. Mr. Madden writes still further:
On the 10th of May, 1849, I visited Gore House for the last time. The auction was going on. There was a large assemblage of people of fashion. Every room was thronged; the well-known library-salon, in which the conversaziones took place, was crowded, but not with guests. The arm-chair in which the lady of the mansion was wont to sit was occupied by a stout, coarse gentleman of the Jewish persuasion, busily engaged in examining a marble hand extended on a book, the fingers of which were modeled from a cast of those of the absent mistress of the establishment. People, as they passed through the room, poked the furniture, pulled about the precious objects of art and ornaments of various kinds that lay on the table; and some made jests and ribald jokes on the scene they witnessed.
At this compulsory sale things went for less than half their value. Pictures by Lawrence and Landseer, a library consisting of thousands of volumes, vases of exquisite workmanship, chandeliers of ormolu, and precious porcelains—all were knocked down relentlessly at farcical prices. Lady Blessington reserved nothing for herself. She knew that the hour had struck, and very soon she was on her way to Paris, whither Count d'Orsay had already gone, having been threatened with arrest by a boot-maker to whom he owed five hundred pounds.
D'Orsay very naturally went to Paris, for, like his father, he had always been an ardent Bonapartist, and now Prince Louis Bonaparte had been chosen president of the Second French Republic. During the prince's long period of exile he had been the guest of Count d'Orsay, who had helped him both with money and with influence. D'Orsay now expected some return for his former generosity. It came, but it came too late. In 1852, shortly after Prince Louis assumed the title of emperor, the count was appointed director of fine arts; but when the news was brought to him he was already dying. Lady Blessington died soon after coming to Paris, before the end of the year 1849.
Comment upon this tangled story is scarcely needed. Yet one may quote some sayings from a sort of diary which Lady Blessington called her "Night Book." They seem to show that her supreme happiness lasted only for a little while, and that deep down in her heart she had condemned herself.
A woman's head is always influenced by her heart; but a man's heart is always influenced by his head.
The separation of friends by death is less terrible than the divorce of two hearts that have loved, but have ceased to sympathize, while memory still recalls what they once were to each other.
People are seldom tired of the world until the world is tired of them.
A woman should not paint sentiment until she has ceased to inspire it.
It is less difficult for a woman to obtain celebrity by her genius than to be pardoned for it.
Memory seldom fails when its office is to show us the tombs of our buried hopes.