A Woman Whose Life’s Poetry Never Sank to Prose

Yet another excerpt from Charles Glass’s ‘Tribes with Flags’. He discovered the story of Lady Jane Digby El Mesrab, and went to visit her grave.

The above quote comes from her friend Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights.

“She settled in Damascas at the age of 45 and married the shiekh of a Syrian desert tribe… In the mid 19th century, many European travellers, like the Frenchman Edmond about and the English writer and painter Edward lear, made it a point to visi her, just as Alexander Kinglake had gone to see Lady Hester Stanhope in Lebanon in 1832. Exotic European women were part of the Grand Tour of the Ottoman Emprie, at least for those whith introductions. …

Jane was a kind of female Byron, a child of the Regency who never adapted to Victorian priggishness. Her lifelong search for love, passion and adventure took her from London to Paris, to a new husband in Bavaria, another husband and lover in Greece, and, finally, to syria, where she died ater 27 years as the contented wife of a bedouin sheikh. Her father, Captain Henry Digby, fought bravely at the battle of Trafalgar, and later became an admiral. Her mother wsa the daughter of the Earl of Leicster. Jane was born at Holkham Hall in Norfolok, and from her early teens was said to be one of the most beautiful girls in England. Leters and diaries from the period contain rhapsodies to her fair hair, her milky skin and her supple body. Before she was 17 her parents arranged her marriage to a man twice her age, Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, who was Lord Privy Seal in the Duke of Wellington’s cabinet. when he took Jane on their honeymoon to Brighton he allegedly tried to seduce the daughter of a pastrycook. the marriage deteriorated from there.

Dissatisfied with her unhappy life, Jane found romance and what she thought was true love with an austrian diplomat, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. After bearing Ellenborough a son and heir, she consorted publicly wiht Scharzenberg in a London accustomed to its uppre classes engaging in outrageous extra-marital affairs. Schwarzenberg was posted to Paris. pregnant with his child Jane followed. the publicity surrounding the arrair proved too much for Ellenborough, who sued for divorce. At the time, Parliament, which had to debate the merits of petitions for the dissolution of marriage, granted only 1 or 2 divorces each year.

In Paris Jane survived the storm and the public humiliation of her husband. She and Schwarxzenberg lived together as lover and mistress from 1829 ro 1831. The unconventional aristocrate anglaise fascinated Honore de Balzac, who based the character of Lady Arabella Dudly on her in his Le Lys Dans la Valee. When Jane and Schwarzenberg parted, with the prince keeping the 2 children, Jane moved ot Bavaria. Aged 24, she became the mistress of King Ludwig I, who was then 45. After the affair, Jane married the Bavarian Count von Venningen. she had 2 more children by Venningen , but she fell in love with a Greek count, Spyridon Theotoky. Her affair with Theotoky reached its climax one night when she fled with him from Schloss Venningen in a carriage. Venningen pursued the pair, challenged theotoky to a duel and felled him with what appeared to be a fatal shot. Theotoky lay bleeding in Jane’s arms, but he did not die. Venningen gracously took him to his castle. Jane and the Greek finally left Bavaria together. Again, Jane left her children behind to follow a lover.

In Greece, she and Theotoky were married. they had a son,whom Jane issaid ot haveloved more thanher other children.Sadly, the boy died aged 6, fallng fromthe top of a staircase andlanding dead at his mother’s feet. Jane thenbegana liason with Greece’s King Otto, the son of King Ludwig. she left Theotoky, and fell in love again, this time with a rough brigand from the mountains of northern Greece. He wa General Christos Hadji-Petros, a hero in Greece’s war of independence from Turkey, who plundered travelers for a living. He lived wiht his people, the palikari or brave ones. For a time, Jane shared the rough mountain life as the consort of the palicarris’s aged leader. Jane minded little that Hadji-Petros andhis bandits lived off ehr income from England, but when her maid, Eugene,reealed that Hadji-Petros had tried to seduce her, she left him.

Jane was 46 years od when, in april 1853, she and Eugenie sailed from Piraeus harbour to Beirut. In syria, Janebegan tokeep a diary, made Arabic the 9th language she could read and write, and visited the ruins in Palmyra. Her escort to Palmyra, Sheikh Medjuel El Mesrab, the youngerson of the head of the El Mesrab tribe, fell madly in love wiht Jane. She, however, already loved a young bedouin named Saleh, whom she had met one day riding near the River Jordan. When Jae returned to Syria from a brief trip to Athens to dispose of her property there, she discovered Saleh had married a pretty 18 year old. Heartbroken, Jaaene set off to visit Bagdad. On the way, sheikh Medjuel El Mesrab suddenly appeared with an Arab mare as a gift for her. Although Saleh had found a wife in Jane’s absence, sheikh medjuel had divorced his wfe to await Jane’s return. He asked Jane to marry him, and she accepted.”

Hermarriage was opposed by both Christians and Moslems, but she ecame popular with both, and when Moslems looted the christain quarter in 1860, she wsa left alone. When Richard Burton became consul, he and his wife Isabel became frinds with Jand and her husband. Her biographer E. M. Oddie quote her: “sixty two years of age, and an impetuous, romantic girl of 17 cannot exceed me in ardent, passionate feelings.” She died aged of dysentery during the cholera outbreak of 1881.

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