It’s disconcerting to come across someone you know in an unfamiliar context. You discover that your colleague in the bank is a part-time football hooligan (it happened to my sister’s friend), or the nice tenants in your rental property turn out to be members of Ananda Marga (it happened to me, at a time when the sect was allegedly responsible for various acts of political terrorism).
This happens with historical figures too. One of the endless fascinations of biography is the way that people keep breaking out of the boxes we put them in.
I’ve just been reading Wendy Moore’s biography of the Countess of Strathmore. In the way of many books today, the long title – Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met his Match (2007) – gives you most of the plot. Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800) was an heiress. At 11 she inherited a fortune in coalmines from her father, which made her one of the catches of Georgian England. From her various suitors, she chose John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore, a near neighbour from Co. Durham, and the hereditary owner of a decayed estate at Glamis in Scotland. They married 2 days before her 18th birthday. Under her father’s will, her husband(s) had to change their name to Bowes to ensure the family name would survive.
Although Mary and her husband had little in common, they produced 5 children within 7 years. John spent some £170,000 of her fortune on building projects and gambling, before dying of tuberculosis in March 1776, leaving behind a very merry 27-year-old widow.
During the rest of 1776, Mary Eleanor had an affair, several abortions, and generally slipped the traces of 18th century polite society. All this she wrote up in her Confessions (1793). (These are digitised in Eighteenth Century Collections Online, available through subscribing libraries).
Then, in January 1777, she was tricked into marriage with an Irish fortune hunter, Andrew Robinson Stoney, who did indeed turn out to be ‘Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband’. Wendy Moore highlights the problems faced by married women trapped in unhappy marriages. Stoney (now Bowes) treated Mary Eleanor brutally, beating her, separating her from family and friends, bringing his mistresses and bastards into her home, and raping the servants. He took control of her fortune, and when she finally ran away, he had her kidnapped and imprisoned. It’s a riveting story – and I recommend it as a good read, ‘as gripping as any novel’ as the Daily Telegraph says on the cover.
Yet I came across Mary Eleanor Bowes quite by accident, while looking for something else entirely. I came to the story through Australian history, and botany.
Wendy Moore doesn’t dwell much on this angle – and why should she, when wife beating in aristocratic circles will sell many more books? – but Mary Eleanor was particularly interested in botany. During her year of liberty between husbands, Mary Eleanor hosted salons for some of the heavyweights of the scientific community, including the surgeon John Hunter, and the naturalists Daniel Solander and Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society. She paid for a botanical expedition to South Africa, and employed as her collector William Paterson, the 20-year-old son of a gardener from near Glamis Castle.
William Paterson spent several years in South Africa, collecting plants and arranging for their transhipment back to England. He published an account of his expeditions in Narrative of Four Journeys into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffraria (1789), available in Google books here.
Paterson dedicated his book to Banks, not to his patron, the Countess of Strathmore, because by the time he arrived back in England in 1780, Mary Eleanor had lost control of her fortune. Her new husband had sold off her greenhouses and her ‘damned weeds’, and he refused to pay the debts that Paterson had run up on her behalf in South Africa.
Paterson was left embarrassed, impoverished and bitter. Instead of using the Cape expedition as a launching pad for a future career in botany, as he had hoped, he went into the army as an ensign – the lowest rank of commissioned officer. He served in India, then in 1789 he was gazetted Captain in the New South Wales Corps, probably through the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks – which is where he first comes on to the radar for Australian historians. He eventually became Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, but his first interest was always botany.
There are other Australian links in the story of the Countess of Strathmore. Amongst her no-good husband’s cronies were Captain Perkins Magra and his brother James Matra (or Magra). James Matra sailed with Cook on the Endeavour, and Australian historians know him best for being the first to suggest to the British government that Botany Bay would make an ideal convict settlement, as well as a refuge for American loyalists. It is startling to encounter him in Wedlock, helping to fake a duel to trick an heiress into marriage.
Another tenuous connection with Australia is Mary Isabella Bowes-Lyon, Mary Eleanor’s granddaughter, who married John Walpole Willis, the resident judge of Port Phillip in the 1840s – though, taking after her grandmother, she eloped with an army officer long before Willis reached Australia.
And then, of course, there’s the big one: Mary Eleanor’s great-great-great-granddaughter was Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, whose daughter is currently Queen of Australia.
For me though, the eye-opener was encountering Colonel William Paterson, ineffective and ageing administrator of New South Wales in 1809, as a humble gardener’s son, setting out to the Cape of Good Hope – and escaping from the box.
William Paterson’s letters to Joseph Banks from New South Wales have been digitised by the State Library of New South Wales, and are available here.
This time last year:
Corsets and Centrefolds: 150 Years of Women’s Magazines, 19 April 2011
The Chocolate Conscience, 23 April 2011
Bunyips, 25 April 2011