Jane Digby in her day was called "one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century.' She survived the scandal of divorce, was the mistress to Kings before finally finding love in the deserts of the Middle East. In her lifetime, no fewer than 8 novels including one written by Honore de Balzac were written featuring Jane as a thinly disguised character, most of them not flattering portraits. She inspired envy and jealously in other women because of her beauty and the attention paid to her by men. In an age when women didn't travel, had very few rights, and were basically the property of their husbands, Jane forged a passionate destiny of her own, throwing over her proper life in England, for the life of a passionate nomad, searching for that one perfect love.
Jane Elizabeth Digby was born on April 3, 1807 in Dorset at Minterne Magna, the daughter of Admiral Henry Digby and Jane Elizabeth Coke, who had been married previously. For the rest of her life, her mother preferred to be called by her previous title of Lady Andover, despite her apparent happy marriage to Jane's father.
The family fortune was established when her father seized the Spanish treasure ship, the Santa Brigada in 1799. He was also the captain of the HMS Africa under Nelson's command at the Battle of Trafalgar. Jane was the first child, soon to be followed by two younger brothers Edward and Kenelm. She spent much of her childhood at her grandfather Thomas Coke, later the 1st Earl of Leicester's home, Holkham Hall, where she grew up with her cousins, among them the the 11 children of her aunt, Lady Anson. Much loved and spoiled by her parents and relatives, Jane grew up a bit of a tomboy, running and riding around the family estates. She had a governess, the redoubtable Miss Steele, who taught her the more refined pursuits of a lady. When Jane was 13, she was able to spent some time abroad in France, Italy and Switzerland, when her father was posted to Malta.
Jane's beauty and poise was noticed at a very early age, so much so that her mother decided to launch her into society soon after she turned sixteen. After being presented at court, Jane was fully launched. Only a few weeks into her first season, Jane met Edward Law, 2nd Baron Ellenborough (later Earl of Ellenborough and Governor General of India). Law was 17 years her senior and a widow. His first wife, Octavia, had been the daughter of the hated Lord Castlereagh who committed suicide in 1821. Edward had been a widow for several years when he began courting Jane.
After an eight week acquaintance, he asked her father's permission for her hand in marriage. On paper, it seemed a brilliant match. Lord Ellenborough was a rising politician, handsome with a reputation as a roue. Jane was very young for her age, and in her first season. Her family was well-off so there was no need for her to marry the first man who offered for her. But Jane was in love with the idea of being in love, and in the days of their courtship and their early marriage, Ellenborough spent considerable time wooing her. It must have been a heady experience to have someone like Ellenborough pay attention to her. Jane wasn't the first woman to make the mistake of marrying for the wrong reasons. However, once the marriage went sour, Jane proved herself to be a romantic rebel.
Ellenborough like William Lamb was ambitious and totally devoted to his career. He thought nothing of spending hours at the House of Commons long into the night, writing speeches, meeting with his political cronies. Jane was left no other option but to attend balls and parties often by herself. She soon fell into a fast crowd made up acquaintances of her husband. At first despite her husband's neglect, Jane and Ellenborough were reasonably happy. The turning point may have come when Jane learned that her husband had a mistress in Brighton where they had spent their honeymoon.
Jane's behavior in town was shocking enough that her family felt the need to talk to her about it. Jane pooh-poohed their concern. After all, they were her husband's social set, if they were good enough for him, then there should be no stigma to her her acquaintance with them. However, her family felt the situation was so serious, that they sent Jane's former governess Steely to talk to Lord Ellenborough, who was somewhat amused at the idea of a social inferior warning him about his wife.
When Jane decided to take a lover, she looked no further than her own family, her first cousin Colonel George Anson. While George was on leave from the army, he began squiring her to parties. Eight years her senior, he had grown up to be handsome and a bit of a rake, sowing his wild oats in London. Jane may have had a bit of a crush on him as a child, and now at the age of 19, her cousin fell under the spell of her beauty. They were soon lovers and Jane fell madly in love with him. Unfortunately the feeling wasn't mutual, although he walked the walk, and talked the talk for many months. Jane soon found herself pregnant, giving birth to a son, Arthur Dudley. Although she was still sleeping with Ellenborough, Jane was pretty sure that her son was actually Anson's.
After the birth of her son, who spent most of his time in the country where the air was fresher, her relationship with Anson foundered, and he finally broke it off. Jane was distraught and depressed that she could have been so wrong about his love for her. That summer she met Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, an Austrian diplomat, who had just been posted to London. It was love at first sight for the Prince, but Jane was still in mourning for her lost love. The prince persisted, wooing Jane through the summer, until she finally succumbed to his passionate declarations of love. She fell madly, totally in love with him, sowing the seeds for the eventual destruction of her marriage.
At first Jane and the Prince tried to be discreet. She would visit him in his house in Harley Street, either on foot, wearing a veil to hide her identity. Soon she was seen coming and going 3 or 4 times a week. At night they attended parties seperately to keep up the fiction, but soon they became reckless. Jane was seen by a neighbor in Schwarzenberg's embrace (which later came out during her divorce trial), the Prince lacing up her stays. Eventually, they took the risk of spending the night together at a hotel in Norfolk, when Jane went down to the country to visit her son. It was a mistake that Jane would soon have to pay for. A porter saw the Prince sneaking in and out of Jane's room. Despite paying him off, he still wrote a letter to her husband, telling him of what he'd seen.
Once again, Jane found herself pregnant. Only this time there was no way that she could pass of the child as her husband's. She hadn't been intimate with Ellenborough in months. Ironically, Jane's excuse was that she didn't want to get pregnant again. Events moved swiftly. Schwarzenberg was sent packing back to the continent before his career was totally ruined by the rumors of his adulterous relationship with Jane. Although Ellenborough had refused to believe the letter from the porter, friends of his felt compelled to tell him about her relationship with the Prince. Jane, of course, denied it while begging her husband to allow her to travel abroad ostensibly to get over the relationship but really to give birth in secrecy. Her husband refused.
Jane made the impetuous decision that she couldn't live without the prince. She made plans to flee England and to follow him to Switzerland. Her parents pleaded with her to at least attempt to repair her relationship with her husband. Her father, in particular, tried to impress upon her what she was giving up by leaving him to go abroad. If she stayed in England, and they formally seperated, she could still take her place in society after a suitable amount of time. But Jane was not to be denied. As far as she was concerned her life and her fate lay with the Prince. He was the only man that she wanted to married to.
Lord Ellenborough had no choice but to start divorce proceedings against her. An investigator was hired who dug up the information about Jane's trysts with the Prince in Harley Street. The divorce case was so sensational that for the first time, the Times of London featured the story on it's front page instead of the classified advertisements that were a mainstay of the paper until the 1960's. Getting a divorce at this time was incredibly difficult, that only two divorces were ever heard a year, the notoriety was particularly loathsome. Lord Ellenborough settled a sum on Jane to be paid for the rest of her life. He never remarried, although he lived with several mistresses, and had a host of illegitimate children. He never spoke of Jane again, although he built a monument to his first wife in the church near his family estate.
While the divorce proceedings were going on, Jane went to Basle to give birth to a daughter that she and Felix named Mathilde. However, there was no happily ever after for Jane and Felix, who told her that he would never be able to marry her due to his religion (he was a Catholic) and because it would detrimental to his career. Jane could sense that his feelings for her had changed, but she was still determined that they could make their life together work. However, the Prince had other ideas and in his passive-aggressive way, tried to push her away but not before she conceived another child, a son, who only lived ten days. After accusing her of being unfaithful, the Prince left Jane for good.
When the Prince deserted her, Jane didn't give up hope that she would eventually be able to convince him of her innocence. She moved to Munich to be near him when he was posted to Berlin, where she became the intimate friend of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who was captivated like many men before him by her beauty and intelligence. She shared his interest in classical antiquities and mythology. They called each other Ianthe (Greek for Jane) and Basily, writing to each other two and three times a day, even when they knew they would be seeing each other. She joined the pantheon of other beautiful women in his Hall of Beauty having her portrait painted by court painter Joseph Karl Stieler.
She also caught the attention of a German baron, name Carl Venningen who worshipped her and pursued her relentlessly while she pined for Felix who continued to write her letters of love while simultaneously keeping her at arm's length. After months of rebuffing Charles as she called him in the hopes that Felix would return to her, she finally succumbed to his attentions and promptly fell pregnant. Hiding out in Italy, she gave birth to a son, who was fostered out for the first few years of his life, until Jane could safely bring him home. Finally after Felix blew her off once again, Jane finally had to give up the ghost of her relationship, but not before giving up their daughter Didi to his sister, who grew up with no memory or knowledge of her beautiful mother.
Finally Jane agreed to marry Charles, despite her misgivings about the lack of a passionate attachment on her part. For a time, she was happy and it looked like she might have found her match. But her husband wanted to turn her into a German hausfrau, while Jane was lively and intelligent and loved parties. However, her marriage now made her acceptable at court and in the upper echelons of society that had been closed to her. She also met Honore de Balzac briefly who based one of his most famous characters, Lady Arabella Dudley, on her. The portrait was so vivid, that rumors went around that Balzac and Jane had been lovers in 1831 when she lived in Paris, a story that subsequent biographers have repeated, despite the lack of evidence.
After giving birth to another child, a girl, Jane met the next love of her life, a young Greek count named Spiridon Theotoky who fought her husband in a duel after he was caught eloping with her. Although Theotoky was wounded, he managed to survive. Baron Venningen generously decided to release Jane from her marriage. He received custody of their children, and he and Jane stayed friends for the rest of her life.After five years, Jane finally married her Count, converting to the Greek orthodox faith. They had a child, Leonidas, who became Jane's favorite, the only one of her five children that she felt close to and that she kept by her side. Once again, Jane was happy until the family moved to Athens, and Spiridon became drinking and spending his nights out. After discovering that her Greek husband was unfaithful, Jane became the mistress of King Otto of Greece, coincidentally the son of her former lover, Ludwig, and the enemy of his wife Queen Amalie, who made it her mission to blacken Jane's name. Heartbroken at the death of her six-year-old Leonidas, who died falling from a balcony when he tried to slide down it, she became an inveterate traveller in the Middle East. For a time she became the mistress of an Albanian general and was thrilled to share his rough outdoor life as queen of his brigand army, living in caves, riding fiery Arab horses and hunting game in the mountains for food; until she found that he too was unfaithful with her maid no less and left him on the spot.
Now middle-aged but still stunningly beautiful, and vowing to renounce men, she headed for Syria, to see Palmyra the legendary kingdom of Zenobia, where she met and married the love of her life, a Bedouin nobleman, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab who was twenty years her junior. Medjuel offered to divorce his wife for Jane, within minutes of meeting her. Despite the advice of the British Counsel and her family, she threw caution to the wind, finally finding the one man, she could bond body and soul with. During the remainder of her life she adopted for six months of each year the exotic but uniquely harsh existence of a desert nomad living in the famous black goathair tents of Arabia; the remaining months she spent in the splendid palace she built for herself and Medjuel in Damascus. She never converted to Islam, but she dyed her blonde hair dark, since light hair was considered bad luck. As wife to the Sheikh and mother to his tribe this passionate woman found not only genuine fulfilment but further adventures, all of which she committed each year to her diary. She became good friends with Richard and Isabel Burton, when Burton was posted as consul to Damascus, and Lady Anne and Wilfred Scawen Blunt.
Jane made one last visit to England in 1856, shortly after her marriage to Medjuel. She found English society had become rigid and straight-laced under the reign of Victoria and Albert, who found her shocking, not only had she married an Arab but she also had 3 husbands who were still living! Although reconciled with her family, she was not allowed to talk about her marriage to Medjuel. Jane realized just how far she had moved away not just physically but mentally. Victorian England was no place for her. After six months, she kissed her family good-bye and returned to Medjuel and the desert.
In August 1881, Jane fell ill with dysentry. With her husband by her side, she finally passed away on August 11 at the age of 74. Obeying her final wishes, he had her buried in the Protestant cemetary in Damascus. Then her grief-stricken widower, rode out into the desert and sacrificed one of his finest camels in her memory.
Jane lived a remarkable life that was later matched by her great-great niece, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who ended her adventurous and romantic life as Ambassador to France. Although she wasn't anyone's idea of a good mother, having abandoned her three living children, she led a life of passionate abandon and adventure, never giving up searching for love. Although she had many lovers, Jane wasn't really promiscuous. Apart from a few brief flings, Jane was a woman who lived for love, and enjoyed sex, which scandalized the Victorians, who covered their piano legs, and who taught women to close their eyes and think of England. In many ways, she was a modern woman living in a world that couldn't tolerate anyone outside the norm.
For further reading:
A Scandalous Life: A biography of Jane Digby - Mary S. Lovell
Seductresses - Betsy Prioleau