“The Hostess from Hell” – Holland House Part Two

Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, was the daughter of a Jamaican planter.  Married off to Lord Webster, a man twenty years her senior, she gave birth to three children before falling in love with another man, bearing him a child out-of-wedlock.  Not two days divorced, she married her lover Lord Holland.

Lady Holland with her son – Louis Gauffier

The ton could not forget her scandalous past and so declined to receive her.  No matter, Lord and Lady Holland did their own receiving, hosting the most influential men of the day at Holland House.  The few women who came were fellow Whigs, the Duchess of Devonshire and that fashionable marchioness from Berkeley Square, Lady Lansdowne.

Baroness Holland was the complete opposite of her husband.  She was gruff where he was affable, imperious when he would give way.  Long, boring discourse was not tolerated at her table–her ladyship was known to dispatch her footman to admonish the offending guest.

Thomas Moore, which this blog christened Regency Poet of Wine and Love, once said, “poets inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.”

“I’m sorry you are going to publish a poem,” she said to Lord Portchester.  “Can’t you suppress it?”

And to the great English poet, Samuel Rogers, she advised, “Your poetry is bad enough, so pray be sparing about your prose.”

Lady Holland reminds me of the Gosford Park character Constance, Countess of Trentham.  There is something sinfully joyous about her acidic observations.  This one she offers to the American film and radio star Ivor Novello:

LadyTrentham: It must be hard to know when it’s time to throw in the towel… What a pity about that last one of yours… what was it called? “The Dodger”? Novello:   The Lodger. LadyTrentham:   The Lodger. It must be so disappointing when something just flops like that.

Lady Holland lived to the age of seventy-four.  When tentatively shown Byron’s memoirs, which were none too complimentary of his hostess at Holland House, she shrugged.

“Such things give me no uneasiness; I know perfectly my station in the world, and I know all that can be said of me.  As long as the few friends I am really sure of speak kindly of me, all that the rest of the world can say is a matter of complete indifference to me.”

A Scot in Lansdowne House

Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832) was born in Aldourie, Scotland, on the banks of Loch Ness.  He had been described by himself and others as “indolent and dilatory at every period of his life.”  When taking his degree, he put off writing his thesis until an hour after the appointed time of his examination by the entire faculty enclave who were kept waiting for him in patient condescension.  How did this obscure Scotsman come to the notice of Lansdowne House, particularly when admittance within its halls was habitually sought after by the industrious and the prompt? 

The man was just so very interesting!

His mind was stored with the wisdom of the ancient and modern world; and his remarkable memory enabled him to retain all that he had read.  His conversation was enriched with wit, philosophy, history and anecdotes, and so extensive was his range of knowledge that it was said of him that he could pass from Voltaire’s verses to Sylvia up to the most voluminous details of the Council of Trent. —  from an 1894 article entitled Lansdowne House in the Chautauquan (a journal of the Chatauquan Literary and Scientific Circle)

He was trained as a doctor and as a lawyer, but was continually drawn to the spheres of philosophy and politics.  His speeches were well-attended but it was his response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the Revolution in France made Mackintosh one of the Whig party’s most erudite writer and orator.   Later he deplored the actions of the revolutionaries that led France to descend into a military dictatorship, but he remained a passionate defender of the rights of man and a vociferous opponent of the system that supports a titled nobility.

In 1798 he formed an exclusive Whig club in London, called the King of Clubs.  Good conversation was already the rage in London and membership to this group was in great demand.  Conversation Sharp was prevailed upon to join.  He later reminisced about those days long after the club had disappeared:

Ah yes! – our King of Club days with Mackintosh, Bobus, Dumont and Romilly, were days that the Gods might envy !”

Aldourie, Scotland - the bank of Loch Ness

For me, however, this frequent visitor to Lansdowne House could not have been more moving in his writings or his orations than when he exerted himself in the cause of Love.  To the dismay of his family and hers, he married Catherine Stuart, one of the most “fortunate circumstances of his life.”  She was prudent where he was excessive, she was industrious where he was indolent.  She was the making of him and his success to such an extent her disapproving brothers not only became reconciled to the marriage, but became Mackintosh’s most ardent champions.  But when she died, he could scarcely contain his grief.  She was his beloved and in an age where women’s achievements were subordinate to men’s, he was passionate that she be remembered for her efforts.  He sought advice from one Dr. Parr as to how he should form a suitable epitaph to “my dearest Catherine:”

“To her I owe that I am not a ruined outcast; to her whatever I am; to her whatever I shall be.”

Dr. Parr was astonished at this letter and agreed to arrange for the Latin inscription on Catherine’s tomb.  He replied,

“I never received from mortal man a letter which, in point of composition, can be compared with that which you wrote me the other day.”

He did not think it bad at all.