Deborah Docherty: Marguerite, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849)
She was born Sally Power (christened Margaret), at Knockbrit, near Clonmel, County Tipperary, on the first of September 1789. She was by all accounts, a sensitive child with an intellect that would have remained uncultivated, were it not for the attentions of a family friend, Miss Anne Dwyer, who was to be the first of several mentors for Blessington.
Her childhood was in Ireland with a drunken tyrant for a father; a mother who seems to have figured little in her life; three sisters and one brother. Her elder sister died when young, possibly due to the stress and fear caused by their father. Thus she becaume the eldest daughter, and being delicately beautiful from a young age, she aroused the attentions of the military men who came to dine with her father. One of Edmund Power's guests was Captain Maurice St Leger Farmer, who soon requested that he may have Margaret as his bride. Power, keen to be rid of another mouth to feed, agreed to the match, and despite his daughter's pleadings she was married at the age of fifteen years and six months, on the seventh of March 1804.
Blessington spoke little of this period of great unhappiness in her life, but to a friend she once said 'she had not been long under her husband's roof when it became evident that he was subject to fits of insanity; that he frequently treated her with personal violence, that he used to strike her on the face, pinch her until her arms were black and blue...and often leave her without food till she felt almost famished.'(1)
Her spirit of survival was evident even at this early age, because when Farmer was summoned abroad, she refused to accompany him, whereupon he beat her once more and let her go. She fled to her parent's house where her welcome was less than enthusiastic, because her parents viewed her as a failure and a burden. Nevertheless, she remained under her father's roof for another three years before a Captain Thomas Jenkins was introduced to her. Initially she ignored the proposals of Jenkins, but hearing news of her husband's imminent return and plans to reclaim his wife, she left under the protection of Jenkins to live with him in Hampshire with his mother and sisters.
Blessington was, again, reticent about this relationship, but it is reported (2) that she was treated by Jenkins and his family with the delicacy, respect and affection that his wife may expect. According to her biographer J.Fitzgerald Molloy, she lived under Jenkins protection for six years, and although this period is ill-documented, it appears that it was during these peaceful years that she developed her interest in literature and the arts. It was certainly to Margaret Farmer's advantage that her protector was himself a man of culture, as this also afforded her the opportunity for travel. She accompanied him to Paris on at least two occasions.(3)
However, she was to pay dearly for accepting the kindness of a man for whom she cared but did not love, because this arrangement gave rise to the suspicion of impropriety, and left her 'fair game' for further scandal later in life. Nevertheless, it was through Jenkins that Margaret became acquainted with Lord Mountjoy, Earl of Blessington.
He was soon captivated by the attractive woman who was also Irish by birth and descent, and made her an offer of marriage as soon as she could obtain a divorce. In the meantime he established Margaret in a house in Manchester Square, London, but treated her with all the propriety of one to whom he was actually engaged. He also gave Jenkins ten thousand pounds to cover his expenses in keeping her as a mistress.
Fortunately for Margaret, in October 1817, her husband was enjoying a drunken orgy in the King's Bench Prison when he fell from the window and died. Thus, on the sixteenth of February 1818, Margaret Farmer married Charles John Gardiner, First Earl of Blessington and became Marguerite, Countess of Blessington. Her new husband was then thirty-four and she was twenty-seven.
The couple proceeded to Lord Blessington's estate in Ireland, Mountjoy Forest, where, true to his nature, Lord Blessington showed extravagant hospitality, giving lavish dinners, balls and parties in order to celebrate his new bride.
However, Lord Blessington had three children from his previous marriage who were in the care of their paternal aunt whilst their father travelled. Indeed, with her mother dead, it appears that the resentment of his daughter Harriet towards Lady Blessington may have started from this period, because Lady Blessington "induced her husband to leave Ireland much sooner than he had intended, and to return to London where she was anxious to begin her career as a leader of society."(4)
Thus, Lord and Lady Blessington returned to London and rented a mansion at ten St.James's Square, which was soon furnished to their extravagent tastes, and was open to society from the Autumn of 1818. However, it was evident that Lady Blessington was distasteful to her female competitors: because she had so gravely transgressed the social code of her kind, she was not to be visited. Indeed, it was an outrage to morals and society that an Irish nobody, who had lived with a commoner, had snatched a titled and wealthy husband, and was now presuming to act the smart London hostess.(5)
This snub must have certainly upset Marguerite, but she had lost her adolescent vulnerability some years ago, and the absence of female callers gave her the opportunity to polish her veneer of apparent happiness - which she would draw upon greatly in later life. However, that is not to say that Lady Blessington was distraught during this period, because, due to her husband's high position, varied tastes and a charm equal to her own, he was able to acquaint her with many distinguished people: politicians, writers, statesmen and travellers, amongst whom she made a favourable impression: 'One regular guest Dr Samuel Parr, referred to Lady Blessington as "most gorgeous", and rightly predicted that, "with her shrewd and masculine mind, she would be even more impressive in middle age than while in the lovely splendour of her youth".'(6)
Lady Blessington also began to write books around this time, with her first work The Magic Lantern, or, Sketches of Scenes in the Metropolis being published in 1822. Indeed, Cecily Lambert asserts that in her early books, she expressed 'moralising sentiments' and 'tried to assume the role of "a censor of society", in an attempt to defy...rumours that were spread about her past.'(7) However, if that was Lady Blessington's aim, it is curious that the work was published anonymously.
Even so, literature was not to be the only source of Marguerite's fame, indeed, due to spiteful gossip and rumour, her acquaintance with Alfred, Count d'Orsay whom she met in 1821, was to prove a source of great pleasure and profound misery. The Count (aged twenty-one) was received at St. James's Square and was immediately accepted by the Blessingtons. He was elegantly attired and proved to be a brilliant conversationalist and a lover of art, thus he soon became an intimate friend of the couple. This intimacy was only to be severed by death, but until then Marguerite had to suffer the insinuations that she was d'Orsay's mistress, and that the young Count was cuckolding Lord Blessington; enjoying his wife and his money simultaneously. However, 'given the personnel of this particular drama, so naive a plot cannot be accepted.'(8)
Indeed, Lord and Lady Blessington seemed perfectly happy when they decided to travel abroad in the late summer of 1822. They left London in August, accompanied by Lady Blessington's youngest sister, Mary Anne Power. They travelled first to Paris where they met d'Orsay and invited him to join them, which he did in November at Avignon. The Blessingtons may have spent a considerable time away from home, but they were too accustomed to a luxurious lifestyle to sacrifice it, and so they 'travelled in a kind of sumptuous caravan: three coaches and at least six servants, including a courier and a cook. A wit soon dubbed them "The Blessington Circus".'(9) They also continued to socialise along their route, and amongst the first people Lord Blessington introduced his wife to was Lord Byron.
They arrived in Genoa after nearly eight months travelling, and in her journal Lady Blessington records her anticipation of meeting with Byron, and also her disappointment after their meeting. She expected a reserved, dignified and cold presence, but Byron proved to be a surprisingly aimiable figure. However, Byron and Lady Blessington soon developed a close friendship, that was to be chronicled in her Conversations of Lord Byron (1834). Indeed, she must have felt a certain empathy 'with anyone whom English society had driven abroad by its arrogance and disapprobation.'(10)
Lady Blessington's intellect, charm and beauty was not wasted on the poet, and after their meeting he wrote to his friend Thomas Moore: 'Miladi seems highly literary, to which and your honour's acquaintance with the family I attribute the pleasure of having seen them. She is also very pretty, even in a morning, a species of beauty on which the sun of Italy does not shine so frquently as the chanelier.'(11) Thus the Blessingtons spent much time with the poet during their sojourn in Genoa, and upon hearing of their plans to leave he tried to persuade them to buy a villa near to his own. However, after six weeks in Genoa the Blessington 'Circus' decided to resume their journey, and it is reported that Byron burst into tears during their farewell.
Her enemies later claimed that she had invented most of her Conversations of Lord Byron, however many respected biographers of Byron have defended the work. In 1930 Andre Maurois pronounced Conversations to be 'one of the truest and most living books ever written about Byron...She has grasped him, in all his complexity, most admirably.'(12) Lady Blessington also wrote to her close friend Landor upon the publication of the work, 'I shall be glad to hear what you think of the Conversation. I could have made them better, but they would no longer be what they now are, genuine.'(13)
This period of travelling certainly seems to have provided Lady Blessington with much material to be used in her writing career, yet even this comparatively happy period of her life was tinged with sadness that would prove to be the catalyst for more sorrow. It was during their stay in Genoa that the Earl received news of the death of his only son and heir, which caused him to make radical changes to his will, more of which will be discussed below.
The party arrived in Naples in July 1823, and by November of that year they had hired the Palazzo Belvedere, where Lady Blessington was happy to establish herself for over two years, and to have the comforts of a home after eleven months of staying in hotels. The couple soon resumed their posts as entertainers of distinguished persons, and most days they would enjoy the company either of Englishmen visiting Naples, or a distinguished foreigner. However, during this time Lord Blessington renewed his interest in the development of Mountjoy Forest, and in 1823 he returned to Ireland and employed a young architect, Mathews, to help him. In September of that year he took Mathews to Naples so that Lady Blessington could see their plans. He has recorded his observations during his stay with the Blessington party, and claims that 'Lady Blessington then in her zenith, formed the centre figure of the little group.'(14) However, he returned home in December 1824 and little more was done towards developing Mountjoy Forest. Nevertheless, it is Mathews' mother who provides a prime example of the hypocritical nature of Lady Blessington's 'friends'. She showed great fondness for the Countess, which Lady Blessington believed to be genuine, and thus Mrs Mathews became a prime correspondant throughout Miladi's later, difficult years.
In 1826 the party left Naples and travelled to Florence, where they arrived in the Spring of 1827. It was here that Lady Blessington was introduced to Walter Landor, who was to be a close friend for the rest of her life. After eight months they left for Rome, where they arrived inNovember 1827, and rented a beautiful villa, the Palazzo Negroni. With the comfort of a home again, they again embarked on a brilliant round of social life they had enjoyed in Naples and Florence. It was whilst in Rome that Lady Blessington met the brother of Napoleon and his mother Madame Letitia Bonaparte.
Events surrounding the Blessingtons become mysterious around this time, as Count d'Orsay married to Lord Blessington's legitimate daughter, Lady Harriet. This is explained by changes the Earl made to his will in August 1823, after hearing of the death of his son and heir. It is believed that his reason for making such an unusual change, is that he had grown so fond of d'Orsay as to think of him as a son. The will stated that a marriage should take place between d'Orsay and one of his daughters, after which they will inherit his estates in the city and county of Dublin. It was eventually decided that Lady Harriet should be the bride, and she was subsequently sent for, and the couple were married in Naples before the family returned to Rome in 1827. The reported resentment of Lady Harriet may be well understood, considering that she had not known her mother, had seen her father little and was not used to the extravagent socialising of the Blessingtons. However, there is a further point of argument surrounding this union, and that is Lady Blessington's clause that the marriage should not be consummated for four years. Her enemies later claimed that this was in order to keep d'Orsay amorously attracted to her alone, but it is more likely that she wanted to protect the young woman from any damaging sexual experience such as that she experienced herself with Captain Farmer.
The Count and Countess d'Orsay and Miss Power accompanied Lord and Lady Blessington to Paris, which they reached in June 1828. Here they rented a magnificent house and decorated it true to their extravagent style. During this period Lady Blessington was 'subject to depression'(15) and her husband was in ill health. She was apprehensive about him travelling to England to vote for the Catholic Emancipation Bill, but upon his return he seemed fit and happy. However, all was not well and Lord Blessington died after a fit of apoplexy. He was forty-six.
Lady Blessington was grief-stricken. She received many letters of heartfelt sympathy from Landor, but she mourned her husband bitterly, and after two months she writes in a letter to Mrs Charles Mathews: 'Alas, he who was in perfect health, and whose life was so precious and so valuable to many, is in one fatal day torn from me forever, while I, who believed my days numbered am left to drag on a life I now feel a burden.'(16) Lady Blessington had been left two thousand pounds a year, the lease of the house in St.James's Square, and all his carriages, paraphenalia and plate. However this income was not substantial enough to support the extravagent lifestyle they had been used to. Indeed, there were dark days ahead.
Within four months of her husband's death scandalous reports connecting Lady Blessington and d'Orsay were printed in the gossip papers. The editors of these papers would inform their victim of the nature of their report before publication, and demand a sum of money to prevent it going to press. However, if Lady Blessington was targeted by the blackmailers, she did not pay. Thus London became a hostile place, and she wrote of her apprehension and sadness at having to return without her husband: 'Had God spared me my ever dear and lamented husband, I could have borne up against the unkindness and ingratitude of friends estranged: but as it is the blow has been too heavy for me, and I look in vain on every side for consolation.'(17) Blessington moved from St.James's Square to rent a house at Seamore Place. If she was hurt by the gossip of society, she didn't show it: on nights when she did not visit the opera or the theatre, she received guests and thus enjoyed the company of many intellectual men of the day. However, she did not accept invitations for fear of accidental meetings with those who doubted her position, and the only female company she kept was with members of her family.
Blessington made a pleasing impression on her (predominantly) male companions, but her 'happiness', as throughout the rest of her life, proved to be ephemeral. The last scandal to irrevocably tarnish her reputation was the breakdown of the d'Orsay's marriage. Harriet Gardiner, 'instead of being the wife of her husband and the mistress of a home, found herself a supernumerary in a circle with which she had no sympathy.'(18) Thus in the Autumn of 1831 she left the Count to live with her aunt. Clearly the enemies of Lady Blessington relished this latest domestic crisis, and were happy to expound upon the martyrdom of Lady Harriet. Indeed, even when rumours developed about Harriet's liason with another man, his sister, Lady Charlesville (eager to prevent scandal in her own family) ensured that Blessington would suffer. It was implied that d'Orsay had founded this intrigue in order that he may have grounds to divorce Harriet and enjoy the money. This caused a rift between Blessington and Count d'Orsay, but 'although the deed which had finally closed against them the doors of social toleration was his deed and not hers, she was held to be equally to blame, and if she quarrelled with him it would merely make her isolation complete.'(19)
The Count could not remain under her roof, and so moved to a small house nearby, but their friendship continued as he still visited often. She continued to visit the theatre but 'henceforward she gave up any hope of re-establishing herself among her kind...Her life stretched before her as a prolonged exercise in keeping up appearances.'(20) It was during 1832 that the Gardiners made moves to contest the will of the late Earl. One result of this 'war' between the two families, was that her brother was no longer agent for the Blessington estates. Soon Blessington found herself in serious financial difficulty with the extravagence of Count d'Orsay uncurbed and the dependence of most of her family, she was forced into authorship.
She approached the editor of New Monthly Magazine, Edward Lytton Bulwer, offering him contributions. The discussion with the assistant editor of her acquaintance with Lord Byron led to the serialisation of her Conversations of Lord Byron. The first installment was published in July 1832, the last in December 1833 when they were issued in Volumes. The year 1833 also saw the publication of her novel The Repealers, which received mixed reviews. In addition, she now began to edit annuals: The Book of Beauty and later The Keepsake.
Her immense workload did not prevent Lady Blessington from entertaining and 'gradually her drawing-room became the acknowledged centre of all that was brilliant in literature and art.'(21) However, Lady Blessington did not seem destined for unblighted happiness, and in August of 1833she was the victim of a burglary, losing property to the value of one thousand pounds. Many years later she would receive a letter from the thief detailing the amount he sold the goods for, and such familiarity can only be 'indicative of her fundamental lack of status'.(22) In 1836 she moved to Gore House, which with three acres of garden, a high wall and double entrance gates, offered her the privacy and peace she needed to work. However, it is apparent from letters to close friends such as Bulwer and Landor, that Lady Blessington, no longer a young woman, was tired: 'I have been indeed very unwell of late...The truth is, the numerous family of father, mother, sister, brother and his six children that I have to provide for, compels me to write when my health would demand a total repose from literary exertion'.(23)
By 1841 doubts about the solvency of Gore House were made public, and with d'Orsay's bankruptcy made public, he was forced to shelter from his creditors with Lady Blessington. Although she was still editing the Annuals and had written many more novels, in 1849 Lady Blessington was forced to put the entire contents of Gore House up for sale by auction, in order to clear her debts. D'Orsay fled to Paris where she joined him in April. It is painfully ironic that she would soon have learned that the proceeds of the sale had cleared her debts with a surplus. But she suffered a heart attack on the fourth of June 1849 and died within a few hours.
Posthumous tributes to her kindness and generosity were hardly recompense for her ill-treatment during her lifetime. Count d'Orsay realised his error once it was too late. He had indeed often behaved like a spoilt child with Lady Blessington, but his profound grief and lamentations may at least set the record straight about their relationship: 'In losing her...I have lost everything in the world; for she was to me a mother, a dear mother, a true and loving mother.'(24) He planned and built a mausoleum in Chambourcy where she was finally buried, and, in his turn, Alfred Count d'Orsay was laid at her side.
Marguerite, Countess of Blessington was a woman of talent, making the most of the resources available to her, through her personal charm, her varied life-experience and writing skill. Indeed, those who were allowed to get close to her praised her fully for her fun-loving spirit, her kindness and her generosity. A quote from one of her own letters best captures the independence of spirit of the young girl from Ireland, who refused to be beaten by hypocritical London society: 'I am now an old woman, and I have never for a moment repented the independent line of conduct I have adopted.'(25)
1. Molloy, J. F. The Most Gorgeous Lady Blessington, Vol. One, p.28
2. ibid. chapter two
3. Hannay,P. Affairs of the Mind: The Salon in Europe and America from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, Quennell (ed), p.25
4. Molloy, J. F. ibid p.46
5. Sadlier,M. The Strange Life of Lady Blessington, p.27
6. Hannay, P. ibid p. 26
7. Lambert, C. Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin, p.28
8. Sadlier, M. ibidp.43
9. Lambert, C.ibidp.28
10. Sadlier, M. ibidp.59
11. Molloy, J.F. ibidp.105
12. Lovell, E.J. Introduction to: Blessington, M. Conversations of Lord Byron, 1969. p.3
13. Molloy, J.F. The Most Gorgeous Lady Blessington, Vol.Two, p.20
14. Sadlier, M. ibid p.84
15. Molloy, J.F. The Most Gorgeous Lady Blessington, Vol.One, p.237
16. ibid p. 251
17 ibid p. 266
18. ibid p. 283
19. Sadlier, M. ibid p.160
21. Molloy, J.F. The Most Gogeous Lady Blessington, Vol.Two, p.34
22. Sadlier, M. ibid p. 185
23. Letter to Walter Landor, 19th April 1837, recorded in Molloy Vol.Two, p.179.
24. Molloy,J.F. ibid Vol.Two, p.317
25. Letter to Bulwer 1836, recorded in Sadlier, p.204