Hester, Queen of the Desert

03 12 lady hester stanhopeToday is the birthday of Lady Hester Stanhope. She was born in 1776, the eldest child of Charles, the 3rd Earl Stanhope, at Chevening in Kent. Hester was an adventurous traveller, deeply eccentric and self-styled Queen of the Desert. In her late twenties, she lived at Downing Street where she acted as hostess for her cousin, William Pitt the Younger, who was then Prime Minister. She acted as his secretary and sat at the head of his dinner table making witty and intelligent conversation. Hester was in her element, but it didn’t last. Pitt died in 1806 and she was left homeless, but with a tidy pension of £1200 a year from the government in recognition of her services.

She lived for a time in Montagu Square in London and then moved to Wales. In 1810 she was advised by her doctor to make a trip to the Continent, for the sake of her health. She would never return. She travelled with her private physician and later biographer, Dr Charles Meryon. They stopped off in Gibraltar, where she picked up another travelling companion, a wealthy young Englishman called Michael Bruce. Although he was twelve years younger than her, they were soon lovers, much to the disappointment of Dr Meryon. From there, they travelled on to Malta, Greece and Constantinople. Here, she met with the French Ambassador. She had a mind to go to France and ingratiate herself with Emperor Napoleon. She thought if she could find out what made him tick, she could return to Britain with information that could lead to his overthrow. It was a mad plan and luckily the British government got wind of it and stopped her.

With nothing better to do, she and her swelling entourage decided to head for Egypt. On the way, they were shipwrecked off the island of Rhodes. Everyone lost their luggage and it led to Hester spending the night in a rat-infested windmill with a bunch of drunken sailors for company. Separated from her belongings, she had to find other clothes. Rather than wear a veil, she chose to dress in a robe, turban and slippers. When they eventually arrived in Egypt, she bought a purple velvet robe, embroidered trousers, a waistcoat, a jacket and a sabre. She found men’s clothes preferable and dressed that way from then on.

In Alexandria, she and her party set about learning Turkish and Arabic. The East was now in her blood and they pressed onwards to Lebanon and Syria. On the way, she met with many important Sheiks, some of whom would have been very dangerous enemies. They had never seen anything quite like her before and she seems to have been well received. Some accounts tell of how she was hailed as a princess, but it also seems possible that they all thought she was a bit mad and that just going along with her would be the polite thing to do. When she reached Damascus in 1812, she insisted on entering the city unveiled and on horseback, both of which were forbidden, but she seemed to get away with it.

03 12 palmyraThe following year, she visited the ruined desert city of Palmyra. It had once been ruled by Queen Zenobia who had led a revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century. No European woman had ever seen the city before. It was a week’s ride away from Damascus over a wasteland that was ruled by dangerous Bedouin tribes. She made the journey dressed as a Bedouin and took with her a caravan of twenty-two camels. The people of Palmyra were impressed by her courage and gave her a crown of palm leaves. She was a bit carried away by this and later wrote: “I have been crowned Queen of the Desert. I have nothing to fear…I am the sun, the stars, the pearl, the lion, the light from heaven.”

In case you’re worried that her story is about to end with her being cruelly slain in a lonely desert, rest assured, it does not. Her end is not a happy one, but she has a few years to go yet. After that, she returned to Lebanon where she lived in several places before settling in a remote and abandoned monastery. Her lover returned to England in 1813, her doctor, in 1831. On her travels, she had come by a medieval Italian manuscript that said there were three million gold coins hidden under the ruins of a mosque at Ashkelon on the coast. She gained permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate the site in 1815. It would be the first archaeological excavation in Palestine. Hester found no gold. What she did find was a seven foot tall headless marble statue. The thing she did next would horrify all later archaeologists and you probably won’t like it either. She had the statue smashed up and thrown in the sea. Apparently, she did this because she didn’t want to be accused of smuggling antiquities, although why she couldn’t just have left it there in one piece is beyond me.

At home in Lebanon, she became fascinated with astrology and alchemy. A fortune teller in London had once told her that she was destined to go to Jerusalem and lead the chosen people. She started to believe in the prophecy about an Islamic Messiah figure called ‘Mahdi’, and that she was destined to become his bride. She even owned a sacred horse that she believed he would ride on. It was born with a deformed spine. There was a prophecy which said that he would ride on a horse that was born saddled, and the animal’s sharply curved spine was, she thought, just like a Turkish saddle. She named the horse Layla and it was soon joined by a second horse named Lulu who she would ride alongside the Mahdi when he came for her.

Despite her eccentricities, she was generous with her hospitality. Any European traveller was well received and, when civil war broke out in the area, she gave shelter to hundreds of refugees. She fed and clothed them and, even though it nearly bankrupted her, never turned anyone away. The monastery at Djoun, which was her final home, was a hilltop house with thirty-six rooms full of secret passageways and hidden chambers. There, she kept thirty cats that her servants were forbidden to touch. In her old age, she was deeply in debt and became more and more of a recluse. Her servants resorted to stealing from her because she could not pay them. Then, in 1838, the government cut off her pension in order to pay her creditors. She sent her servants away and walled herself up in her house with her cats. She died there alone in 1839. Sad.


02 17 isabelle eberhardtToday is the birthday of Isabelle Eberhardt, who was born in 1877 in Geneva, Switzerland. Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Lutheran German and a Russian Jew. Her father was a Russian anarchist who had once been an Orthodox priest. Her father taught her to speak French, Russian German and Italian. She also knew Latin Greek and Classical Arabic. She and her father read the Koran together. From an early age she enjoyed dressing as a boy because of the freedom it allowed her. I love this photo of her, dressed as a sailor and wearing a hat that appears to say ‘vengeance’. Isabelle’s life was unlikely to be a mundane one, and it wasn’t. It was also sadly rather short. She died at twenty-seven.

Isabelle is rather hard to pin down. She was a writer and a wanderer. A hedonist who also longed to find peace and stillness. She wrote her first published short story at eighteen under the pseudonym Nicolas Podolinsky. It was about a medical student who falls in love with corpses. Her second story was about male homosexuality. She also started to write about life in North Africa. She had never been, but she had a brother in the Foreign Legion and also a pen pal who was a French officer stationed in the Sahara. Her ‘Vision of the Maghreb’ so impressed an Algerian-French photographer that he invited Isabelle and her mother to come and stay with him. Algeria was then under French colonial rule. They arrived in 1897 and stayed for a little while but soon moved into an Arabic style house far away from the European quarter. They both converted to Islam. Isabelle dressed as a man because Muslim women were not allowed to go out alone or unveiled. They were shunned by both the French settlers and the colonial administration. Later that year Isabelle’s mother died and she devoted herself to the Muslim way of life. Apart from the fact that she often drank a lot of alcohol and smoked a lot of marijuana.

02 17 in arab dress - about 1900In 1899 her father died. Free from family ties, she began to live a rather nomadic life style. She now dressed in men’s clothes all the time and called herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She both wrote and spoke as if she were a man, specifically an Arabic man. When asked why that was, she replied that it was impossible for her to do otherwise. She wasn’t particularly fooling anyone into thinking she was a man, The people who met her knew perfectly well that it was a disguise. The Algerians just accepted her decision whereas the Europeans she met were critical. They couldn’t understand why, if she wanted to wear men’s clothes at all (which they thought was ridiculous anyway) she had not chosen to dress as a European man. I don’t think she had any specific yearning to be a man, but it would have been impossible for her to get about and do the things she wanted if she appeared to be a woman. It seems as though she hoped to find herself by pursuing a simple desert life, but also by turning inward by smoking marijuana and kief

Often running out of money, she made several trips backwards and forwards between North Africa and Europe seeking funds. At one point she was employed to investigate the death of a French marquis who had been assassinated by Tuareg tribesmen. She readily accepted, but there is no evidence that she did much investigating.

She met and fell in love with an Algerian soldier called Slimane Ehnni and also joined the Sufi order of the Qadiriyya. The Qadiriyya had a widespread network of zawiya, religious houses where she would be able to find hospitality on her travels. There was no love lost between the Algerians and their French rulers and, in her writing, Isabelle tended to favour the Algerian point of view. The French didn’t like her, they thought she was a spy. They put her on a blacklist and transferred Slimane Ehnni to another post. She was too poor to follow. While she was trying to seek assistance from the Qadiriyya, she was attacked by a man with a sabre. She managed to dodge most of his blows, but her left arm was almost severed. She believed that her attacker was an assassin paid for by the French. She was taken to a military hospital and once she had recovered the Qadiriyya paid for her to travel and be reunited with her lover. They considered her survival a miracle. The French responded by ordering her to leave Algeria. She left for France but returned briefly when her attacker was put on trial. She told the court that she held no grudge against him and even pleaded successfully for his life to be spared.

In 1901, Ehnni was posted to Marseille in France. They were married, which meant she could return to Algeria. She worked for a newspaper in Algiers, having several short stories published and did some work as a war reporter. Isabelle also seems to have worked for the French Foreign Legion as liaison between themselves and the local Arabic people. In 1904 she rented to a mud house in Aïn Séfra, a village at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. She and her husband had been apart for some time and she asked him to join her, which he did on October 20th. The next day there was a flash flood which washed away their house and Isabelle was drowned. Among the works she left behind were an unfinished novel called ‘Trimardeur’ (Vagabond), a semi-autobiographical story about a Russian student who tires of his anarchist friends, becomes absorbed by Arabic culture and spends his life wandering and observing. She also wrote a series of short stories that are gathered under the title ‘The Oblivion Seekers’. Isabelle was not afraid of dying, she said: “I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way.” I’m not sure whether drowning in a desert is obscure and pointless or not.


12 29 emma snodgrassWhat with reality television, docusoaps and twitter we’re all familiar with the way people rise to prominence in the media for a time only to disappear into obscurity a few months later. Stories come and go so quickly it seems as though Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes might be true. But this is not a purely modern phenomenon. From late 1852 until the summer of the following year, people all over the United States were terribly interested in the antics of a seventeen-year-old girl called Emma Snodgrass. People were very shocked by her behaviour. The thing she did that upset everyone so much was to dress in man’s clothes. She was arrested for wearing pants. It’s hard to understand now why this should have been such a problem but it really was.

Emma was from New York where her father was a respected city official. On December 29th 1852, she was arrested in Boston for the crime of wearing pants. This was not the first time this had happened, nor was it the last. Some time in November, calling herself George Green, she had got a job as a clerk in a clothing store. When her cover was blown, she was arrested, given more appropriate attire and packed off back to her father in New York in the company of her brother. It was an unusual story which soon made it into the local paper. A few weeks later, she was back again. She took lodgings in a coffee house. She left her lodgings in women’s clothes but returned wearing a frock coat, cap, vest and pants. Her landlord recognised her and informed the police. She was again returned to her father. No one was able to understand why she persisted in wearing men’s clothing and one begins to wonder whether anyone ever asked her.

Several stories concerning her behaviour appeared in December. She was once again, caught wearing pants. She attracted the attention of romantic young men. She visited Portsmouth. N.H. Where she caused a ‘profound sensation’. Then on December 29th she was arrested again. This time she was in the company of another, similarly disguised young woman called Harriet French. According to the newspaper report “it was with great difficulty that the friends could be separated”. Eventually Emma was returned yet again to New York in the company of a police officer whilst Harriet was given a day’s grace to leave town or else face two months imprisonment at Blackwell’s Island. While Emma came from a well-off family, Harriet did not. That, said one newspaper, “is the difference between breeches without money, and breeches with”.

Apart from the trousers thing, no one seems to have adequately put their finger on what the problem with her was. On one hand she appeared in court charged with vagrancy but, as she had always paid her way, never begged or misbehaved herself she was released. Yet, another report says that she frequented drinking houses “made several violent attempts to talk ‘horse,’ and do other things for which ‘fast’ boys are noted.” What it means to talk horse, who the fast boys were and what else they got up to, I have been unable to find out. In the spring of the following year she was spotted in Albany calling herself Henry Lewis. She said she was on her way to California or Australia. Over the following months, she was reported in Louisville, in Buffalo, in Cleveland. Then in July a story appeared claiming that she had given up all her nonsense and gone home. Maybe she did, maybe she made it to Australia or maybe she just got really good at disguising her self.

Although no one seems to have found out  why Emma chose to dress as a man, a few years later another young woman, called Charley, was arrested in New York whilst wearing men’s clothes. She claimed to have been with Emma Snodgrass in Boston, but had not been found out. Charley was asked about her own choice. She said that it was just easier, she could get better work for more money as a man. She had worked for a long time as a cabin boy on a Mississippi steamboat and then as a bar tender in the city. She had started to dress as a boy at fifteen, she said: “I acted wrong once, I don’t deny it; but I didn’t like to, and it was to prevent the necessity of continuing to act bad that I put on boy’s clothes.”


11 28 edward hydeToday I want to tell you about Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon who was born on this day in 1661 and grew up in Berkshire, England. As far as I can make out, he’s nothing to do with the Edward Hyde in the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, but he may have had an alter ego. Hyde’s aunt was the Duchess of York, who would one day marry King James II, His cousin would grow up to be Queen Anne. He was pretty well connected. Hyde, then known as Lord Cornbury, was colonial governor of New York between 1702 and 1708 and would become fabled as one of the worst governors of an American colony that the British had ever appointed. He was the sort of person that old aristocratic families are so good at squeezing out, an arrogant idiot. He drank too much, accepted bribes and possibly stole £1,500 pound that was meant for the defence of New York Harbour. But none of these awful things are why I want to talk about him today. As you see from this picture, he’s wearing a frock and I want to tell you about his reputation for going about in women’s clothes.

We are told by his contemporaries that he officiated at the opening of the New York Assembly in 1702 wearing a hooped gown, an elaborate headdress and carried a fan. His attire was very similar to something his cousin, Queen Anne would have chosen. When challenged about his choice of clothing, this was his reply: “You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (Queen Anne), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can.” We are led to believe that he dressed in women’s clothes frequently and was given to hiding behind trees and then leaping out at people shrieking and laughing, which I find a slightly more worrying pastime than the dressing up. An account from 1901 has him frequently parading up and down Broadway in an elaborate gown with a string of amused children following in his wake. He may even have been arrested by a constable who mistook him for a prostitute. When his wife, Lady Katherine, 8th Baroness of Clifton, died in 1706 he was even said to have attended her funeral in a dress.

His mode of attire was not his only unusual habit. He really liked ears. He may have fallen for his wife because she had nice ears. Once, when expected to make a public speech, he delivered instead a flowery sort of eulogy in praise of the beauty of his wife’s ears. Then afterwards he invited everyone else to feel them for themselves so they would know how shell-like they really were.

There is no indication that Hyde saw himself in any way as a figure of fun. In fact, he liked to be addressed by his preferred title of ‘His High Mightiness’, which probably didn’t help him win many friends either. There were many complaints about his general unsuitability for his post as governor and, in 1708, he was removed from office. His successor, Robert Hunter, arrived in 1710 to find Hyde in debtor’s prison in Manhattan, impoverished, but still wearing a dress. Hunter paid his debts and sent him home to England. There, he was able to take his place in the House of Lords.

The actual evidence that Hyde really dressed in women’s clothes is scant. It comes largely from a few letters written by three men who really hated him. So it’s possible that they were spreading a rumour to discredit him. Even the painting with his name on it may just be an image that has become associated with him. It was first alleged to be a painting of Hyde over seventy years after his death. It was bought by the New York Historical Society in 1952 and arrived with a label that described it as ‘Lord Cornbury, half-witted son of Henry, Lord of Clarendon.

I don’t want to pretend that Hyde was nice or misunderstood, he clearly wasn’t. He’s not a person to hold up as a rôle model or a good example of anything. He was an over-privileged idiot. But he’s been presented as an eccentric idiot and what I like about him is that the tales of his proclivities, designed to discredit him, are the same stories that make him so interesting today. No one would care much about a corrupt seventeenth century governor of New York if we didn’t have a picture of him in a dress. Pretty much his only legacy is this picture that might not be him, doing something that he might never have done. But, judging by what I’ve read of the rest of his life, it’s the best thing about him.