We’re winding down on Smithsonian Women’s History Month! But we’re not done yet! In fact we’ve got Sandra Schwab here today to tell us about Lady Holland! When trying to plan for March I was like “my gosh what do I do?” So I put out a call on social media, contacted some people, and looked up other awesome historical women I wanted to feature. I think it’s gone okay so far, right? 😉
Sandra has everything covered really, with a really great and informative post, so I’ll just let her take it from here!
A Most Remarkable Woman: Lady Holland
Some fourteen or fifteen years ago, I stumbled across a mention of Lady Holland, one of the great Whig hostesses of the early nineteenth century, and the Holland House Circle. What I read was intriguing enough to dig a little deeper when I was doing research for my first historical romance. I read many contemporary and later accounts as well as diaries and detailed descriptions of the house and its environs. What slowly emerged was the story of a most remarkable woman.
Lady Holland was born in 1771 as Elizabeth Vassal, the daughter of a rich merchant family. Barely fifteen, she was forced to marry Sir Godfrey Webster, who was more than 20 years her senior. As can be expected she was deeply unhappy in her marriage, especially when it became obvious that their interests were wide apart. She loved travelling and was interested in the arts. He was not. Even worse: he was becoming increasingly abusive.
In 1793, during a journey through Italy with her husband, Elizabeth wrote in her journal:
“In all the collections much escapes me, as I am always accompanied by one whose impetuosity compels me to hasten from objects I would willingly contemplate, and whose violence of temper throws me into agitations that prevent me distinguishing the objects when they are before me. Much as I endure now, yet it is infinitely more bearable than formerly; experience and a better knowledge of the world makes me laugh at menaces that used to terrify me out of my senses. These threats […] follow the slightest difference of opinion between us. / The present reigning grievance is the being from home, and my determined love for being abroad.”
Sir Godfrey became so violent, that friends and acquaintances were worried for Elizabeth’s safety and advised her never to travel alone with her husband, but always in large groups. It is no wonder then that Elizabeth did try to avoid the company of her husband as much as possible. In the winter of 1793/ 1794 she was travelling alone around the continent (despite the war that had broken out!), and once again went to Italy, where she met Henry Richard Fox, 3rd Lord Holland — and they seemed to have hit if off right from the start. In early February 1794 Elizabeth wrote in her diary:
“Ld. G. Leveson-Gower and Ld. Holland came here the day before yesterday. The first I knew at Dresden. He is remarkably handsome and winning […]. Ld. Holland is not in the least handsome; he has, on the contrary, many personal defects, but his pleasingness of manner and liveliness of conversation get over them speedily. He is just returned from Spain, and his complexion partakes of the Morescoe hue. He is now in better health. He has a very complex disorder, called an ossification of the muscles in his left leg. […] They dined with us […] Ld. Holland quite delightful; his gaiety beyond anything I ever knew, full of good stories.”
And so, it did not take long before Elizabeth was head over heels in love with Lord Holland. She started an affair with him and soon was pregnant with his child. This acted as the cue for her husband to start divorce proceedings in England — at that time, a very messy affair. The marriage was eventually annulled in 1797, eight months after Elizabeth had given birth to a son, Charles Fox Vassall — and surely this was meant to be Sir Godfrey’s revenge: he went to parliament for an annulment so late that this child was born illegitimate and could not inherit Lord Holland’s title. Two days after the annulment, Elizabeth married her Lord Holland.
“I was married at Rickmansworth Church by Rev. Mr. Morris to Lord Holland, on July 6th, 1797. […] I was twenty-six years old. Ld. H. was twenty-three. The difference in age is, alas! two years and eight months—a horrid disparity,” Elizabeth writes, tongue-in-cheek. And Lady Bessborough, who was present at the wedding, wrote to Lord Leveson-Gower: “I never saw creatures so happy. Such perfect happiness as theirs scarcely ever was instanc’d before.”
Yet of course, this happiness didn’t come without a price. The divorce from Sir Godfrey was the scandal of the year, and in fact, would never be quite forgotten for the rest of Lady Holland’s life. The first years of her marriage must have been the most difficult for her, one can guess, for she would have been followed by giggles and whispers wherever she went, and some ladies wouldn’t receive her at all. Even several decades later, sticklers for propriety would either leave their wives at home when coming to Holland House, or said wives wouldn’t attend a social event if they knew Lady Holland would be present.
But Lady Holland was in many ways a force of nature and overcame these difficulties to become one of the most famous hostesses of the early 19th century. Indeed, she managed to make Holland House in Kensington a glittering social, political and cultural center. Regular guests at Holland House included Sir Walter Scott; Byron, who sent presentation copies of his works to Lady Holland; John Kemble, the famous actor; Henry Luttrell, one of the most famous wits of the Regency and a protégé of the Duchess of Devonshire; the ladies’ man Palmerston, who was known as “Cupid” at Almack’s, but more importantly was Secretary at War for nearly 20 years (1809-1830), Foreign Secretary for another twenty, and later Prime Minister under Queen Victoria; the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo and the Spanish-Irish poet José Maria Blanco White, who acted as tutor for Lord Holland’s heir Henry for a while. And then, of course, there was John Allen, who lived at Holland House and combined the positions of librarian, steward and loyal friend.
Dinners at Holland House were notorious both for Lady Holland’s sharp tongue and for the overcrowded dinner table. Sometimes 16 people dined at a table for 9, and people were given exact instructions where to sit, or were ordered to vacate their chairs for some more favored guests. On one occasion, when Lady Holland ordered Luttrell to make room, he answered, “It will have to be made, for it does not exist.” On the other hand, this tight squeeze at her dinner table, even though it was somewhat disagreeable, still resulted in a feeling of good-fellowship and resembled the general scramble of a picnic.
At her dinner table, in particular, and in her own home in general, Lady Holland was the supreme leader. She was famous for her extreme frankness, which bordered on rudeness, and this character trait sparked lots of anecdotes, for example, she once told Samuel Rogers, “Your poetry is bad enough, so pray be sparing of your prose.” (Ouch!)
Yet despite all her faults, Lady Holland’s friends seemed to have really liked her, for while she could be extremely rude, she was also very kind. Sir Henry Holland, who was not a relative, but one of the most sought-after physicians of his time, wrote of her, “In my long and intimate knowledge of Lady Holland, I never knew her desert an old friend, whatever his condition might be.” She was also very kind to servants, and when Edgar, one of her pages, fell ill, she made fuss of Edgar, whom she called a “little creature” even though he was a tall, hulking lad of 20. She ordered her guests to sit by his bedside and entertain him. It takes little imagination to see how this would have greatly embarrassed both sides. But even though, Edgar remained in the Hollands’ service and was still there when Lord Holland died 16 years later in 1845.
Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old. Thirty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion, even though by now she has exchanged her pink fountain pen of old for a black computer keyboard. Since the release of her debut novel The Lily Band in 2005, she has enchanted readers worldwide with her unusual historical romances.
She lives in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, with a sketchbook, a sewing machine, and an ever-expanding library.
Find her online, or catch up with her on Facebook, Twitter, or perhaps you would like to accompany her characters to one of Lady Holland’s dinner parties? Sign up for Sandra’s newsletter, so you won’t miss the re-release of The Lily Band this spring!