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24 January 2010

The wilder shores of love - Part I


Jane Digby was known in her later years as “Engleysi,” the Madwoman. Unbelievable as it may seem, this is the true story of a Regency-era woman, born into nobility in 1807 in Norfolk, England. She grew up in comfort, in a serene pastoral countryside before the Industrial Revolution, and she gave her governess heart failure: Jane loved life; she had perfect health, a reckless and ardent temperament; and (in her later years) she thrived on scandal. Throughout her life a “scarlet thread of exoticism” pulled her into a yen for adventurous travel (not surprising since her father was a buccaneering admiral). A child of the Regency, she was enamored of romantic curiosities–Turkish slippers, Arab daggers, Moorish-style gazebos, onion-shaped domes.

Jane was married (though not consulted) at age 17 to Lord Ellenborough, a man twice her age who neglected her. In 1821 she had a fling with her cousin, Captain George Anson, conceived a child, whom Lord Ellenborough accepted as his heir. Jane then fell madly in love with an Austrian Prince, Felix Schwarzenberg, and fled to Paris with him. In doing this she gave up everything – her good name, her fortune, and her friends. Alas, the prince cooled after the birth of two daughters, and by this time Lord Ellenborough had divorced her.

Jane had outraged public opinion. Her family back in England turned her pictures to the wall, but she kept the love and respect of close friends. According to those who knew her well, she was transparently honest, without pose, eager, trusting, and uncynical. And romantic. Her life extended from the Regency age into the Victorian age, during which Jane became the mistress of both King Ludwig I of Bavaria, and later, his son, Otho, the king of Greece.

And then one day she traveled to Syria to buy an Arabian horse. She was 46 years old, spoke and read 8 languages including Arabic, was interested in archeology, a superb horsewoman, and still extraordinarily beautiful. The lusty young Bedouin Sheikh Salih, 20 years her junior, swept her off her feet. He refused to give up his harem; Jane insisted on being the sole wife, and they parted.

Jane could not return to England, France, Bavaria, or Greece, so she decided to learn Arabic and retire to the Arab quarter of Damascus with Eugenie, her long-suffering maid. She hired another camel caravan to cross the desert, a 9-day journey – an unheard of venture by a single woman traveling alone. Along the way she met Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, a Bedouin chief who controlled the desert she was crossing. The man was honorable and cultivated, educated (at the insistence of his father) and well-read; he spoke 3 languages, was tall and unusually handsome, and he fell hard for Jane. Mezrab was also described as virile, scholarly, a man of character and humor. But he was of the desert...

It was unheard of for a Muslim man, particularly a sheikh, to marry a Christian woman. But Mezrab had found out about Jane’s dalliance with Sheikh Salih and did not want to share her. In 1854 Jane started for Baghdad in another caravan and along the way enjoyed a voluptuous affair with another sheikh El Barrak. But they quarreled. By now Jane was famous in Syria. Mezrab intercepted the caravan with a beautiful Arab mare for Jane, announced he had divorced his existing wife, and begged her to marry him. The English consul in Damascus tried to prevent the union, but they were married at Homs and moved into a house Mezrab owned. Jane was now known as Jane Digby El Mezrab and Umn-el-Labam - Mother of Milk, because of her fair complexion.

From then on, the couple spent six months in a fine house Jane built in Damascus and six months in Arab tents. She adopted Arab ways: went barefoot, wore a simple blue robe and yeshmak, used kohl around her eyes. The Arabs admired her horse knowledge and skill; she hunted with falcons and Persian hounds and rode her camel at the head of Mezrab’s tribe of Bedouins. She adopted the Arab philosophy of To Be rather than the western To Have; entertained Mezrab’s 8 brothers, wives, and children, and gave sought-after advice on medicine, law, and education.

Jane also rode on tribal raids, once to restore a stolen mare of hers which was finally regained after a desert skirmish lasting 3 weeks. Some battles, she observed , were conducted like medieval tourneys with ceremony and tradition; others were bloody free-for-alls in which a young girl singer was housed in a camel howdah. The object of battle was to capture the girl, who sang inciting songs to the tribesmen. Jane was an eye-witness.

Jane and Mezrab were devoted to each other, and the marriage lasted 30 years, until Jane’s death. More of Jane’s adventures and the dramatic end of her life will be covered in Part II (blog on February 12).

Source: Lesley Blanch, The Wilder Shores of Love.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a fantastic woman! I had never heard this story before. Thanks for bringing it to us, Lynna. Here is a woman who lived life on her own terms. Now THAT is a romance heroine !

6:23 PM  
Blogger lostpastremembered said...

A remarkable story, can it be true? It is the stuff of legend.... or at least a good book or two!

6:27 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Mary Lovell has written a wonderful biography of Jane Digby which I used when I wrote my post on her.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Great post, Lynna. Jane Digby has always fascinated me. What a life she had! At one point she was on my short list of historical women to enshrine in a novel.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Lynna Banning said...

Dear lostpast... Yes, she was a real person and those are the facts of her life. Elizabeth Kerri
Mahon had posted about Jane Digby earlier...
which I (apologies to Elizabeth) did not remember when I posted mine.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Elizabeth--I'd like to read your blog on Jane Digby--how do I find it? (Baby steps, please--I am not too computer savvy)

10:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lynna! I had heard of Jane Digby (I have a copy of "Wilder Shores of Love" and have dipped into the adventures of the various women chronicled at various points), but I didn't know all these details. Are you thinking of using this in a book?

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Lynna, I wrote it way back in February of 2008. I adore Jane Digby. Her many times great niece was Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Truthfully I'm glad that you posted, because more people should know about this amazing woman. If you get a chance, read the Mary Lovell biography because she had access to a great deal of information that other authors haven't.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Lynna Banning said...

Tracy,
No, I'm not planning to use this information in a book... the devil-may-care character, maybe,
but Regency is not my era of expertise.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous librarypat said...

Wonderful post. History is full of fascinating women who lived life to the fullest and on their own terms. I'll have to check into her biography. I look forward to Part II.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Lana said...

She sounds fascinating, and an excellent subject for a historical novel. I love a good devil-may-care heroine. Looking forward to Part II!

2:10 PM  
Blogger mlovell23 said...

Clearly the writer of this blog does not know any Syrian Arabic. The word Englesi means Englishwoman, not madwoman. As Jane Digby's biographer I have never heard her called 'Englesi' but during her own time, and even now in the khasab district of Damascus wehere she once lived she is referred to as El Signora (the Lady).

9:46 AM  

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