Exploring the Middle East with Lady Hester Stanhope

By Lawrence Evalyn

Our final interview features Professor Hélène Palma’s work on one of the eighteenth century’s boldest women: Lady Hester Stanhope.

The aristocratic traveler “developed a passion for political influence and went to great lengths to become an important leader herself, in Lebanon and the Middle East.”

Read more – and enjoy images of a gorgeous, enormous book on ancient Palmyra – in the CSECS blog’s final post.

Hélène Palma is a Senior Lecturer in British Studies at Aix-Marseille Université (LERMA) in France. She defended her PhD on the Scottish Enlightenment at the Université Stendhal-Grenoble III, nowadays Université Grenoble-Alpes, in 2004. Since then, her research has focused on topics including women and masonic spirituality (2012), the Enlightenment roots of political rights and liberties in the European Union (2015), and the writer, socialite, memoirist, and traveler, Elizabeth Craven (2017).

Professor Palma’s CSECS 2017 paper, “Lady Hester Stanhope, A Female Cosmopolitan?”, discusses the eccentric traveler who toured the Middle East and eventually settled there. To learn more, see the interview below and, as always, scroll to the bottom for images of one of the Fisher’s archival holdings. We paired this post with Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra (1753), an enormous, beautiful book with over fifty illustrations of the ancient city, which Stanhope visited in 1813.

Lawrence Evalyn (LE) : Can you give us an introduction to Lady Hester Stanhope? How did you become interested in her?

Hélène Palma (HP) : Lady Hester Stanhope was an eccentric—an extremely bold and assertive woman, educated by an equally strong-willed father, Charles Stanhope. Having had the opportunity of living with her uncle William Pitt the Younger at 10 Downing Street when the latter was Britain’s Prime Minister until his death in 1806, Hester developed a passion for political influence and went to great lengths to become an important leader herself, in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Lady Hester Stanhope
A portrait of Lady Hester Stanhope by Robert Jacob Hammerton, digitized by the National Portrait Gallery.

I became interested in her because my research tends to focus on these kinds of unconventional personalities of the eighteenth century : divorced or repudiated women such as Lady Elizabeth Craven, free-spirited female travellers like Mary Wollstonecraft, provocative personalities like historian Catharine Macaulay.

LE: What parts of Stanhope’s life have been most difficult to locate information about? How do the constraints of the historical record impact the ways we can understand Stanhope today? Does Stanhope’s own work as an archaeologist offer any useful lessons for approaching historical research?

HP: Hester Stanhope generally had little contact with British or European expatriates in the Middle East. It is therefore slightly more difficult to depict her personality than if she had spent her life in Britain or in Europe, surrounded by potential witnesses. Moreover, her life in the Middle East is reported mostly through her own letters. But Dr. Meryon’s writings (her physician) and a few other testimonies give a rather accurate idea of the type of person she was.

Her archaeological work is probably the worst counter-example possible for a historian. Lady Stanhope decided to start excavations in Ashkelon with the objective of discovering money which she intended to give to the Sultan of Constantinople, a notorious tyrant. When she found out that there was no treasure but a gorgeous Roman statue instead, she ordered it to be destroyed and thrown into the sea. This was supposed to ‘prove’ that she had no intention of looting the Middle East… I am tempted to consider this act of destruction as even worse than looting.

The Ruins of Ashkelon (est. 1881-1884) by Harry Fenn

LE: Stanhope’s travels are remarkable, and particularly remarkable for a woman. How do you see gender interacting with other social categories (like nationality, class, and race) or changing in meaning as she changes geography?

HP: Being a woman was a drawback for Hester Stanhope, given her political and personal ambitions. She loved living at 10 Downing Street with her uncle and she enjoyed having some sort of power, though unofficial. She was not, because of her education and her father’s personality, the type of young girl who would have been happy as a wife and a mother. Hester wanted more than that : she wanted power, importance, influence and fame. Therefore, leaving Britain and settling in a territory where her nationality and her social rank could give her the possibility of becoming a leader in spite of her gender appeared as a solution.

However, in spite of her protected status in the Middle East due to her social origin, her nationality and the renown of her family (she generally introduced herself to her Oriental guests and hosts as ‘William Pitt’s niece’), she dressed like a man as she was aware that female garments would have discredited her as a political figure. Gender therefore tended to remain an obstacle for her, even in the Middle East, and in spite of her privileged social and national status.

LE: Unlike “Grand Tour” travellers who mostly socialized with their fellow foreigners, Stanhope seems to have embedded herself in the places she lived with few ties back to England. What does eighteenth-century Orientalism look like with “the Orient” as the centre and England as a distant periphery? To what extent do Orientalist frameworks still apply?

Lady Hester Stanhope 1845
This nineteenth-century illustration of Stanhope was featured in her Memoirs (1845), recounted by Stanhope’s physician, Lewis Meryon.

HP: Indeed Hester Stanhope kept very few contacts with fellow countrymen and countrywomen, apart from members of her personnel, such as Dr. Meryon or her chamber maid, Miss Williams. Hester Stanhope became increasingly bitter towards her native country. However, and even though she tended to blend in quite happily with the local lifestyle, developing an interest in Islam and speaking Arabic, she still used her social and political background to gain influence and respect. From this point of view, the Orientalist interpretation grid definitely applies to Lady Stanhope.

LE: Your work seems generally interested in tracing the travel of persons and the transmission of texts. Do you see Stanhope’s journey as one-way, or does she “circulate” in the world? In keeping with the conference theme, does cosmopolitanism require that people and ideas circulate?

HP: Stanhope’s journey is indeed one-way and I tend to see her whole life as a sort of headlong rush. I would be tempted to define cosmopolitanism as requiring exchange and circulation. Hester Stanhope indeed travelled a lot and her ideas changed when she came in contact with the Orient. But she never returned to Britain to share her experience. This will be the object of my paper.

LE: As you say, it’s striking that after Stanhope leaves England, she does not return, despite her former prominence in England. This question is largely driven by my own interest in the 1790s, but having been born in 1776 Stanhope would have grown up with the French Revolution, and she leaves England in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. I’m curious to hear what connections or key dissimilarities you see between her travels and that of the French émigrés. Can Stanhope tell us anything about the social position of “the exile”?

Emigrant Clergy
Cruikshank’s print, “Emigrant clergy reading the latest decree, that all who returns shall be put to death” (1792). Courtesy of the British Museum.

HP: Hester left Britain because she had definitely lost her former ‘prominence’ there. Being a woman, and even though she had loved being a sort of unofficial advisor for the Prime Minister, she knew that she would never have a similar position in the British society again. Hence her journey to the Orient and her subsequent settlement there. Her departure was a sort of flight, somewhat like the French émigrés’ swift leaving after 1789.

However, the French émigrés fled a dangerous situation and generally found refuge in European countries such as Britain. Unlike them, Hester fled Britain, a country which did not threaten its aristocrats with death and where she was in security, to settle in an area where she expected to be respected and treated like a queen. Hester’s example tells us that one can wilfully become an exile to fulfill one’s dreams of power and grandeur.

LE: And, finally, do you have a favourite “Lady Hester Stanhope story” to share?

HP: When she was aged nine, Hester met the French Ambassador, Count d’Adhémar, at Chevening, her family’s estate. She was extremely impressed by the elegant man and intrigued to the point of making the decision to travel to France. She took a rowing-boat and paddled away until a group of fishermen caught up with her and brought her back home where she was severely punished. This anecdote is probably the one that reflects best this extraordinary woman’s daring and adventurous personality.

For more, attend Professor Palma’s paper, “Lady Hester Stanhope, a Female Cosmopolitan?” at the “Travel” panel on Saturday October 21st, 2017. 

Into the Archive…

After traveling through Malta, Constantinople, and Rhodes, Stanhope arrived in Palmyra on March 17, 1813. The elaborate reception that followed led Stanhope to crow in a letter. Writing from the coast of Syria on June 30, 1813, Stanhope boasts:

I have been crowned Queen of the Desert under the triumphal arch at Palmyra!…The Slepts (the Arabs who live by hunting and are dressed in the skins of beasts), the bands from the banks of the Euphrates, story-tellers, and Wahabees, all paid me homage. If I please I can now go to Mecca alone; I have nothing to fear. I shall soon have as many names as Apollo. I am the sun, the star, the pearl, the lion, the light from Heaven, and the Queen… [1]

To more fully visualize this extraordinary moment in Stanhope’s travels, we highlight Robert Wood’s The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise known as Tedmore in the Desart (1753; call number: FO-1 00302). This magnificent book illustrates the ancient city with over fifty plates based on drawings by the Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Borra (1713-1770).

Palmyra 3 leave Image
A massive tri-leaf panorama, approximately 6 feet long

Images truly cannot do justice to this spectacular book. Measuring 54 cm x 35 cm (for American visitors, that’s about 2 feet by 1 foot), the book is enormous and includes an even larger proto-panorama of Palmyra (above).

Palmyra - 4
Corinthian details

Borra used multiple visual styles to bring Palmyra to life for readers who had never visited the site, providing what a modern cinematographer would call long shots and close ups. He provides architectural sketches of an entire building’s foundations and broad layout, alongside illustrations of tiny, ornate details, such as a column’s corinthian style (left) .

Borra’s other techniques include depicting aerial views, producing breathtaking panoramas, reproducing Greek inscriptions, and, in almost every plate, providing measurements of the site. Through mathematics, Borra demonstrates the grand scale of the ancient city. One can almost imagine readers, young and old, spooling out the cloth tape measure to see for themselves just how high a doorway was in Palmyra.

For more, see the slideshow below or better yet, visit the copy held by the Fisher.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A final note: Students at the University of Toronto are grateful to Professor Jill Heydt-Stevenson for bringing this magnificent book to our attention. When Stevenson was in town for a presentation at the Toronto Eighteenth-Century Group in 2015, she was kind enough to accompany students on a trip to the Fisher.

[1] Catherine Cleveland, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (London: Murray, 1914), 159.

All images of The Ruins of Palmyra are courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. 


One thought on “Exploring the Middle East with Lady Hester Stanhope

  1. I took Professor Palma’s translation class when I studied in Université Stendhal-Grenoble III, in 2006 spring. I am originally from India but have been living in the US for more than 22 years. I just successfully defended my PhD dissertation at the University of Houston. One of my chapters is on Flora Tristan, the early socialist-feminist, whom I treat as a cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word. I wonder if there is a special way women travelers experience cosmopolitanism, when compared to men. Many women are displaced or disenfranchised by their societies, like Lady Stanhope or Flora Tristan, and become cosmopolitans by default.How does this impact their embrace of others or L’altérité? Would they have been cosmopolitans had they been welcomed by the majority of their compatriots? I will appreciate if Prof Palma could respond via email to me, so we can establish our lost contact.


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