- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- 1st American ed
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- 3.96(w) x 2.49(h) x 0.53(d)
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I Golden Childhood 1807-1823
When Jane Elizabeth Digby was born at Forston House in Dorset on 3 April 1807 her parents had hoped for a son. However, she was such a beautiful child that her family were soon besotted with her. After all, there was time for sons and, as Jane's aunt wrote, 'providing the little girl is well and promising we must not hold her sex against her'.
Later, with her large violet-blue eyes and pink-and-white complexion, little Janet (as her family called her then) was a pretty sight. Her waist-length golden hair, curling free from the prescribed banded and ringleted style, glistened halo-like in the sunshine. Her cheeks glowed: 'a picture of health,' local villagers said. As curious and agile as a kitten, as intelligent and eager as a puppy, she seemed to want to take the world by the coat-tails, and there was about her, even then, an irresistible charm.
This alert vitality captivated her grandfather, who was called 'Coke of Norfolk' throughout the country and 'King Coke' by everyone in Norfolk. Widely regarded as the most important and powerful commoner in England, Thomas Coke might have had a peerage for the asking; indeed, King George III was eager enough to bestow one. Yet this would have meant Coke giving up his independence and his seat in the House of Commons where he represented the county of Norfolk. He saw no merit in doing so.
Thomas Coke had three daughters, Jane, Anne and Elizabeth. They were all acknowledged beauties and all well educated; his late wife had seen to that when it became obvious there would be no male heir. In addition to these advantages, MrCoke had dowered his girls generously so that their eligibility in the marriage market was assured, though, in the event, all three married for love. Since their sex prevented them from inheriting a title from their father, he therefore resisted ennoblement - once to the extent of openly rebuffing the King - spoke his mind freely and often bluntly, and owed allegiance to no man he felt had not earned his respect.
Coke's home in Norfolk was Holkham Hall, a Palladian mansion more like a palace than the home of a country squire. Here, in the great house where her mother had grown up, Jane spent much of her childhood.
Jane's mother, Thomas Coke's eldest daughter Jane, was known as Lady Andover, a form of address she used for the remainder of her life. The title was retained from a previous (childless) marriage which had ended in tragedy when she was twenty-one. Her husband Lord Andover had been killed as the result of a shooting accident that she had accurately foreseen in a dream. She had rushed out to him upon hearing the news, and almost his last words to her were: 'My dear, your dream has come true!' It was not her only successful prediction and, curiously, her second husband had a similar ability, claiming that he owed his first success to a voice in a dream which told him to change the direction in which his ship was headed and even the course to steer.
Captain Henry Digby, Jane's father, was a fair, handsome and much decorated naval hero. Prior to his marriage to Lady Andover he had distinguished himself at Trafalgar as commander of HMS Africa. In a letter to his uncle, the Hon. R. Digby (later Lord Digby), at Minterne he wrote of his part in the battle:
HMS Africa at sea off the Straits November 1, 1805
My dear Uncle,
I write merely to say I am well, after having been closely engaged for 6 hours on 21st October. For details, being busy to the greatest degree, I have lost all my masts in consequence of the action and my ship is otherwise cut to pieces but sound in the bottom. My killed and wounded number 63, and many of the latter I shall lose if I do not get into port...
After passing through the line in which position I brought down the fore masts of Santisima Trinidad mounting 140 guns, after which I engaged with pistol shot L'Intrepide 74 guns, which afterwards was struck and burnt, Orion and Conqueror coming up. A little boy that stayed with me is safe. Twice on the poop I was left alone, all about me being killed or wounded. I am very deaf.
Before Trafalgar he had been posted aboard the frigate Aurora and in less than two years had captured six French privateers (thanks to the voice in his dream) and one corvette, L'Egalite, making a total of 144 guns and 744 men, besides 48 merchant ships taken or sunk. In command of the Leviathan he assisted in the capture of the island of Minorca. Later he captured two French men-of-war, Le Depit and La Courage; and in 1799 two Spanish frigates Thetis and Brigide, which carried between them 3 million dollars in gold. Fifty military wagons were needed to convey the spoils from Plymouth Dock to the Citadel. By the time he was thirty, Captain Digby had earned himself over 57,000[pounds] in prize money alone, and another 7,000[pounds] over the next five years.
At the time of Jane's birth Captain Digby owned Forston House, a pleasant country property in Dorset. It overlooked the famous Cerne Abbas giant and was close to his uncle's estate, Minterne. It was because of her father's frequent absences at sea, and her mother's natural wish to spend time 'at home' at Holkham while he was away, that Jane and her two younger brothers, Edward and Kenelm, were often at their grandfather's house and, like their mother, came to regard Holkham as a second home. Here the eleven children of Lady Andover's sister Anne and her husband, Lord Anson, were also educated in the capacious schoolroom. Jane was particularly close to her Anson cousins Henry and Fanny who were nearest to her in age.
Those first decades of the nineteenth century were a golden era for the rich. Vast country houses surrounded by shaved lawns and pleasure gardens, with artificial lakes, follies and deer parks, stables full of hunters, hacks and work-horses, and coach-houses full of elegant equipages, provided work and livings for hundreds of servants indoors and out. Holkham was no exception.
Tom Coke could not be described as extravagant; he spent shrewdly enough, but no visitor ever walked through the deliberately unpretentious front entrance of Holkham Hall without being stunned at what lay within. The massive entrance hall, modelled on a Roman temple of justice, is an extravaganza of marble, alabaster and carved stone. Fluted Ionic columns support the domed Inigo Jones roof, a gilded crown for this masterpiece of light and space. Around the walls are bas-relief and marble sculptures, and the classical theme continues throughout the house. Holkham was - and remains - richly endowed with Greek and Roman statuary, but it is also famous for its art collection, its rich and rare furnishings and sumptuous Genoese velvet hangings, and its incomparable library. It is still regarded, along with Chatsworth, Blenheim, Badminton and Burghley, as one of the truly great houses of England.
Such grandeur, however, was not the brainchild of Jane's grandfather. The property was bought in 1610 by Edward Coke, the famous jurist, who became Lord Chief Justice. The first Earl of Leicester built the present house in 1734 and, when the direct line failed, the estate, but not the title, passed to Thomas William Coke. If Thomas Coke ever was inclined towards prodigality, the money was spent on his lands rather than his house. Politically he was a staunch Whig, but first and foremost he was a dedicated agricultural reformer, who spent a fortune transforming a rugged wasteland 'where two rabbits fought over a single blade of grass' into a fertile, productive, 'scientifically controlled' region famous for its barley soil. He convinced men of substance to invest in long-leases of farms and to 'induce their sons, after [reading] Greek and Latin in public schools, to put themselves under the tuition of well-informed practical farmers to be competent for management.' It is no exaggeration to say that this far-sighted man was the architect of modern farming methods throughout the world.
His livestock, particularly sheep, were selectively bred for meat, breeding stock and wool. His annual sheep-shearing, known as Coke's Clippings, became a sort of four-day county fair which attracted thousands of sightseers from all over the country, and overseas. Exhibitions of every aspect of rural industry, from animal husbandry to flax weaving and the building of agricultural cottages, were presented. Conferences were held during which papers were given on agricultural matters such as crop rotation and stock-breeding, and these were a magnet for the guests assembled at Holkham for the Clippings, almost all of them titled. The autumn and winter shooting parties at Holkham included royalty and top political figures of the Whig Party, as well as sporting squires, and Mr Coke's hospitality was legendary.
Despite his leaning towards outdoor pursuits, Thomas Coke did not neglect the arts. Educated at Eton (where on one occasion, to avoid being caught poaching on the neighbouring royal estates, he swam the River Thames with a hare in his mouth), he spoke both Greek and Latin. He inherited the vast library of classical literature and manuscripts at Holkham, considered to be a national treasure (when he took over Holkham he found hundreds of rare books from Italy still unpacked in their crates), but he continued throughout his life to purchase rare books, and works of art by such contemporary geniuses as Gainsborough, to add to those by Titian, Van Dyck, Holbein, Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci.
It was in this atmosphere that Jane spent much of her youth. She was encouraged by her grandfather to ride, to take an interest in the active management of horses and small farm animals, to read the classics and to be aware of the ancient civilisations represented at Holkham, as well as modern politics. She lived the privileged life of a cosseted only daughter, surrounded on all sides by love and admiration, and the constant companionship of her two brothers and numerous cousins. In turn she worshipped her hero father, adored her lovely mother, who was called by all three children 'La Madre', and loved and revered her aunts.
We have mere glimpses of Jane in those days. A family friend who peered round the door of an upper-floor room saw through the dust motes of an early summer morning that 'the schoolroom was nearly full ... there was Miss Digby - so beautiful - and the two Ansons, such dear and pretty children'. Another noted Jane's vitality and grace of movement, but judged that 'her chief glory was her hair, which fell, a rippling golden cascade, down to her knees.' An aunt recollected that as a child Jane used to refer to annoying incidents with the impatient phrase, 'it is most provocative and bothersome.' In later years, Jane's own diary recalls the wonderful, rumbustious, 'old-fashioned' Christmases at Holkham, with all the traditions of feasting and mummers and laughter and games, and the annual servants' party. We also know from the diaries of her relatives, and visitors to Holkham, of the gargantuan dinners of dozens of courses for scores of appreciative diners from the Prince of Wales (a frequent visitor before he became Regent) to scholars, to which the children were sometimes invited. Again, we learn from her own diary that Jane's chief delight was to beat her brothers in their frequent mock horse-races. She had no time for dolls and girlish toys but preferred riding and playing with dogs and the numerous family pets. Totally fearless, she could ride anything in the Holkham stables, and was as at home looking after a sick beast as riding one - which must have especially endeared her to her grandfather.
That she was frequently wilful is enshrined in family legend, as is the further characteristic that she was so prettily mannered and always so abjectly apologetic at having offended that she was instantly forgiven. It was a happy childhood, but her natural high spirits led her into many 'scrapes', as she called them, and a picture emerges of a highly intelligent, active, perhaps somewhat spoiled little girl who instinctively threw up her head at any attempt to check her. She was not unfeeling in her pranks, however; her anxious cajolery shines through the tear-stained and ink-blotted note of apology that she wrote to her mother at the age of about eight:
I am very sorry for what I have done and I will try, if you will forgive me, not to do it again. I wont contradict you no more. I've not had one lesson turned back today. If you and Papa will forgive me send me an answer by the bearer - pray do forgive me. You may send away my rabbits, my quails, my donkey, my monkey, etc., but do forgive me.
I am, yours ever, JED
P. S. Send me an answer please by the bearer. I will eat my bread at dinner, always.
It was perhaps hardly surprising that Jane was a beauty. Her looks were inherited from her maternal grandmother - a woman of almost fabled loveliness and charm. Jane's mother was herself described by the Prince Regent as 'without doubt, the handsomest woman in England'. However, it was unusual that Jane was given the same education as her brothers and male cousins, so that in addition to the practical basic education which naturally included French, a little German and Italian and a knowledge of the arts, she also had a thorough grounding in classical languages and acquired a love of history both ancient and modern. Nevertheless she managed to emerge from the schoolroom at the age of sixteen reasonably unspoiled and without undue vanity. Credit for this must go in large part to Miss Margaret Steele, the sober, fair-minded and determinedly moral governess recruited when Jane was ten years old.
The daughter of a scholarly but impoverished clergyman, Margaret Steele had been discreetly educated as a lady. She never married and when, on the death of her father, it became necessary to find a way of supplementing the meagre income bequeathed by her late parent the role of governess was one of the few acceptable occupations open to her. Her family was well known to Lady Andover and Lady Anson, and Lady Andover had no hesitation in offering Margaret Steele the position of governess to her daughter; not as a C40-a-year drudge at the mercy of the household but as a social equal who commanded the respect of the pupil's family and whose opinions were heard. Miss Steele took very seriously her duty to impart the behaviour and skills that Jane would require for her adult role in the highest ranks of society. These skills included a thorough training in music, needlework, the Bible, social deportment and other accomplishments not normally dealt with by the male tutor who had been engaged at Holkham for the young men of the family, who would later be shipped off to public school at the age of eleven or twelve to finish their education.
The governess had an apt pupil in Jane when Jane wished to attend. She quickly displayed, in common with her mother and aunts, a remarkable talent for painting. Margaret Steele - already irreverently called 'Steely' by her young charge - was not artistically gifted; however, Margaret's elder sister Jane, who painted watercolours of a professional standard, gladly consented to tutor Jane Digby in this subject. Between them the two sisters had a great influence on Jane's upbringing, and a deep affection developed between mentors and child which would last into the old age of all three. Steely's nickname was apt: she was uncompromising in her steadfast obligation to duty and industry. She had a firm belief in Christianity and adhered strictly to the tenets of the Church of England, striving always for self-improvement. In the louche cra of the Regency she was almost a portent of the Victorian ideal to come; in an earlier age she might have been a Puritan. However, Steely's forbidding nature was offset by the presence of her gentler sister, who was soft and kind, and forgiving of the sins of others. Moreover, Steely had one failing of her own, a slightly guilty enjoyment of popular literature of a 'non-improving' variety such as the novels of Mrs Radcliffe, which the sisters used to read aloud to each other.
Jane's lifelong delight in travel was fostered early. Her father rose quickly to the rank of rear-admiral and was often absent for long periods of duty with the fleet. In 1820, when it was necessary for him to visit Italy, Lady Andover accompanied him on the overland journey, and Jane and the Misses Steele went also, attended by Admiral Digby's valet and Lady Andover's French maid. They travelled in a convoy of carriages and luggage coaches, calling at Paris and Geneva. While they were in Italy thirteen-year-old Jane, obviously totally confident of her father's love for her, engagingly requested an advance on her allowance. Her coquettish use of punctuation and heavy underscoring, sometimes teasing, sometimes firm, reflects their close relationship:
Rear Admiral Digby Casa Brunavini Florence, Italy
I write because I have a favour to ask which I am afraid you will think too great to grant; but as you at Geneva trusted me with [a] littler sum I am not ashamed, after you have heard from Steely my character, to ask a second time. It is to . . . to . . . to advance me my pocket money, two pounds a week for 20 weeks counting from next Monday and I'll tell you what for! If you approve I'll do it hut if not I'll give it up!!! Remember at Geneva after you advanced me 12 Weeks, I never teased you for money until the time was expired. I promise to do the same here. Do not tell anyone but give me the answer. I will not ask for half a cracie until the time is expired. Think well of it and remember it is 20 !!! weeks; I ask 40 pounds !!!! Not a farthing more or less. 40 pounds. Goodbye and put the answer at the bottom of this [note]. I have long been trying to hoard the sum but I find that I want it directly and then I should not have it till we were gone. If you repulse me I will not grumble and if you grant it me 'je vous remercie bien'. Pensezy and goodbye, mon bon petit pere, I remain your very affectionate daughter.
Jane Elizabeth Digby
Unfortunately the surviving note lacks Admiral Digby's response, and it is impossible to guess at the childhood desire that prompted such a request, or whether it was granted. At the age of fifteen Jane was sent off to a Seminary for Young Ladies near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for finishing. Here, in the traditions of English public school life, Jane fagged for an older girl, Caroline 'Carry' Boyle, during her first year. She missed her family but not unusually so, and to compensate she became a frequent correspondent, especially with her brothers, of whom she was very fond. Their notes to each other were partly written in the 'secret' code which she would use freely in her diary throughout her life. There was a good deal to write about. Their grandfather Coke, only a year short of seventy, decided to remarry in February 1822. His bride, Lady Anne Keppel, was an eighteen-year-old girl, the daughter of a family friend, Lady Albemarle (who had died at Holkham in childbirth some years earlier), and god-daughter to Mr Coke. Furthermore, since Lady Anne's father married a young niece of Mr Coke's at the same time, there was a good deal of speculation that Lady Anne had married merely to escape from home. Soon afterwards, Coke's youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Eliza), who had reigned at Holkham as chatelaine while her father was a widower, married John Spencer-Stanhope and finally left the family home. When Jane Digby left school at Christmas 1823, she was - as the French writer Edmond About wrote - 'like all unmarried girls, a book bound in muslin and filled with blank white pages waiting to be written upon'. She was also a lively, self-confident young woman who adored her parents and was not above teasing her papa with humorous affection when she came upon a 'quaint' tract on his desk entitled 'Hooks and Eyes to keep up Falling Breeches'. It had already been decided by 'dearest Madre' that Jane would make her debut in the following February when the season started, rather than wait a further year. There is an unsubstantiated story that Jane was romantically attracted to a Holkham groom, and that an attempted clopement precipitated her early entry into society; however, according to her poems, Jane had thoughts and eyes for no one during these months but her handsome eldest cousin George Anson. It is doubtful that George, one of the most popular men about town, gave Jane more than a passing thought, for he was busy sowing his wild oats with married women; the hero-worship directed at him by his cousin was totally unrequited. Besides, there was a family precedent for early entry into society. Jane's Aunt Anne was betrothed at fifteen, and made her debut a year later. Though no longer required in the role of governess, Steely remained as Jane's duenna, to chaperon her during her forthcoming season when Lady Andover was engaged elsewhere. Miss Jane Steele continued to provide drawing lessons. Had they been told that Jane would hardly be out of her teens before she would appear in one of the most sensational legal dramas of the nineteenth century, making it impossible for her ever again to live in England; that she would be so disgraced that her doting maternal grandfather Coke would cut her out of his life, and her uncle Lord Digby would cut her brother Edward (heir to the title Lord (Digby) out of his will; that she would capture the hearts of foreign kings and princes, but would abandon them to live in a cave as the mistress of an Albanian bandit chieftain; that in middle age she would fall in love and marry an Arab sheikh young enough to be her son, and live out the remainder of her life as a desert princess, the Misses Steele could not possibly have believed it. Yet all those things, and much more, lay in the future for Jane Digby.
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