A Note on Writing ‘Star of the Morning’

The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope

A Note on Writing Star of the MorningPeople usually ask me how I chose my subject, and I would say that in this case my subject seemed to choose me. My curiosity began with a picnic in 1992 in the ruins of Hester’s fortress in southern Lebanon. My friends, two sisters Wafa and Rania Stephan, had grown up in the nearby village of Joun, but their lives had taken them to Paris and England by way of Australia. They had not seen their house since the civil war, and they invited me to return with them. They took me to see where Hester had lived, now a wilderness of stone walls, olives groves and an overgrown garden. I remember there was quite a lot of gunfire, not that far off. The room in which she had died was now dominated by a large fig tree.

But I took a long detour through other sorts of writing – journalism and travel writing – before beginning Star of the Morning, my first biography, at 37. I felt drawn to Lady Hester Stanhope as a subject, fascinated by the way she pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible or acceptable for a woman in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

This book is based on four years of intensive research, and reveals a great deal of previously unknown material about Hester, both in terms of her most intimate life, her loves and friendships, and her restless, ambitious drive to make a mark on the world. When I first contemplated writing her biography, it was apparent to me that although she had been the subject of earlier accounts, none satisfactorily explained how such a woman had been shaped and formed, nor what motivated her to live her life as she had.

There were the six volumes of turgid, blow-by-blow travel diaries and rambling ‘remembered’ memoirs cobbled together hurriedly after her death by her doctor Charles Meryon. He seized on his chance to write what he hoped would be a best-seller.  Biographers who followed Meryon not only drew heavily on his material, but seemed to regard it as an infallible source. After all, he was a direct eye-witness and for years, an off-and-on fixture in her entourage, but the good doctor in fact presented a deliberately misleading version of Hester, and frequently bowdlerized her behaviour. Nonetheless his version of Hester became the one that stuck, literally until now.

He wrote as one who had considered himself as a lifelong underling, not her equal socially or intellectually, and as someone who was never fully privy to her world. He greatly enhanced the image of her eccentricity, perhaps surmising – correctly – that this was the only version of her that was likely to be palatable to his intended Victorian audience. To many in her lifetime, and afterwards, Hester’s behaviour, especially her desire to insinuate herself as a woman of action in the strictly male world of politics, was by its very uniqueness, ‘eccentric’ – preposterous, in fact, and it became standard to ridicule her rather than admire her efforts. Above all  Meryon made judgements when he wrote about Hester. He decided what kind of Hester was most likely to thrill his Victorian readers – and what he should leave out that might shock them too much. The fact is though, that his understanding of her was limited. Her behaviour often shocked him and she always kept him wondering exactly what she was up to. He was very much prude to her English eccentric, a worried Boswell to her impatient Dr Johnson.

Nor was I impressed by subsequent accounts which I offered little more than a skim-through of her travels and exploits, with no significant insights into her complexities, nor those of the Middle Eastern milieu in which she lived. Most of all, the subject of how Hester – who was born into a family of brilliant politicians and thinkers – herself made a rational and whole-hearted attempt to play an important political role, often at great personal risk, had never been examined.

Hester also stands out among the current tranche of lives about 18th century society ladies, chief among them Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. She had reason to develop a particular disdain for such women, so apparently decorous, artful and ‘modern,’ yet bankrolled and ultimately controlled by their rich husbands, whose censure they feared beyond any passion they felt for their lovers. Hester grew up in the era in which Mary Wollstonecraft had stated in print that society made a fatal mistake by allowing women only the role of domestic slave or ‘alluring mistress’ without recourse to any financial freedom, and by encouraging woman to think only of their looks and charms. This was a viewpoint that Hester instinctively held and expressed it by her actions, and all her life she remained an unrepentant individualist who made a decision not to marry. Hester was in fact, an almost exact contemporary of Jane Austen – born three months apart – and the two could not be more opposite creatures of the same age.

It is a very strange and beguiling process to live with your subject – and plunge into her world, with all her friends, lovers and enemies for the length of time it takes to complete a book. When I sought out all relevant sources and archives, and re-examined and reconsidered all evidence. I was astonished to find so much primary material had been overlooked, ignored or misinterpreted, along with a great wealth of coded letters to be deciphered. Only after a period of immersion, did I start to recognize other crucial strands of her story beneath the evident facts, and frequently, having learned what to look for, I returned to the original sources once again to find new and intriguing angles I had missed on the first read. There were many unexpected breakthroughs in letters to – or about – her and key facts were buried in archives and consular dispatches across three continents. Above all, trying to resolve many mysteries and make hitherto unknown connections took on, for me, the drama of detective work.

My research took me back to Turkey and the Middle East, especially Lebanon where I sought out direct descendants of those she had known, among them Walid Jumblatt, former warlord and Druze leader. There was an additional wealth of detail in hitherto overlooked Arabic and French sources, which illuminated the reasons she became revered and respected in the Arab world, if not her own. In certain places I found it possible to conjure up her presence, just a little. In a hamam in Istanbul which I knew she had visited, I too, lay on a hot marble slab, breathed in warm vapours and gazed at the ceiling of stone-cut stars. I was conscious too of the curious symmetry that took me to Palmyra at the age of 37 – exactly the age she had been, though I by contrast, was then five months pregnant and very conscious of the desert heat and the war raging nearby in that spring of 2003.

Highly specific considerations dominate the writing of a biography, where every statement and description must be buttressed by established fact. It’s a complex dance to weave together all the underpinnings of documented detail, and carefully sourced references, while aiming to tell the story of a person’s life in so compelling a way as to bring them – their inner and outer world – vividly alive in the reader’s mind.

Previously, few knew enough about Hester Stanhope to bother to question – or even protest – Christopher Hitchens’s one-line dismissal of her as ‘poor, mad Lady Hester’ in his otherwise excellent review, ‘The Woman Who Made Iraq’ of Georgina Howell’s biography of Gertrude Bell, (The Atlantic Monthly, May 2007). Given how little research there had been, it was in fact, a fairly justifiable remark. But I hope my book now substantially challenges that perception.