Never more topical…

Hester’s life experiences in Syria, Lebanon and the Holy Land have never been more topical. Hester’s story is one that unfolds the geopolitical cut and thrust and a gripping cast of characters at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, from Downing Street to the Tsar’s palace, from Paris to the desert and the badlands of Syria and Lebanon. It’s an intelligent, sexy, dangerous story that turns on the trajectory of an extraordinary life – Hester’s – who can hardly contain herself in her own century and whose hopes, ambitions, dilemmas, delights, personal tragedies and loves find their way straight to ours. Her experience throws light on the conflict in the Middle East we are facing now.

Hester had a problem. She was beautiful, vivacious and sexual and could talk her way through the eye of a needle. She was a brilliant horsewoman and swordswoman – but there was no place in the army or the admiralty for her. She was a brilliant orator who loved an audience – but there was no place for her in parliament. She was an equal of the brightest and bravest men – but in Regency society there was no place for a woman with any of these skills. If she didn’t want to be a decorative wife – or mistress – then the labels of whore and madwoman could be – and were – far too easily deployed. Unfortunately for her, she was born 200 years too early.

She was the daughter of a prominent French Revolution-supporting aristocrat – Citoyen Stanhope -which put him directly at odds with the political establishment; her uncle William Pitt took her in to his home and put her at his high table during his terms as prime minister. She grew up on stories of battles, intrigues and espionage on her grand-father’s knee; he, the elder Pitt, the Churchill of his time, instilled in her a great longing to be of service to her country. Hester was the ultimate anti-Jane Austen heroine: she loathed the restrictive world women were meant to settle for. She learned the martial skills of a cavalry officer and could train wild horses by the time she was 20. Hester had a string of admirers, among them men who helped shape history. She suffered emotional slips and falls – she was too passionate for the social mores of her time. In this sense she was entirely modern.

With the death of Pitt, she lost her place at his side at the heart of intellectual and political life in Britain. When she left Britain, she was 34 – and unmarried, and mocked for being so. She turned to her eyes to the Middle East, where the superpowers of the time – Britain, France and Russia – were all fighting for influence. It was no obvious place for a woman, but it was a place for a patriot. Hester was independently minded; she went to the Middle East believing she could support the interests of her country. It did not matter that no such role existed. She created one.

In Syria, she lived and rode with the Bedouin – who called her Ul-Uzza, a warrior princess – and convinced them to give their support to the British instead of the French or the Russians. She met with the Wahhabis – as terrifying in their slaughtering habits then as ISIS is now – but incredibly, gained their respect. (It could be argued that the forefathers of ISIS were more tolerant than the offshoot they eventually spawned). She became a spy and go-between in the shifting geopolitical sands of power with emirs, pashas and warlords – risking her life.

In the process, she met the man who was to become the great love of her life – Napoleon’s most gifted spy, the revolutionary Yves Vincent Boutin. He was her intellectual and emotional equal, an engineer, Arabist and idealist who wanted to write a great book on the Syrian tribes. He was beheaded in the spring of 1815 in Syria by the forefathers of the same tribesmen who are now fighting with ISIS. His death broke her heart. The experiences of her life in the desert and her passionate affair transformed her. What had mattered to her before, was no longer who she was.

Grieving, looking for solace, she wanted to understand more deeply the people and land that she, like Boutin, had come to love, and which now shaped her. She immersed herself in learning all about the Eastern religions and faiths – she became a spiritual seeker, studying with Sufi, Jewish and Muslim scholars. She spent three months living with the Yezidi people, who made her an initiate into their faith – the same people who are among those being massacred by ISIS. She devoted the rest of her life to protecting the dispossessed and the refugees who streamed to her little mountain fortress in Lebanon during the civil war – never quite staying out of intrigues. When she died, according to her orders, she was buried with her French love.

If Hester had been born a man, she would most likely have entered politics or become a great general of her time. Today, it’s an interesting challenge to imagine all the things she could do. PM? Head of MI6? A plum job with the UN? Because she was a woman she was denied a role that allowed her to use her skills. She had to choose the biggest challenge – to go to what was then and certainly is now one of the most difficult places on earth – to find the freedom to use her talents and be who she needed to be. And in this she was very successful. She was profoundly changed by the people, the landscape, and the great love that she found there. She would never have achieved those things if she had been a man. That she was denied access is what created her – indeed if she had been allowed to be one of the ‘boys,’ the extraordinary story of her life would never have happened.

Leave a Reply