"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Many Loves of Jane Digby

”Falling in love again
Never wanted to
What am I to do?
I can't help it

Love's always been my game
Play it how I may
I was made that way
I can't help it

Men cluster to me
Like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn
I know I'm not to blame.”
-“Falling in Love Again,” Frederick Hollander & Sammy Lerner

Even the most respectable old, aristocratic family trees occasionally produced some strange fruit, but it’s hard to think of any more startling than Jane Elizabeth Digby. As eccentric as many well-bred 19th century Englishwomen may have been, there weren’t too many who wound up in Damascus as the wife of a Bedouin sheik.

Digby was born into a wealthy, high-born milieu on April 3, 1807. Her father was a famed Admiral, Henry Digby, and her mother was Jane Elizabeth Coke, a daughter of the Earl of Leicester.  From the beginning, Jane showed an impulsive, uncontrollable bent that alternatively puzzled and horrified her relatives. By the time she was thirteen, a family conclave resolved that the lovely girl should be married off as soon as possible, in the hope that it would “tame her.” When she was seventeen, she wedded Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough. He was a cold fish twice her age, which her loved ones presumably thought would have a sobering effect on her high spirits.

Jane, Lady Ellenborough. Painting by William Charles Ross.

The marriage proved to be the ultimate in respectable tedium, and Jane reacted in a highly unsurprising fashion. She began to take lovers. She had a son, commonly accepted as legitimate, although Jane herself believed the true father was her cousin, George Anson. (The child died in infancy.) In 1828, her life became decidedly more complicated when she became infatuated with an Austrian envoy, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. Their liaison was so scandalously obvious that Prince Esterhazy, the Austrian Ambassador, became nervous. He feared that if the lady’s husband found out, Ellenborough might decide to start quite the little international incident. Schwarzenberg took the hint and promptly took up with another woman.

As it happened, Esterhazy’s efforts to avoid scandal backfired on everyone. Jane, who was by then pregnant with Schwarzenberg’s child, reacted by loudly wailing to everyone within earshot about her outrage over being dumped by her lover. She also announced her determination to leave her husband and follow Schwarzenberg back to Vienna.

It dawned on the diplomat that in sleeping with Jane, he had bitten off a good deal more than he could chew. He frantically pleaded with her to reconcile with her husband and fled for the nearest ship. Ellenborough, meanwhile, seems to have only now paid any attention to his wife’s activities. Anxious to salvage his political career, he decided there was nothing for it but to divorce this walking scandal machine he had married.

The Digbys were horrified at the prospect of their previously impeccable lineage being soiled by a divorce. Like Schwarzenberg, they begged Jane to seek Ellenborough’s forgiveness.

Jane told the whole lot of them to get lost.

Schwarzenberg, meanwhile, was being bombarded with ardent messages from his troublesome ex-mistress. Eventually realizing that Jane was more of a man than he would ever be and further resistance was useless, he finally agreed to let her join him. In August 1829 she and her baby left England. The next year, Ellenborough obtained a divorce (which required a private act of Parliament,) but granted her a large allowance. It is not clear if he did this out of magnanimity or pure relief to be free of her.

Jane’s daughter Mathilde was born in November 1829. She and Schwarzenberg had a second child, Felix (who died shortly after birth,) but their relationship was doomed from the start. By early 1831, the envoy walked out on her and marched back home to Bavaria. Jane, left in the lurch in Paris, sought advice from her mother, Lady Andover. Her long-suffering parent suggested she start anew in Germany, where the Digbys had connections. She made it clear, however, that whatever she did, Jane was not to return to England. If she was going to make a public spectacle of herself, the Digbys reasoned, far better she should do it well out of their sight.

In Munich, she made her most illustrious conquest to date, in the person of King Ludwig of Bavaria. As the two needed to keep their affair private, she used a rich landowner, Baron Karl Venningen, as her “public” lover. When she became pregnant—it is anyone’s guess who the father was—the enamored Baron proposed to her. She accepted, solely because in her condition, she felt the need for a certain amount of stability in her life.

Her second marriage soon proved to be no more of a success than her first. Jane had no real feelings for Venningen, and quickly tired of him. In any case, once she met Count Spiridion Theotoky, both her Baron and her king were quickly eclipsed.

Theotoky was a twenty-four year old Greek, hot-blooded, reckless, and beautiful. It was almost inevitable that he and Jane would quickly fall into a passionate affair. Before long, the pair tried to elope, but Venningen caught up with them. He challenged his rival to a duel, where Theotoky received a slight wound. Somehow, Jane’s marriage held more-or-less together until 1839, when she and her Count made another dash for it, escaping successfully to Paris. “The misfortune of my nature is to consider love is all in all,” she wrote Ludwig, a comment that surely has to rank as one of history’s great understatements.

This latest escapade caused the Digbys, with the exception of Lady Andover, to disown Jane entirely. There seems little reason to believe she cared.

In 1840, Jane gave birth to Theotoky’s child, a son she called Leonidas. Although she had, to date, been an indifferent mother (her other children were deposited with various relatives,) this newest baby seemed to finally awaken some maternal tenderness in her. In 1841, the couple moved to Theotoky’s family estates in Corfu. Before leaving, they had the Greek Orthodox Church dissolve her marriage to Venningen, and they then probably went through an Orthodox wedding ceremony.

The new Countess Theotoky lived happily enough with her Count for three years, until King Otto summoned them to the Athens court. It seems that Jane could not enter any high society without producing her own particular form of mayhem. Otto immediately became infatuated with the dashing Englishwoman, which produced a predictable hostility from his Queen. Theotoky, meanwhile, chose to take offense at the King’s too-open admiration of his wife, salving his pride with a series of equally blatant affairs.

Then, as Jane’s once-charmed existence in Greece continued to unravel, disaster struck. In 1846, little Leonidas accidentally fell off a balcony at the family’s summer villa. He plummeted to his death practically at his mother’s feet.

Although Jane was a mother of five, Leonidas was the only one she really loved. Her grief was compounded by a haunting sense that his death was a punishment for how she had abandoned her other children. This was the first real tragedy of her self-involved, pampered, hedonistic life, and it was difficult for her to learn how to deal with sorrow and regret. She and Theotoky ended their increasingly unhappy relationship, and Jane went into relative seclusion.

By 1849, she rejoined Athens society, and the last, most remarkable stage of her hectic life soon got underway when she met King Otto’s new aide-de-camp, General Cristodoulos Hadji-Petros. The General was a brigand, renowned as the fiercest of Greece’s many tough mountain men. Before long, Jane decided she was head-over-heels in love with this seventy-year-old, but still impressively virile, swashbuckler.

She certainly had come a long way from the staid Lord Ellenborough.

When her newest true love was made governor of Lamia, she eagerly followed him to this primitive mountain outpost, where she found a world as foreign to her as Mars. She wore coarse cotton clothes, slept in the open wilderness, ate the simplest food.

She loved it.

Unfortunately, after only a few months, it became obvious that Jane was chasing yet another romantic illusion. King Otto’s wife Amalia, who had always hated her, finally saw her chance for a little payback. She demanded that the General be fired for openly keeping a mistress. Old Cristo responded by playing the weasel. Whatever the 19th century Greek equivalent of “bus” was, he promptly threw his lover under it. He wrote his queen a cringing (not to mention cringe-inducing) letter explaining that he was only after Jane for her money. (It is curious how Jane consistently attracted men with no effort whatsoever, only to lose them with equal alacrity.) Amalia, unable to contain her glee, instantly had the letter made public. Jane might have been able to forgive this ungallant act, but when the General compounded his betrayal by dallying with other, much younger women, she finally had enough. She left Athens for good.

Jane, who was now forty-six, hoped to forget this latest heartbreak and settle into a quiet middle age by making a tour of the Middle East. As it happened, she got no further than Syria. In Beirut, she met a Bedouin sheik young enough to be her son named Saleh. Jane—pardon me for being repetitive—fell desperately in love. She decided quiet middle age would just have to wait.

She instantly began dreaming dreams of a perfect life by his side in the desert, but before she could embrace the life of a Bedouin Arab, she found there was one unexpected complication: Her new lover expected her to share him with another woman, a beautiful girl named Sabla who was scarcely more than a child.

Jane, at long last, decided that was the last straw. She had given up on men, for good. Who needed them? Not her!

By this point in our story, you can probably guess what happened next.

In Damascus, she again made the acquaintance of Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab. Earlier, he had served as her escort on a trip she made to Palmyra. During their expedition, the young man had fallen for Jane, but at the time, she was too wrapped up in thoughts of Saleh to pay him any serious attention. Now, however, she studied the handsome, suave, well-educated young aristocrat of the desert and decided she was on to a very good thing indeed. Rudolph Valentino’s sheik had nothing on Medjuel. A few months later—after he put aside his wife Mascha, the mother of his two children--they were married in a Muslim ceremony, although she never converted to the religion.

         Sheik Medjuel, painting by Carl Haag, 1859.

In 1856, she made her first visit to England in many years. There was a reconciliation of sorts with her surviving relatives, but their world was by now utterly foreign to her. She knew she now belonged in the Arab desert, and with Medjuel. After six months, she was more than happy to leave her homeland forever.

Jane in 1859. Painting by Carl Haag

She spent the rest of her days alternating between living in her luxurious villa in Damascus and camping out in the desert as a true Bedouin wife. She even dyed her blonde hair black. Her life in Syria, although undoubtedly happier and more stable than anything she had known before, was still far from idyllic. As she grew older Jane became increasingly worried about the great age difference between her and Medjuel, causing her to often be obsessively jealous, clingy, and temperamental. Jane always remained a love-obsessed, boy-crazy teenager at heart. Medjuel's frequent absences left her fearful of losing him to other women, most notably his two previous wives—fears that were not altogether fanciful. Still, although her final love was not the perfect fairy-tale ending she always longed for, the couple remained genuinely devoted to each other. (Although one can’t help but note that Medjuel was quite content to spend half the year far away from her, attending to his various duties. Perhaps, paradoxically, these long separations were what held their marriage together.)

When Jane was seventy-four, she developed a serious case of dysentery, which killed her on August 11, 1881. After her funeral in Damascus’ Protestant cemetery, her husband went out in the desert and sacrificed a fine camel in her memory.


  1. I'd read about Jane Digby before. Unstable, undependable people aren't my favourite - but they make for good history.

  2. I love Jane's story, if only because it proves - as so many others do - that women were not pale shut-ins who did only the bidding of their male relatives. Some were, certainly, but the ones with guts didn't let society get them down. Well played, Jane; you were clearly a force of nature.

  3. I finished her biography earlier this year, what an amazing story!

  4. I wish I had the guts to travel and be free the way she did.

  5. As for women not being pale shut-ins, but who had the ability to live how the wished. Only if they had education, money, and good looks helped too. Don’t forget women couldn’t own property, participate in politics, and many other hurdles.


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