Monday, July 20, 2009

Eccentric Savoir Faire

I was reading the An Aesthete’s Life the other day and a name cropped up which I was familiar with and had done a bit of research several years ago on the woman behind the name. What prompted me was I was reading Mary Stewart’s “The Gabriel Hounds” and one of the main characters was a modern day version (1960’s modern) of Lady Hester Stanhope. I re-read the book again earlier this year and just filed away Lady Hester in my subconscious only for her to reappear last week.

To say that Lady Hester had her ups and downs is a bit of an understatement. She started life in1776 as the favourite daughter of Lord Charles, 3rd Earl of Stanhope. Impoverished and orphaned at the age of 27, after her father gave away his fortune, she then became official hostess of William Pitt her uncle the Prime Minister of England. After being jilted three times in love she fled England at the age of 33, never to return.

She showed an initial sense for travel and savoir faire when still a child she was curious about France, she climbed into an empty boat on the English Channel and started rowing east, only to travel about 6 yards before being caught.

While travelling to Cairo in 1810, her ship was wrecked on the island of Rhodes, where without clothing; Lady Hester had to borrow Turkish Costume and thus began her favoured mode of attire, of dressing like a Turkish male. She continued to travel through the Middle East inspiring awe where ever she went. She saw herself as “Queen of the Desert” and thus lived appropriately to this status. By now Lady Hester had begun to believe she had a destiny. She claimed to have heard omens from various sources, from fortune-tellers to prophets, and that her destiny was to become the bride of a new messiah.

After her constant wanderings she finally settled near Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast in what is now Lebanon, about halfway between Tyre and Beirut. Here she built for herself a palatial palace Her residence, known by the villagers as Dahr El Sitt, was on the top of one of the hills surrounding the village.

In her new setting, she wielded an almost absolute authority over the surrounding districts. Her control over the natives was enough to cause Ibrahim Pasha, when about to invade Syria in 1832, to seek her neutrality, and this supremacy was maintained by her commanding character and by the belief that she possessed the gift of divination.

In her lonely Joun residence, a house "hemmed in by arid mountains", and with the troubles of a household of some thirty servants only waiting for her death to plunder the house, Lady Hester Stanhope's strength slowly wasted away, and she died there in 1839. The disappointments of her life, and the necessity of controlling her servants as well as the chiefs who surrounded Joun, had made her haughty and bad-tempered. She became a recluse and her servants began to take off with her possessions because she could not pay them. She would not receive visitors until dark and then would only let them see her hands and face. She wore a turban over her shaven head. After her death, the British consul arrived from Beirut to settle her affairs and found her quarters full of junk.

More Savoir Faire on the Lips

I remember as a child playing with a little brass pig that my mother had given me. This little pig was full of surprises. Not only was it a great plaything, but a highly decorative and functional item as well. For a small boy it was not only enough that you could play with it as an object, but it had moveable parts as well.

Pull the head off and you were confronted with a long brass tube. In the pig’s other life it was lipstick holder!

My mother had received it from a gentleman admirer in the 1950’s after one of his recent trips to Paris. I am not sure who had made it as the only markings are Paris-Depose, however it just oozes of surrealistic undertones and savoir faire. I am sure a few eyebrows were raised when my mother would pull this out of her purse to touch up her lips in a powder room somewhere. I still have this little pig and I still love it.

Truly an article de-luxe, that carries with it a lot of panache and savoir faire!
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