Lady Hester Stanhope was born on this day in 1776, the favoured daughter of an English earl. As a child of six, the young Hester was already drawn to points East; having heard about France, at the seaside one day she took advantage of an empty boat and tried to sail there single-handed (a project which stalled a few metres from the point of departure).
Bored by late Georgian society despite her high standing as lady of the house to her uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Stanhope left England at the age of 33, first sailing to Greece, where she reportedly met Byron, and eventually landing in Egypt. There she underwent a radical makeover, kitting herself out in Arab male clothes which she would wear on her extensive travels throughout the Middle East.
“I can assure you if I ever looked well in anything it is in the Asiatic dress,” she claimed, and like Isabelle Eberhardt, she found liberation not in assuming a traditional Arab female role, but by becoming an “honorary man”. As her biographer Lorna Gibb notes, “The great eastern men she met had no preconceptions as to how to react to something as exotic as a western woman in man’s clothes; the result was they accepted her on her own terms.”
Typical of the outfits with which she confronted sheikhs, pashas and emirs was one which boasted “purple velvet pantaloons, richly embroidered with gold, a matching waistcoat and pelisse, and two cashmere shawls, one to wear as a turban and one as a girdle.”
Stanhope’s brazen cross-dressing defied the conventions of both her adoptive culture and Regency England. To fit her turbans properly she shaved all her hair off, and took to riding astride in a Turkish riding habit rather than side-saddle, the only proper way for a lady to ride at the time. She entered Damascus unveiled, a risky endeavour given the conservatism and piety of the city.
In later years Stanhope became reclusive, her grip on reality ever weaker. She settled in Lebanon in a labyrinthine house where she studied alchemy and astrology, fed her horse sherbet and believed herself to be the promised bride of the coming Messiah.
Stanhope never returned to women’s clothing. Towards the end she was visited by another great Orientalist, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, who found her fascinating but “almost too masculine”.
Lady Hester Stanhope died mad, indebted and alone in 1839.
Click through to see Lady Hester Stanhope played by Jennifer Saunders in a rare non-comedic role (unless you count Vivienne Vyle).