I’m a sucker for romance, passion, adventure – is there a woman who isn’t? Not the bodice ripper stories of the supermarkets racks but the real thing… the: ’Love is an ever-fixed mark ‘ stuff of life.
I admit I revelled in The Prisoner of Zenda as a teenager, the ‘I did not love thee dear so much, loved I not honour more’, and the red rose delivered once a year to the ravishing queen from her honourable and faithful cavalier, a very English gentleman. And it took me a while to recognise Ashley Wilke’s gutless having his cake and eating it with Melanie and Scarlet, I was so dazzled by his weary elegance and assumption of honour.
But it’s the real thing that hooks me now… the courage to dare and love and think the world well lost in order to follow the heart. So how could I resist Jane Digby? Not her famous descendant, Pamela Digby.
She married the famously un-likeable Randolph Churchill, becoming Winston Churchill’s daughter- in- law, lover of Averill Harriman during the war, mistress of every millionaire, playboy and sex symbol in the post war years… Prince Aly Khan, Marquis de Portago, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, Baron Elie de Rothschild, and Stavros Niarchos amongst others. Ed Murrow intended to give up his wife for her, and returned home to fix it, and reneged. She became the fifth wife of impresario Leland Hayward, and finally, when he was eighty-one, snaffled Averill Harriman again, this time in marriage, and became powerful and respectable as US Ambassador to France. No, Pamela Digby’s quest feels like something other than love.
But her beautiful ancestor Jane Digby was something else. Jane was married very young to a man twice her age, who dallied with a servant girl on their honeymoon, and not surprisingly the marriage never took off. Left to her own devices while Lord Ellenborough devoted himself to his political career, she not surprisingly fell in love with a gorgeous playboy, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, who was besotted with her. Jane, young and naive, never thought of hiding her love, and of course they came to grief.
The Prince was withdrawn from London in the interests of his glittering diplomatic career, Ellenborough divorced Jane – a horrendous and tortuous decision which entailed Jane’s actions being dragged through the House of Lords and the House of Commons and her becoming a pariah – and she followed her lover to Paris where she gave birth to a daughter. Schwarzenberg kept her on a string for some years, and Jane was too blinded by love to see it.
Finally she left and went to Munich, where the King Ludwig, a clever intelligent man became a close and loving friend, and an upright but ultimately boring German aristocrat wooed her for some years before she gave in… and then she fell in love with a handsome Greek count. Her husband Baron Karl von Vennigen fought a duel with Count Spiridion Theotsky… and Jane ended by running off with her glamorous Greek. They enjoyed a lotus- eating life in places like Corfu, before ending up at the court in Athens. Von Vennigen never stopped loving the fascinating Jane and wrote to her until he died.
In Athens her Greek husband became unfaithful so Jane took up with a sixty- year old white mustachioed Pallikari bandit chieftan , Cristos Hadji-Petros.
She entered into mountain life wholeheartedly, dressing like the peasant women of the tribe, and learning to cook, make feta cheese, sleep in the open air on goats-hair blankets, galloping on horseback around the mountains, drinking retsina and making mad, passionate love with the wicked old bandit.
It all fell to pieces when Jane’s maid told her she having trouble fending off the calculating rough brigand who smelt of garlic and too few baths. Jane and her maid disappeared from Athens, Jane now sad and depressed and nearly fifty… and she decided to explore all the ancient cities and historical sites now under the sway of the latest bandits, Isis.
She negotiated a bodyguard to escort her to the glorious ruins of Palmyra. Even back in 1853, tourists were drawn to the dangerous journey to this fabled city, and the Bedouin tribes competed against each other to guard travellers from other tribes who threatened to rob the Europeans. Sheik Medjuel el Mesrab was the Bedouin chief who commanded Jane’s bodyguard, and by the time they had reached Palmyra, he had proposed to Jane and offered to give up his wife.
She didn’t succumb straightaway, and later had to fend off an offer from another determined Arab sheik. Feeling depressed and lonely she continued travelling before returning to Damascus. But Medjuel had kept tracks on her, and as she approached Damascus he rode out to meet her, with an Arab mare as a gift of welcome, and his wife already sent back to her people with her dowry.
They fell deeply in love and married. Jane spent the last twenty five years of her life living partly in Damascus and partly in the desert whenever her husband had to take his flocks and people to different areas of grazing, or to fight other tribes. Jane rode with him into battle. She was a brilliant horsewoman and broke in many of Medjuel’s Arab thoroughbreds, she spoke nine languages, was a witty conversationalist and a talented artist. Her exquisite manners, gentleness, beauty and charm won over both the reluctant tribe and the disapproving local community.
Jane threw herself into the life of the Bedouins when they camped in the desert, and dyed her long fair hair and eyebrows black as the Arabs felt that fair hair attracted the Evil Eye. She plaited her hair in two long braids which reached to her feet and wore the clothes of the Bedouin women, learning to milk camels, prepare her husband’s food, and stand and wait on him, and wash his hands and hair, face and feet. Medjuel on the other hand, impressed everyone who met him with his refinement, intelligence, and elegance.
In her home in Damascus she had a huge menagerie of creatures and created one of the most famous gardens in a city famous for its gardens. She and Medjuel had a passionate and tempestuous relationship which never lost its intensity in over twenty five years. Nearing seventy four, she wrote in her diary: “it is now a month and twenty days since Medjuel last slept with me. What can be the reason?“ Though younger than Jane, Medjuel was feeling his age by now, and this year stayed close to his wife instead of joining his tribe. Not long after writing these words, she faded away after an attack of dysentery, Medjuel by her side.
The Sheik was persuaded to ride in a closed black carriage to her funeral, until suddenly overcome by grief and needing open space he bolted from the carriage and fled in the opposite direction to the cortege. Everyone was shocked by this breach of funeral etiquette. But as the clergyman was intoning: ‘ashes to ashes’, Medjuel galloped up on his wife’s favourite black Arabian mare. He sat motionless staring down into the grave and no-one moved or spoke. Moments passed as he sat there in anguish and then the Bedouin Chief rode away.
Jane would have loved her husband’s farewell. He returned to the grave once more. He brought a rough slab of Mazoni rock, carved to fit over the base of Jane’s tomb. He carved her name: Madame Digby el Mezrab on it in Arabic and disappeared into the desert.
A missionary who knew her well described her life as: ‘wild, passionate and reckless’, while her devoted friend, the explorer Sir Richard Burton said that her ‘life’s poetry never sank to prose’. Her life is an inspiration to a romantic. By following her heart she finally found the one person in the world, in Truman Capote’s touching words in The Grass Harp:’ … from whom nothing is held back…’ and: ‘to whom everything can be said’.
And those words, it seems to me, are the definition of true love. They mean perfect trust. No co-dependency, neediness or misunderstandings through lack of communication. But trust takes courage, and maybe to paraphrase the words of that haunting song ‘The Rose’, true love is only for the brave … like Jane Digby el Mesrab.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Sometimes I just want a plate of roast vegetables, but also feel I must need some protein. I kid myself that this pea-nut sauce will fill the gap. It’s quite unlike the traditional pea-nut sauce, and was dreamed up in front of me by a chef at a demonstration.
In a stick blender, I spoon a cup or more of pea-nut butter, the skin thinly peeled from a lemon, plus the juice, a good teaspoon or more to taste of dried thyme, a couple of garlic cloves, a tea-spoon of fish sauce, a dessert-spoon or more to taste of brown sugar, plenty of salt and black pepper, and a cup or more of olive oil. Just whizz everything together. And add more olive oil if you need it. It lasts for plenty of time in the fridge, and is good with baked or sauted vegetables for a light meal, and also with baked salmon.
Food for Thought
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…
From ‘My dear and only love’, John Graham, Marquis of Montrose
Lesley Blanch who died this year at 103 wrote The Wilder Shores of Love