Lady Holland was, perhaps, the rudest beauty of whom history has anything to say. Her contemporaries never ceased to wonder why people were not driven from Holland House by her tongue, never to return. Her rudeness was not even witty; it was simple, unadulterated rudeness.
Greville says: "Though everybody who goes there finds something to abuse or to ridicule in the mistress of the house or its ways, all continue to go, all like it more or less, and whenever, by the death of either, it shall come to an end, a vacuum will be made in society which nothing will supply. It is the house of all Europe."
Like Lady Blessington's salon, the company at Holland House, though it included the most distinguished men of all Europe, numbered but few women. Lady Holland, when only fifteen years old, had been married by her parents, an Englishman from Jamaica and his American wife, to Sir Godfrey Webster, a gloomy, jealous, suspicious, almost insanely bad-tempered man of thirty-eight.
After some years of dull country life, his wife persuaded him to take her abroad, where she met Lord Holland, a very young and singularly charming man. They fell deeply in love with each other, and after a couple of years they acknowledged their love. Sir Godfrey divorced his wife in 1797, after eleven years of miserable married life. He made terms of a disgraceful kind - his wife had to sign to him all her fortune save £800 a year, and Lord Holland to pay 6,000 damages.
These circumstances put Lady Holland outside the pale of society so far as most women were concerned. It must have been very galling to a person of her high spirit to feel herself ostracised, and much of her bitterness and her rudeness probably arose from this cause. But she was always of a downright tongue and a very decided character.
When she first became Lady Webster her husband's old aunt (also Lady Webster) was in possession of his home, Battle Abbey. The young couple settled down in a small house near by, which the old lady refused to repair. She and the bride were quickly plunged in war to the knife. The latter used to arrange ghostly visitations and noises in the old abbey; but the old lady had strong nerves, and on one occasion quietly left the place with her servants, locking in till morning some dozen jokers, including her nephew's wtfe, who were making night hideous with ghostly noises.
When the old lady was ill, the young one would send over each morning to ask "if the old hag were dead yet?" One can picture solemn, angry Sir Godfrey, with this wild child in his house, passing from horror to suspense and back again.
A mad enterprise it was that she began just at the time when her divorce was impending. She wrote to Sir Godfrey that their little two-year-old girl Harriet had died of measles at Modena, and been buried there. The child, however, was perfectly well, but Lady Holland wanted to keep her when she should be divorced. The mock funeral was carried out to the last detail, a kid being put in the coffin; but a few years later Sir Godfrey was put on the track of the fraud, and Lady Holland, becoming frightened, sent Harriet back to him.
Lady Holland was ideally happy in her new marriage, and Lord Holland's devotion to her was the admiration and even the wonder of all who frequented Holland House. Not many people loved her, though she interested everyone. She was beautiful, very clever, and had the art of making people talk well. She spared, no pains to meet everyone of any distinction in the world, and impress them for her gatherings at Holland House. In one way the social cloud under which she lived helped to make the house the proverb it still is throughout Europe for brilliant talk and society. She had fewer engagements at other houses than most women, and consequently was free to concentrate on bringing people to her.
But her bitter tongue, her extraordinary rudeness, the way in which she ordered her guests about, all prevented people from loving her. She had whims and caprices, too. When her page, whom she chose to call by the romantic name of Edgar, fell ill, visitors in the house were expected to go and sit with him and amuse " the little creature" - although Greville says he was " a hulking fellow of twenty."
She dined an hour, sometimes two hours, earlier than anybody else, which was very inconvenient to her guests, and yet they continued to accept her invitations. She kept open house, and we read of "a true Holland House dinner, two more people turning up than there was room for." ' One of these casual visitors was Lord Melbourne!
No one, from Prime Minister to the latest member of the circle, was safe from being ordered about. " Ring the bell! " said Lady Holland to Sydney Smith one day. He responded: " Oh, yes; and shall I sweep the floor? " She treated her servants with unvarying kindness, and it was frequently said that they were better off than her guests.
From the portrait by began, in Holland House
At first the circle was chiefly literary. Lady Holland Was not interested in politics till she had been Lord Holland's wife for some years. All the celebrated poets and writers of the day were found at her table, and many a young author who was glad enough of his dinner.
" Long, long beneath that hospitable roof Shall Grub Street dine, while duns are kept aloof," wrote Byron, when satirising the Hollands in " English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." Undoubtedly Lord Holland has not received enough credit for his share in the wonderful popularity of Holland House. He was a man of charming nature, kindly, appreciative of all the arts, who wrote witty vers de societe himself. He had an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes of famous people, and these he told so well that even those who heard them more than once were not bored. Lord Holland charmed - Lady Holland ruled.
Gradually a political tone crept into the society, till after some years Holland House was the recognised Whig centre. Yet Lady Holland kept the tone of political discussion so temperate that men of all parties came there. Macaulay, Lord Aberdeen, Melbourne, Palmer-ston, Talleyrand, Guizot, Grote, Dickens, Thack eray, Wilkie, Hoppner, Kemble, Sir Humphry Davy, and a host of other stars of the first magnitude shone almost nightly at Holland House.
Meanwhile, Lady Holland was occupied in making the pretty Dutch and French gardens to the west of the famous house. She tried to cultivate the dahlia, but failed. She placed a marble bust of Napoleon, taken by Canova when the great man was commander of the army of Italy, in an alcove, to witness to her strong sympathy with the Corsican. Her efforts to alleviate his fate in St. Helena are well known.
In 1840 Lord Holland died, and the sense of loss in society was intense. Lady Holland grieved for him, yet three months later the same brilliant society was gathered round her. "Only for the lady's black and her mob-cap one might imagine he had never lived, or had died half a century before."
The fact was, Lady Holland could not live alone. She had to be surrounded by people. Half an hour's solitude affected her nerves. Even in grief she required companionship. She was not as heartless as she seemed, but only obeyed her nature, when she summoned her friends round her so soon after her husband's death.
She died in 1845, leaving all her property away from her children, to whom she was never a very ardent mother. Those who knew her have left some sayings, from which we can judge of her strange, brilliant nature, with its uncontrolled violence of like and dislike, and its quite appalling outspokenness.
Lord Holland's Tributes
Greville, speaking of her love of domination, says that "the docility with which the world submitted to her vagaries was wonderful." She was never out of temper, and bore quite serenely the outbreaks she provoked in others. She had no religious principles, but she never allowed atheistic talk in her house.
Thomas Moore, after being favoured with her very low opinion of his "Lalla Rookh," wrote with a kind of rueful humour: "Poets inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint."
But perhaps the gentlest, most charming, and most eloquent tribute ever paid to this woman of contradictory character is contained in two poems written to her by her husband. The first was addressed to her on her twenty-fourth birthday, in 1795. She was still Lady Webster, but she and Lord Holland, then only a little over twenty-one, were already drawn together by a strong attraction. After praising her mind, her beauty, and her versatility, the poem ends:
' So, when old Time's relentless page At full three score shall mark thy age, With equal truth, but better verse, Some bard thy merits shall rehearse, And, like myself, be proud to pay A tribute to this happy day."
On March 25, 1831, when he had been for thirty-four years her husband, when her biting sarcasm, her flagrant rudeness, her extravagant imperiousness, had made her the talk of Europe, Lord Holland writes: "I promis'd you - 'tis long ago - Some six-and-thirty years ago, Another bard your praise should sing When you had reached your sixtieth spring. That sixtieth spring has come - to you, My Dearest Soul, the verse is due. . . . All my hope and all my due Is one kind happy smile from you.
I loved you much at twenty-four, I love you better at three score."
So the redoubtable and terrifying Lady Holland was still, in autumn, to her husband the radiant Diana of spring.