A religious paper of 1865 remarked that A the early history of the famous Duchess of Gordon was "painfully romantic." This curious phrase can hardly have been meant to refer to the fact that, at the age of eight, the lady rode up Edinburgh High Street on a pig, her sister meanwhile whacking it behind. This was neither "romantic" nor "painful," but the effect on Edinburgh may be imagined.
Jane Maxwell was born in a large second-floor flat in Hyndford's Close, after her mother had separated from her father, Sir James Maxwell of Monreith. Lady Maxwell and her husband did not get on well together, and. finally, with two little girls and one shortly to be born, in 1749, she took up her residence at Edinburgh, and began that struggle to educate her children which is the portion of those who have but a small income and no means of making money. However, the children grew up pretty, high-spirited, and full of pranks. When they were too old to ride upon pigs, they took the next best thing. And Jane on one occasion boarded a curricle which was standing in the High Street simply because it looked as though the horse was mettlesome. It was! After a mad career up High Street, the adventure ended in an overturned curricle and a much-damaged Jennie, who, as a result of this little prank, lost the first finger of her left hand. There is still in existence the ebony model finger with which her glove was filled out.
Such was their poverty that the three girls did their own washing, and it is recorded of them that they put their pretty fal-lals upon a screen to dry, thereby hiding the more work-a-day portion of the washing from neighbourly - or, rather, unneighbourly - criticism. However, three girls of good family, possessed'of wit and beauty, were not likely to pass unnoticed. In Jane's face, in particular, there was a look of great mental power, allied to features and colouring which in later years attracted the brush of such artists as Romney and Reynolds. When she was seventeen her eldest sister married Fordyce, the Receiver of the Land Tax for Scotland, and, being now affluent, floated her two sisters in society.
"The Flower of Galloway"
Jane at this time was of such attractions that a song, called "Jennie of Monreith," was composed to celebrate her charms, and her nickname in Edinburgh society was "The Flower of Galloway." Among others, it seems, she met a gallant young officer, who succeeded in making a deep impression on her; but he was sent away on foreign service, and the next thing she heard of him was that he had been killed. A kind of reckless indifference seems to have descended on Jane when this blow cut short all her hopes; the fond hopes that any girl newly engaged to the man she loves, cherishes in her innermost heart.
At this time there came along the dashing young Duke of Gordon, the head of a clan of fighters and gallants, unusually good-looking well-off, young, and much in love with" The Flower of Galloway." The one man for her being dead, and her mother and unmarried sister still very poor, and, besides, not being averse by nature to a high position and the attractions of a brilliant life, Jane Maxwell, within a year from her sister's marriage, became the Duchess of Gordon.
Later on in life Wraxall found her beauty spoiled to his eyes by her lack of feminine expression. " Her features, however noble, pleasing, and regular, always animated, constantly in play, never deficient in vivacity and intelligence, yet displayed no timidity" - and timidity has always been considered a womanly virtue in the eyes of a sex which is supposed to have a natural monopoly of courage. Her expression was sometimes frowning, but much more frequently smiling, and the same authority likens her to Juno
But at the time of her marriage her expres-sion was different, for she had not received the cruellest blow of all. On her wedding tour a letter was handed to her addressed to her in her maiden name. No one saw her for hours after, and then she was found lying by the side of a stream, ha1f - de -mented, with the letter by her side. It was from her soldier lover, alive and well, and writing to say that he was on his way home to marry her. For a time she seemed dazed, but then, summoning all the native strength of her character, she pushed the softer side of life away from her, and set her whole mind on ambition for herself and her husband. Her entertainments were wild frolics, her pranks were many, her eccentricities provided Edinburgh and London with conversation that took precedence of any other.
She was always fond of books, and it was she who introduced Burns to Edinburgh society. She was admired of all. Beattie, the author of the "Minstrel," said that
Siddons was the most beautiful woman in the world, except the Duchess of Gordon. When she left the Old Town for the New, saying that the Old Town was dull, Henry Erskine said, "Madame, that is as if the sun were to say, It seems very vastly dull weather; I shall not rise this morning ' " - a charming speech which has been credited to Fox also, in praise of the Duchess of Gordon's lovely rival, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Jane, Duchess Of Gordon
By Sir Joshua Reynolds
Life in the Gordon family was never dull. One of her husband's brothers was Lord
George Gordon, of riot fame. Another was that Lord William Gordon who eloped with Lady Sarah Bun-bury, and, after three months of bliss, started to walk to Rome as a penance - accompanied only by a large dog and a thick stick. For the rest, some of the epithets applied to the Gordons speak for themselves: "The Gay Gordons," "The Gallant Gor-dons," "Cock o' the North" (still applied to the head of the House, the Marquis of Huntly), "The Gordons hae the guidin' o't" - these, and many other phrases, show what a mark the family left on society.