Lady Ashburton was one of the few English ladies who contrived to gather around her a galaxy of men of letters and of learning, and to entertain them with the utmost hospitality and generosity, without letting a trace of patronage or a suggestion of snobbish charity appear.
She was tall and commanding in person. Her features were not beautiful in any regular sense, but the vivacity of a quick mind and a generous, unselfish heart lit up her countenance. Though by no means an emotional woman, she was not entirely free from sentiment, or entirely incapable of inspiring it. She was devotedly attached to her husband, a gloomy but kind-hearted man. She formed many friendships with the brilliant men of her time, and her entertainments at Bath House, Piccadilly, always attracted a host of philosophers, savants, professors of all the isms," practitioners of all the "ologies," historians, poets, artists, and, above them all, the towering personality of the Sage of Chelsea.
It is Lady Ashburton's claim to fame that she, almost alone among the great ladies of her day, was able to entice Carlyle from his lair to the rarefied atmosphere of the drawing-room. In her friendships she was impetuous and therefore unstable. Henry Taylor, when Tennyson was once the hero of a party, told him, "Twenty years ago I was the last new man, and where am I now?" Taylor was somewhat acid on the permanence of her friendship, and declared that after five years her friendships were reduced to the decencies of dry affection. On one occasion Lady Ashburton remarked to him that Mr. Goldwin Smith had a liver complaint.
"Ah!" said Taylor, who knew that Goldwin Smith had also been the "last new man" once, "that's what you bring men to; broken-hearted men always do have liver complaints."
Taylor, however, like the moth and the flame, had a great affection for Lady Ashburton, and in his heart of hearts appears to have valued and counted upon her friendship. He, at any rate, considered her affection for Carlyle as invariable and undying. He often, in his Letters and Autobiography, describes the jolly life either at Bath House, or at the Grange, Alresford; the dinner parties, cosily friendly and brilliant, with Carlyle as entertaining story-teller; long, shady drives and rides ringing with laughter.
The place was magnificent. Lord Ashburton, who was the first of the millionaire merchant princes, had lavished money on the house - Inigo Jones's masterpiece - and all the arts of the landscape gardener had been turned to account in the splendid park. Lord Ashburton was a somewhat mournful man, benevolent, simple, quiet, unassuming, but, to all appearances, a trifle dull. Lady Ashburton was, in reality, too, a lonely soul. She had no children, while her friends were family folk. Friendship, therefore, meant more to her than it did to them, and surrounded as she was by a court of brilliant personages, she yet felt lonely, and indeed asked once, "Have I a friend?" What was the happiness of Lady Ashburton's life - her friendship with Carlyle - was the tragedy of Mrs. Carlyle's existence for many years. Her husband's friendship with Lady Ashburton caused her torture. The first impression made was excellent, for we find Mrs. Carlyle, after a visit to Bay House, Alverstoke, describing Lady Harriet as "the very cleverest woman, out of sight, that I ever saw in my life (and I have seen all our distinguished authoresses); moreover, she is full of energy and sincerity, and has, I am sure, an excellent heart."
A Fatal Friendship
Carlyle eagerly sought the society of the brilliant Lady Harriet, who extended frequent invitations to Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. Each visit only served to accentuate the differences and to increase the pain the friendship caused Mrs. Carlyle. The invitations were nearly always accepted by Carlyle, who, by going alone, added fuel to the fires of jealousy burning in Mrs. Carlyle's heart. He had no thought of causing pain, and a little understanding on his part, and a little less self-repression on hers, would, no doubt, have removed a grievance which, though undeniably severely painful, was very largely imaginary.
Jane Carlyle, who had cheered her husband in all the dreadful darkness of his early struggles, no doubt, as Mrs. Ireland comments in her Life, began to feel, when she saw her husband launched into social brilliance by Lady Ashburton, that it was not she who reaped the golden harvest of his rapidly growing success, but this brilliant and fashionable lady, whom she could not feel to be her superior intellectually, and who knew none of the dark, terrible sunless hours spent in the Chelsea home, when a despair of all things cast at times so real and so tangible a cloud over the married pair. The friendship was a blight on Mrs. Carlyle's existence, however necessary it may have been to Carlyle himself. It is honourable to both and sweetly sad to think that neither knew of the pain thus caused; which ended only with Lady Ashburton's death, in 1857.
Of her brilliant qualities of wit and feeling, let the following of her remarks speak:
A bore cannot be a good man; for the better a man is, the greater bore he will be, and the more hateful he will make goodness.
I am sure you find nine persons out of ten what at first you assume them to be.
The most dreadful thing against women is the character of the men that praise them.
I like men to be men; you cannot get round them without.
The "Times," that useful echo of contemporary opinion and measured appreciation, thus summed up her character at the time of her death:
"The hospitality of Lord and Lady Ashburton has, in all respects, been honourable to English manners; it has been open to all excellence and liberal to all opinions; it has shown the luxury of wealth compatible with simplicity of life, and mental superiority without a taint of pride or affectation. It is the mistress of Bath House and of the Grange who has now passed away in the prime of life, and in the perfection of her faculties; a noble English lady, who, in a country where the authority of women is less jealously watched and more willingly admitted, would have been a public personage, but who here has been content to limit her genius to those uses that circumstances have allowed and custom has sanctioned."
A Noble Tribute
Reference is made to her charm and grace of social existence, profusion of wit and brightness of raillery, which sometimes astonished, but was all the more attractive to graver minds, which comprehended with how much reflection and with what just perception they were accompanied. "It was through the veil of her fine humour alone that her singular good sense, her penetration of character, her solid information, and, above all, her deep love of truth, were fully to be traced and understood. Her apprehensions, so to say, of moral and intellectual greatness, were so large that she shrunk from bringing her own knowledge and that of others to the test of ordinary discussion, and thus, we fear, has left behind her little written evidence of her great powers. In the same spirit her intercourse with men of letters and of science was utterly devoid of any notion of patronage, and she showed a marked dislike to draw them out or use their abilities for any other purpose than that of promoting their pleasure and her own. Thus, too, in the distribution of her wealth, she avoided the common currents of charity, and devoted it mainly to the comfort of those with whom she had some local relation, and over whose interests she exercised a close personal superintendence. She never aspired to fame, but coveted the love and respect of the good and wise."
Charles Greville gives, perhaps, the more intimate, if slightly more acid, picture of her. "Lady Ashburton was, perhaps, on the whole, the most conspicuous woman in the society of the present day. She was undoubtedly very intelligent, with much quickness and vivacity in conversation, and by dint of a good deal of desultory reading and social intercourse with men more or less distinguished, she had improved her mind, and made herself a very agreeable woman, and had acquired no small reputation for ability and wit.
"It is never difficult for a woman in a great position and with some talent for conversation, to attract a large society around her, and to have a number of admirers and devoted habitues. She was more of a precieuse than any woman I have known. She was, or affected to be, extremely intimate with many men whose literary celebrity or talents constituted their only attraction, and while they were gratified by the attentions of the great lady, her vanity was flattered by the homage of such men, of whom Carlyle was the principal.
"It is only just to her to say that she treated her literary friends with constant kindness, and the most unselfish attentions. They, their wives and children, were received at her home in the country, and entertained there for weeks without any airs of patronage; and with a spirit of genuine benevolence as well as hospitality. The only man with whom she was ever what could be called in love was Clarendon. Two men were certainly in love with her, both distinguished in certain ways. One was John Mill, who was sentimentally attached to her. She did not in the slightest degree return his passion. Her faults appeared to be caprice, and a disposition to quarrels and tracasseries about nothing, which, however common amongst ordinary women, were unworthy of her superior understanding. But during her last illness all that was bad and hard in her nature seemed to be improved and softened, and she became full of charity goodwill, and the milk of human kindness.' '
By David Nicol