A Scandalous Life

A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby, by Mary S. Lovell

Being the biography of a woman who was a slappable waste of space for the first 50 years of her life, then suddenly discovered what she was good at, in the most unexpected way. Jane was born into a rich Regency family with everything going for her. Still a teenager, she married a key political Lord twenty years her senior, then (still a teenager) managed to embroil herself in a scandal that ended in a highly publicised divorce (in the days when these things were debated in Parliament, both Houses) and exile from Britain. She visited from time to time but could never live here full-time again. Still, she got a generous settlement that took care of her material needs for the rest of her life. So, she worked her way through a healthy stream of lovers and husbands eastwards across Europe. I think the tally included two Counts, the King of Bavaria, possibly his son (the King of Greece), and a Greek bandit leader. Then, when she was almost 50, a Bedouin Sheikh proposed, and she accepted, and they were happy together for the next 30 years. She immersed herself in Bedouin society and tribal politics, spending half her time living as a wealthy expat in a Damascus villa and the other half as a desert princess, wearing the clothes and adopting the habits, using her wealth and education for the tribe’s benefit – not least in procuring European medicines and weapons.

The slappability that I allude to comes from the fact that, despite not being averse to the occasional no-strings fling herself, she always took it as the ultimate betrayal when her men did the same. Granted that this was exactly the attitude taken by the men, but it was an age when marriage among the rich and powerful was >90% for the social status and begetting of heirs, and adultery was almost expected. Whenever she found a man who really did seem to love her and treat her with respect, she treated him like dirt while she held out for a better offer from the latest total loser that she had fixated on. She also had the unfortunate habit of getting pregnant at the drop of a hat: the impossibility of her second pregnancy being her husband’s doing led to the initial scandal that started it all.

It reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s song about Alma Mahler, and her many loves and lovers: “And that is the story of Alma / Who knew how to receive and to give / The body that reached her embalmer / Was one that had known how to live.”