Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis

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Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: A detailed, passionate and highly readable account of the truly 'extraordinary life' of Lady Hester Stanhope, this book will take you from the political scene of Regency London to the olive groves of the Middle East via a myriad of other adventures.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: August 2008
Publisher: HarperPress
ISBN: 978-0007170302

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It is hard to not be fascinated by Lady Hester Stanhope. A relative of the Pitts, she grew up in an England where King George III was undergoing periodic bouts of madness, where revolutionary France evoked feelings of extreme reaction as well as intense interest, and where women – noblewomen in particular, were expected to contract good marriages and support their husbands. Hester resisted. At an age older than her own mother had been when she died, Hester left England for the Middle East, never to return.

Hester had an unconventional upbringing, and was clearly independently-minded from a young age. She was clever, quick witted, and a famous beauty, but showed little inclination to get married, for all that she clearly enjoyed, and in many cases preferred, the company of men. She appears to have had either bad luck or bad judgement in her pick of lovers: one was arrested for spying and ended up dead in a duel, another played with her affections, never leaving his long-time mistress, a third, more steady man was killed in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, along with her brother.

Hester ends up in Constantinople openly taking a much younger man as a lover, is then shipwrecked in the Dodecanese, takes to dressing like a man – not such a great step for a woman who is already a keen swordfighter and politician, male pastimes of the society in which she grew up - travels throughout the Middle East, from Queen Zenobia's Palmyra to the quiet hills of the Lebanon, where she makes her final home. Even from this distance she never ceases to be a scandal in the drawing rooms of London as she falls into debt, writes vitriolic letters to the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria, and denounces her nationality. Her life is as much about the mystery and the gossip that she engendered as to the truth behind them, and to try to strip away all these wonderful stories around her to get to the truth is to misunderstand the life of this wonderfully intelligent, eccentric and brave woman, although there were occasions when I wondered if Ellis was trying too hard to paint Hester in an unambiguously positive light.

Biographies can often suffer from seeming dry. They dip into highs and lows, following as they do a linear story from birth to death, as in any life there are peaks and troughs. Ellis disentangles the complicated aristocratic family and society of Regency London perhaps less well than she tells the travel adventure which follows, but she renders all parts of the book eminently readable, certainly in places more like a novelised version of Hester's life than pure biography, which works better at some points than others. I realise the book has been written for a popular rather than an academic audience, but Ellis is at her best when telling the story straightforwardly. Biographies can be difficult to follow, and although I am familiar with both the historical period of London, as well as many of the places Hester travels to, I did not feel I had to rely on previous knowledge to follow the book (although admittedly such knowledge automatically enhances the read). I also found it very interesting how close to the present Hester's story comes before it is truly finished, and how memories of her in the Middle East are still strong.

Ellis clearly admires Hester – it is hard for anyone with an ounce of determination, a desire to be independent, and a passion for travel not to identify with her in some way. I certainly do. I know it is not a matter the author usually has any choice over, but I found myself annoyed that the book's cover illustration is of a full length portrait of Lady Hester, smoking her nargileh water-pipe in full Middle-Eastern get-up – yet the picture is placed so half her head is missing. On the cover, it is the well-known sensational fact that Hester wore Middle Eastern male dress that is given more importance than Hester the person. Luckily this is a trap that the book itself does not fall into so easily.

I dithered about giving this five stars – it is highly enjoyable and, for the most part, a story well told, but the novelish beginning that depicts Hester's thoughts as she lies dying is no way to be taken seriously, and marred my first impressions of the book. There are times when Ellis lets her admiration for her subject run away with her and descends into flights of fancy that grate on the nerves more than entertain, although the overwhelming portrait of Hester that she paints is an enthralling one, of a strong-minded, independent women who made her own rules and lived her own life – such women, such people, even in this modern age are still few and far between.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another biography of a strong-minded, independent woman you might like to read our review of Katherine Swynford by Alison Weir.

Buy Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis at Amazon.com.

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