So why should you read the biography of someone you’ve never heard of? Because you’re interested in the period, I suppose, or in the place where that person lived. Because you admire the work of the biographer, certainly. Or a biography may simply be a terrifically good story — and that’s the case with A Scandalous Life. I came across this book because on my recent Smithsonian Journeys trip to England we met the 12th Lord Digby who has brilliant blue eyes and industrial-strength charm. He is Pamela Harriman’s brother, and I suggest you keep that fact in mind as I tell you about their ancestress.
Jane Digby was born in 1807 to an aristocratic naval hero and the daughter of an earl. The Digby family enjoyed plenty of money, a Dorset estate, and an affectionate network of powerful relatives. Jane’s London debut was like something from a Georgette Heyer novel, complete with balls at Almack’s and handsome young men in pantaloons vying for another waltz with the lovely young lady. Since Jane was spectacularly beautiful and charming, it wasn’t long before she was married to the staid Lord Ellenborough. She was seventeen.
We would neither know nor care about Jane if it weren’t for two other outstanding characteristics: she was immensely headstrong, and had a prodigious libido. I’m not going to confuse you by running through a list of the men with whom she had affairs or by whom she had children or to whom she was married. There were quite a few, which is all the more startling considering that this story plays out across nineteenth-century Europe. Jane very quickly left the polite circles she’d been brought up in, though she was able to maintain relationships with her exasperated (not to say despairing) family. She did abandon several children, but she believed each time that the child would have a better future with its father.
I suppose you could summarize Jane Digby’s story by saying that she roamed around the Continent being a mistress to various men, which is certainly true, but the last act of her life was both dramatic and satisfying: she met, married, and stayed with a bedouin sheik who was twenty years her junior. This, at the age of 46. It was the relationship of her life and made her immensely happy. She died in Damascus 28 years later and her heartbroken husband led her favorite white mare and white mule in the funeral cortege, as part of the mourning.
I’ve heard it said that the best biographers fall in love with their subjects and there’s no mistaking Mary Lovell‘s affection for Jane, who was generous, loyal, curious, and energetic. Lovell was also lucky to find very rich sources for this book: it was the era of letter-writing, after all, and many of Jane’s survived. What’s more she was a diarist, recording her secrets in code that Lovell managed to crack.
I read a profile of Pamela Digby Harriman shortly after her death. A reporter asked her to reveal her secret for attracting and keeping such attractive men as Gianni Agnelli, Randolph Churchill, Leland Hayward, and of course Harriman. She proclaimed, “There are no secrets! There is only enthusiasm!” I suspect Jane Digby would have agreed.