The life of Lady Hester Stanhope reads like the purest fiction. If a screenwriter were to present this scenario to a film company, it would probably be dismissed as unlikely in the extreme. But in Kirsten Ellis's Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope
, we are presented with a fascinating factual biography that outdoes the most outlandish fiction.
From her youth, it was abundantly evident that Lady Hester Stanhope was likely to pursue a very different destiny from that of her contemporaries, but few could have guessed the bizarre journey she would be taking. As the daughter of the eccentric Earl Stanhope, she sported an unconventional manner even as she abandoned her family home to become a society hostess at the house of her uncle, William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister. Within this glittering social circle, she quickly became a star, pursued by many highborn admirers -- and a celibate lifestyle was not one that the rebellious Hester chose for herself. Her list of lovers was impressive, but she resisted the temptation to marry; she knew that there were other possibilities in her life that she must explore. When Pitt died, she found herself without a home, and decided to leave Britain. Setting out with a young lover (who later returned to Britain for family commitments), she travelled through the Mediterranean and beyond. It was in the Middle East that the seeds of her legend were sown. At this time, she became the most celebrated female traveller of her era, and was the first woman from England to traverse the Syrian desert, celebrated by the Bedouin as their 'Star of the Morning'. Establishing an impressive home in the mountains of Lebanon, she began to become a player in the tortuous politics of the region. But how was she, an Englishwoman, able to deal with the Middle Eastern rulers and politicians, not accustomed to taking women seriously? Hester, knowing that she was not cut out to wear the veil, began to dress in male clothing -- and even to bear arms. The effect of this remarkable woman on those around her was seismic, and she began to be regarded almost as a queen, inspiring feelings of awe. But Hester had always had a passionate belief in some of the obscure byways of the supernatural (she was obsessed with preparing herself for the second coming of Christ), and as her mental acuity began to wane, so did her influence. Soon, almost all she owned had fallen away from her, with only the doctor she had travelled to the Middle East with remaining as her confidant.
Kirsten Ellis's exuberantly written biography does full justice to her larger-than-life subject, celebrating this unlikely heroine who made her mark in both the male-dominated societies of Britain and the Middle East. Ellis has also discovered many startling new facts about Hester, including details of her relationships with adventurous figures of the day such as Sidney Smith and the revolutionary Latin general de Miranda (not to mention her dabbling in espionage -- another unlikely but fascinating aspect of her astonishing story). --Barry Forshaw
‘Ellis has unearthed fresh material, and retells the story with idiosyncratic panache.… Ellis is a vivid narrator with an eye for detail…This book leaves little doubt that Lady Hester was brave, whether standing in her stirrups to fend off a charge or tossing her head as gossip about a love affair swirled around the salons of London and Damascus.’ Sara Wheeler, Sunday Telegraph
‘As Kirsten Ellis vividly shows, Hester Stanhope’s story is one of brave (and often foolhardy) triumph over the straitjacket of Regency attitudes and the even more hidebound conventions of Islamic society. … Ellis has unearthed startling new aspects of this remarkable woman’s life, such as Hester’s relationships with no fewer than three Napoleonic spies. Ellis’s enthusiasm for her heroine makes “Star Of The Morning” a fascinating study with some trenchant points about the position of strong-minded women in male-dominated societies.’ Barry Forshaw, Daily Express
‘An intense and readable biography…the exploits of headstrong proto-feminists in alien cultures make for good copy and perhaps, a good film. Ellis writes clearly and objectively…and refuses to be swayed by her subject’s emotional excesses…she is excellent on historical detail, particularly the interplay between international and local politics around the Mediterranean.’ Andrew Lycett, Literary Review
‘“Star of the Morning” tells a rattling good story well’ Sunday Times