There’s a fine line between gutsy and crazy. For most of her 60-some years, Lady Hester Stanhope danced willfully on either side of that line, outright straddling it on many occasions. Evaluations of sanity aside, if great explorers push the limits of the day, Lady Hester Stanhope blew right past the mores of the early 1800s and never looked back.
Hester Stanhope was born into privilege in 1776. She tottered away in London high society until at age 33 she became…in what seems as accurate as anything…utterly bored. Her finances were seemingly secure in perpetuity, so she hopped a ship to the Mediterranean, took a young male lover in Gibraltar, and headed for Istanbul (then Constantinople), Cairo, Syria, and Lebanon.
The sights, smells, and beheadings of the Near East didn’t phase Stanhope in the least. At a time when women’s fainting couches were de rigueur in England, the only travel hiccup that seemed to have ruffled Stanhope’s feathers was a shipwreck off the coast of Egypt. She lost all of her British finery in the accident, so she adopted a new, more practical style: the outfit of a Turkish man. From boots to waistcoat to sword and turban, Stanhope dressed in men’s clothes for the rest of her life.
Her manner of dress, proclivity for riding her horse like a man (as opposed to side saddle), and unwavering confidence in the face of entirely foreign cultures, was as much a riddle to the people she encountered in Egypt and the Middle East as it must have been to her English companions. Though she and her entourage were welcomed graciously in their travels across, Stanhope herself was such an enigma – so uncustomary – that the locals couldn’t help but celebrate her especially.
And Stanhope ate it up. She was the independent and uncaged woman of the hour. Flaunting customs and cultural sensitivity, Stanhope walked unveiled through Damascus, Syria, in 1812. For an act that could have earned another woman a stoning, Stanhope was revered. The following year, she rode into the most feared Bedouin camp of Syria and demanded safe passage to the ancient city of Palmyra. Face to face with this odd force of nature, the Bedouins obliged. Before long, the various tribes took to calling her “Queen of the Desert,” a nickname Stanhope adopted with gusto, not to mention a solid sense of belief.
By 1814, her original entourage of travel companions had dispersed and Lady Stanhope settled in Lebanon. Though her wealth had diminished, she lived as though it had not. She lavished all guests – both prestigious and impoverished – with gifts, cash, clothing and necessities. Her generosity and ferocious protection of her new neighbors further deepened their curiosity and admiration of this unconventional woman.
In the 1820’s, Lady Stanhope sequestered herself at a monastery deep in the Lebanese mountains as she succumbed to a life guided by strange prophecies and astrology. Even so, she lucidly took in every peasant, stranger, and friend who came to her door and never stopped embracing her adopted culture. While conventional wisdom suggests assimilation is the truest form of cultural appreciation, she mastered the charisma-driven ability of always doing her own thing and still having people love her.
Most biographers and first-hand reporters ascribe a hefty dose of arrogance to Lady Hester Stanhope. She operated with a grand sense of entitlement that was only outdone by her equally grand ego. By the 1830s, Lady Stanhope’s ego had outlived her money, her lovers, and perhaps her sanity. She died poor, alone, and a servant to her own eccentricities in 1839.
To her great credit, at a time when women were not expected to indulge in either confidence or adventure, Lady Hester Stanhope exhaled both with every breath. She refused to sacrifice her own desires to the patriarchal rules of any society. And though she was neither graceful nor subtle in her demonstration of this, she miraculously earned more respect, than disdain, for her stance.