Editing an annual was a coveted occupation, one not below the attention of the titled, albeit financially embarrassed Lady Blessington, who edited and wrote for Heath’s Book of Beauty and for The Keepsake. Her career was to intertwine with both Jerdan and Landon at various points, whilst her connection ensured that “persons of fashion” vied to be included in her annuals. Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, had had a turbulent past, born in Ireland, sold at sixteen by her father to an abusive husband whom she quickly left. Another, kinder man took her under his protection, and she eventually married Lord Blessington, a wealthy Irish landlord with whom she lived for many years. She was reviled in England for her past alliances, making life in London impossible, so she and her husband lived in great luxury in France and in Italy where she met and spent much time with Byron, an experience on which she later traded. Lord Blessington’s only legitimate son by his first marriage died unexpectedly; perhaps unhinged by this tragedy Lord Blessington became closely attached to Alfred, Count d'Orsay, changing his will in favour of the young Frenchman on condition that he marry one of Blessington's two daughters, then aged eleven and twelve, and leaving his wife an annuity of only two thousand pounds. This action laid the foundation for her later troubles. Blessington’s younger daughter Harriet Gardiner was the bride d’Orsay chose from the two on offer, although he showed no interest in her, or in most other women. Despite his apparent predilections, rumours later abounded that he had an affair with Lady Blessington. Lord Burghersh (to whom Jerdan had applied for contributions to the Foreign Literary Gazette), was the English Minister in Florence, and put so many obstacles in the way of the discreditable match (Harriet was only fifteen-and-a-half, at this point) that the marriage was finally performed in Rome in 1828. A few months later Lord Blessington died, leaving his estates in chaos.
Lady Blessington understood that she had to find a way to earn her own money, as the annuity was insufficient for her accustomed life style. Revolution was brewing in Paris and she returned to London, setting up home in Seamore Place, Park Lane, determined to create the relaxed and intellectual atmosphere of her salon in Paris. She was in fierce competition with other society hostesses, but aimed for a different group, for “men of taste”, in a club-like ambience where literature and the arts would be discussed openly, not solely politics which was on everyone’s lips at the time. Her visitors were mainly bourgeois, such as Dickens, Thackeray and Disraeli, “who were prepared to turn a withering satire upon all whose arrogance rested on mere accident of birth. To many of these spokesmen of the new culture, private passions came ultimately to count for less than public ills” (Buckley 27). Lady Blessington’s house was soon the centre of a lively group of clever men, enjoying her renowned beauty and her witty conversation. Some women made calls on her in the daytime, others were appalled at her presence in London, and she was not welcome to return calls anywhere, lest she offend high society. Her evenings were thus attended solely by men; d’Orsay was usually present, his child-wife out of sight elsewhere in the house. Up to this time Lady Blessington’s fortunes were dependent on d’Orsay’s legacy from her late husband, earned on his marriage to Harriet. He was a profligate gambler and spendthrift, running up enormous debts with gay abandon.
Lady Blessington was determined to satisfy her desire to fill her house with the kind of men she valued for their talk, to offer them a place to meet under the guidance of a sympathetic hostess of great beauty and social skill. Edward Bulwer came to her evenings, as did Jerdan, Disraeli and that moralising teetotaller, Hall. Deciding that to make money she should become an author, Bulwer, then editor of the New Monthly Magazine, agreed to serialise her Conversations with Lord Byron, from notes she had kept during her Italian travels. These appeared from time to time between July 1832 and December 1833. In the meantime, she asked Bulwer’s advice on writing novels. He was now a successful author and took her proposal to Bentley, who was to publish his next three books. Bentley offered Lady Blessington four hundred pounds for the copyright of her first book, a generous offer; in response, she produced six hundred pages in four weeks, of the total nine hundred and eight pages of The Repealers, published in three volumes in June 1833. This work contained thinly veiled references to her enemies in Ireland, but also directly complimented L.E.L.’s Romance and Reality. The success of her Conversations with Lord Byron and her novel obtained an offer for her to edit Heath’s Book of Beauty, the first volume of which Landon had produced. For Heath, the snob appeal of a Countess was more attractive than that of a mere poetess, however famous. She prepared her first issue during the summer of 1833 and it was published in November, to enable it to be shipped to America, India and the Colonies, but dated 1834. Contributors to this issue were her dear friends Walter Savage Landor and Bulwer, as well as Henry Bulwer and John Galt, and seven contributions from her own pen. Heath raised Lady Blessington’s salary when the Book of Beauty beat Landon’s popular Drawing Room Scrapbook by two thousand copies, a sore fact for Landon.
Sadleir, Michael. Blessington D’Orsay: a Masquerade. London: Constable, 1933.
Last modified 16 July 2020