Born to a distinguished English family in 1807, Jane Digby scandalized society through a widely publicized affair that resulted in a divorce from Lord Ellenborough when she was 19. Banished to the Continent, she commenced with a string of lovers—which culminated with her most scandalous act: her marriage to a Bedouin sheikh twenty years her junior when she was 47.
Throughout her life, she was ruled by flaming passions that outweighed public censure, estrangement from her family, and estrangement from the surviving children of the six she bore.
Holkham Hall’s marble hall. Where Jane’s mother grew up.
Jane Digby was the daughter of Admiral Digby, who served at Trafalgar, and Lady Andover—who, as the custom of the day prescribed, for the rest of her life used the title of her higher ranking deceased first husband. Moreover, Jane’s mother was born to vast wealth and privledge. She grew up in one of the great English homes—Holkham Hall. Thomas Coke, her father, possessed vast wealth and eventually succumbed to accept the title of Lord Leicester.
An unfaithful wife
At 17 Jane married Lord Ellenborough after a promising, romantic courtship that soon fizzled after the marriage. Lord Ellenborough found joy with a mistress while Jane embarked on an affair with her cousin. She never told her husband, “their” son was fathered by her cousin. When the cousin tired of her, Jane’s affections were lavished on a German prince, Felix Schwartzenberg, who professed undying love for her.
She was so passionately in love with the prince that she begged for a divorce, even knowing intimate details of her sexual rendezvous with Schwartzenberg would become fodder for every newspaper in Britain during the divorce trial. Not only would she and her family be held up to public scandal, but she would lose all connection to the son she had never been close to.
Jane Digby (the infamous Lady Ellenborough) in her twenties
Indeed, her eldest brother was cut off from inheriting the wealth of his grandfather, Lord Digby, because of Jane’s sins. He did inherit the title but not the money that went with it.
In all fairness to Lord Ellenborough, he provided handsomely for Jane, who never lacked for riches during her long life, and he was never bitter, nor did he ever speak with malice toward her. He truly loved the baby boy Jane left behind, but the child soon died.
While Lord Ellenborough treated Jane kindly, her dashing prince treated her shabbily while stringing her along for a number of years—and through the birth of two more children, a daughter his family eventually raised, and a son who died days after he was born.
She eventually ended up a fixture at the Court of King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was reputed to be the father of her second daughter, who turned out to be hopelessly mad. It was at this time Jane finally realized the Catholic prince she had loved so well and for so long had no intentions of marrying her. She allowed herself to be wooed in a marriage with Baron Carl Venningen, a man madly in love with her and who she knew she didn’t love him.
Together, they had son, and he claimed paternity for the daughter who was mad. During this marriage, Jane became passionately in love with a Greek, Count Spiro Theotoky , whom she eloped with, leaving both children with Venningen, who never held malice for her, never remarried, and stayed relatively close to Jane until the end of his life.
Making her home in Athens
With Count Theotoky, Jane had her sixth and final child, a son who was the only child to whom she was ever attached. Marriage to the count turned out badly. He took up with a mistress and lived off Jane’s money.
Though Jane brought much shame to her family, her parents never withheld their love or support of her. Indeed, she and her mother would be close until her mother’s death. It was while she and her mother were meeting in Italy that Jane’s little six-year-old son would die. Impetuous like his mother, he began to slide down the banister of their three-story villa, falling to his death on the marble at his mother’s feet.
After his death, his broken-hearted mother returned to Athens. While going through the lengthy divorce process from Count Theotoky, Jane fell in love with an Albanian general twenty years her senior and lived openly with him—sometimes in caves! She fancied herself in love with him and built a fabulous house for both of them and took an active, affectionate interest in his young daughter.
When she discovered him having sex with her so-called devoted lady’s maid, she fled to the Levant. She had a sexual relationship—but not romantic—with a sheikh who first showed her the country which would soon claim her heart.
Always a true horsewoman who could ride better than most men, Jane fell in love with Arabian horses, the desert, and ancient cities like Palmyra. While Shiekh Medjuel el Mazrab was escorting her to Palmyra, he apparently fell in love with Jane. At the end of their journey, he asked if she could ever consider marrying him. She was stunned.
Falling for the sheikh
After they parted she could not free her thoughts from him, and since Jane was incomplete without a passionate love affair, the idea of being a desert princess began to appeal to her. Of course she had never been intimate with Medjuel, and he’d not told her he loved her. He had two wives.
When she later returned and he spoke of love, she consented to marry him on the condition that she be his only wife. One of his wives had died, and he agreed to divorce the other. Jane kept chiding herself. She was nearly 50; he was in his late 20s. But Jane loved to be involved in passionate love affairs.
Fluent in nine languages
Madam Jane Digby el Mezrab Watercolor by Carl Haag 1859
The British consul in Damascus attempted to dissuade her from marrying a Bedouin, but nothing could dissuade her. The 47-year-old Jane married Medjuel, and she immersed herself in assimilating into the Bedouin culture. She died her hair black, kohled her eyed, and dressed in veils and flowing gowns. She also learned Arabic fluently. It was the ninth language in which she was fluent.
She built a spectacular house in Damascus, where she spent half the year. The other half, she followed the tribe on the back of a camel, sleeping in Medjuel’s low-slung black tent. They experienced extreme temperatures. Summer heat was known to reach a reported 140 degrees Fareneheit, and winters could be bitterly cold.
While living in Damascus, she dressed as a European and entertained European visitors as the grand dame she was. To the English, she would always be referred to as Lady Ellenborough of the scandalous divorce. One of those visitors was the Prince of Wales. She was also close to Sir Richard Burton and his wife and imparted much information that would assist him in his Arabian Nights. She also spoke to him of the sexual practices in harems (where she had full access) which helped in his translation of the Kamra Sutra.
Jane’s marriage to Medjuel brought her the passion she craved, and she tormented herself with worries that Medjuel would take another wife or lose his heart to a younger woman of his own tribe. Many of her thoughts were poured out in the diaries she kept the final three decades of her life and which ended up with the Digby family.
The marriage to Medjuel was easily the happiest of her four marriages and would endure until her death at age 74. There was one rocky patch when she discovered he had taken a young bride forty years younger than Jane, but Jane forced him to give her up.
In death, she eschewed the Bedouin practice of burying the dead in unmarked desert graves on the day of their death. Her final resting place is in a European cemetery in Damascus where the stone proclaims she was Jane Elizabeth, daughter of Admiral Sir Henry Digby, born April 3, 1807, Died Aug. 11, 1881. Medjuel brought stone from Palmyra, where they had been so happy on their honeymoon, and on it he carved, in Arabic, Madam Digby el Mezrab. He never remarried.
Those interested in reading all the rich details of Jane’s life are encouraged to track down Mary S. Lovell’s fine 1995 biography of Jane, A Scandalous Life. —By Cheryl Bolen, whose fascination with dead English women contributes to many of the articles that can be found at http://www.CherylBolen.com or http://cherylsregencyramblings.wordpress.com/.
© Cheryl Bolen, 2014