The hostess who became known throughout Europe during the Regency and into the Victorian era for her Holland House dinners may have been forced to bring society to her because she could not enter society.
For Lady Holland was a divorced woman.
Born Elizabeth Vassall in 1771, the future Lady Holland was the only child of wealthy Richard Vassall (1732-1795) and heir to his three Jamaican sugar plantations. For reasons which are not understood more than two centuries later, at the age of fifteen she married Sir Godfrey Webster, who was twenty-three years older than she.
Between 1790 and 1795 she gave birth to five children, two of whom died as infants. Two sons and a daughter survived.
During those years, she had persuaded her husband to indulge her love of continental travel, and she kept a sketchy journal of these travels. In 1794, despite that she was heavily pregnant, young Lord Holland fell in love with her.
The nephew of the charismatic Whig leader Charles James Fox, Lord Holland was fresh from Oxford and traveling the continent with university friends. He had not quite reached his majority when he met his future wife, then known as Lady Webster. She was two years and eight months his senior, a gap she would later call “a horrid disparity.”
Though her journal is full of references to Lord Holland (referred to as Ld H) during her sojourn in Italy, nothing of a personal nature is conveyed. Those of us reading the journal cannot learn at what point they fell in love.
Few personal references are in her journal – unless she’s mentioning her detested husband. He is referred to as “my tormentor” or “the man I had the calamity to be united.”
Right about that time her father died, and his fortune came to her and Sir Godfrey, who had to take on the surname Vassall.
By then the wife who loathed Sir Godfrey was deeply in love with the good-natured Lord Holland, and he returned her affections. She refused to return to England with her husband.
Though Lord Holland was but one and twenty years old, he knew this was the woman with whom he wanted to spend his life.
She felt the same. She stayed on the continent with the man she loved.
But women at that time had no rights. Her husband, Sir Godfrey, was considered the sole possessor of her fortune, and he was to have custody of the couple’s three children.
Because of her love for Lord Holland, she gave up her fortune and her children. But it was too painful for her to send her small daughter back to England to live with her father. Therefore, Lady Holland concocted a plan whereby she would tell Sir Godfrey the child had died. She even went through a mock burial, and later would pretend to adopt a child to take her daughter’s place, with the adopted child being her true daughter. The scheme was eventually found out, and she had to give up the little girl three years later.
Three years after she met Lord Holland – and eight months after she give birth to their first son – Parliament annulled her marriage to Sir Godfrey. On July 6, 1797, two days after her marriage was dissolved, she married Lord Holland.
For all practical purposes, she was considered a divorced woman and would be scorned by polite society. However, she had the good fortune to be wed to a man who was beloved by all who knew him. Their little circle in Naples had dubbed the portly peer Sal Volatile because of his perpetual good humor. (Sal Volatile was the equivalent of today’s antidepressant.)
Lady Holland had a facility in assembling an interesting assortment of guests around the famed Holland House dinners, which became the closest thing England ever had to a French salon.
She and Lord Holland – whom she adored – would have six children of their own. One daughter died the day she was born, and another one died at the age of ten. Their first-born son would be prevented from inheriting his father’s title because he was born before his parents’ legal marriage took place. Their surviving daughter would not be able to be presented to society by her parents because of her mother’s “disgrace.”
The first husband Lady Holland detested committed suicide in 1800 (some reports say because of gambling losses), and her father’s fortune reverted to her children, both those fathered by Sir Godfrey and those fathered by Lord Holland. Lord Holland took on the Vassall surname.
Those interested in the Regency might enjoy reading Lady Holland’s Journals, the one volume of which is available free on Google Books. © 2011, Cheryl Bolen