I originally wrote this article for the fabulous blog of talented author Jana Richards. I’m reposting it here because I find Jane Digby to be such a fascinating woman. She had it all, beauty, brains, and vigour. She was a larger than life character who did not let social convention prevent her from following her heart.
One of the most scandalous women of the Victorian Era is Jane Elizabeth Digby. She was a woman known for her numerous marriages and affairs. But was she really so bad or was she just a victim of an era when women were seen as the property of their husbands rather than people in their own right?
Jane was born in Dorset, England, in 1807 to an aristocratic family. Her father was a decorated admiral in the British navy who was known for capturing enemy ships and taking their bounty.
Jane was an intelligent, independently wealthy woman who spoke nine languages, and was considered a talented artist and a magnificent horsewoman. She would have been coveted for these qualities alone, but Jane was also beautiful. Her peers described her as tall, with a perfect figure, blond and blue-eyed.
At the age of seventeen she married Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, a man nearly twenty years her senior. Lord Ellenborough had a rising political career and it seems he spent many days and weeks away from the young, adventurous Jane. She responded to her loneliness by having affairs first with her cousin, Colonel George Anson, who it is rumored was the father of her son, Arthur. She must have also been sleeping with her husband at this time because Edward had no questions about paternity. Unfortunately, Arthur died in infancy.
Next she had an affair with Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. She became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter, Mathilde, in 1829. This time Lord Ellenborough knew beyond a doubt that the child was not his.
Edward divorced Jane by act of Parliament in 1830. In this time period only two divorces a year were granted. The salacious details of this case caused a scandal that rocked England.
After her divorce, and against the wishes of her family Jane followed Felix to Munich, but the relationship ended when their son died soon after birth. Felix broke contact with Jane and it seems that she had no qualms about leaving her daughter to be raised by Felix’s sister.
Jane wasn’t alone for long, she soon caught the eye of Ludwig I of Bavaria and the pair became lovers. It was at this time that she met and married her second husband, Baron Karl von Venningen. They married in November 1833. This, it seems, was a marriage of convenience, and although Jane may have cared for Karl she wasn’t in love with him. Together they had a son, Heribert and a daughter, Bertha.
But Jane couldn’t or wouldn’t settle. Within five years she took another lover, Count Spyridon Theotokis of Greece. When Venningen found out he was furious and challenged Theotokis to a duel. Karl won the dual, injuring Spyridon, but lost the girl. Jane left her husband to care for her injured lover. Seeing that her affections had changed, Venningen released her from their marriage. He kept the children and took care of them, although, he and Jane remained friends and kept in touch for the rest of their lives.
Jane, now in Greece, converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in 1841. The pair had a son, Leonidas. Tragically, he died at the age of six, after a fall from a balcony. Out of her five children, Leonidas was the only one she seemed to have truly loved and was devastated by his death. Her relationship with Theotokis ended and the coupled divorced.
Once again, Jane wasn’t alone for long; her next lover was King Otto of Greece. This just seems to have been a quick affair. And Jane moved on to Greek General, Christodoulos Hatzipetros. She threw herself into her life with him, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the mountains. Christodoulos was a man famous for his womanizing and Jane walked out on him when she discovered he was cheating on her. (Okay, I’m surprised by this considering all the cheating she’d done in her life.)
In her mid-forties Jane travelled to Arabia where she met and fell in love with Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab, whom was fifteen years her junior. Their marriage seems to have been a happy one, built on compromise. She wanted to be married in the European sense whereas he wanted to keep his harem. It is rumored that they agreed to be monogamous for three years after that time he would reinstate his harem and could take other wives. By all accounts, Jane loved the Bedouin life, living for six months a year travelling, and sleeping in a tent. The other six months were spent in her palatial home in Damascus. Her marriage lasted nearly thirty years until her death in 1871.
Jane was definitely a woman out of time. She seemed to earn for adventure, and men were a part of that. She doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of maternal instinct. I think her children were just a byproduct of sleeping with men in an era where there was no such thing as reliable contraceptives.
I like to believe she found the life she was looking for with the Bedouin. The fact that everyday was different would have been fun for her. And when she got tired of sleeping in a tent she could return to her comfortable home in Damascus.
My character, Annabel, in A Woman of Love, wasn’t as fortunate as Jane. Annabel is completely controlled by her disreputable husband, Lord Elliott Peters. So when he demands that she pay his gambling debts by bedding his friend, James Drake, she is forced to comply.
What happens when Annabel meets James? You’ll have to read the book to find out.