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Monday, September 12, 2011

A most amiable lady courtier

Not just goodnatured, literate, and beautiful, but extremely open-minded, too.

The Oxford Dictionary of Biography once again explores the life of a most remarkable woman.

Mary Lepell's birth, on 26 September 1700, was commemorated in a rather unusual way.  Her father, who had been born in Germany, arrived in England from Denmark in 1683, as a groom of the bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark, husband of Queen Anne.  In March 1704, he became a lieutenant-colonel in Lord Paston's regiment of foot, and just one year later was given his own regiment -- with leave to recruit his men.  A resourceful fellow, he recruited his own daughter, registering her as a cornet.  Naturally, Mary was paid -- a salary that continued after she had grown up, and become maid of honor for Caroline, Princess of Wales.

A sparkling and literate lass, she played a vivacious part in the literary circle that surrounded the princess.  John Gay called her "youth's youngest daughter, sweet Lepell," and she even managed to charm (and maybe even seduce) the waspish Alexander Pope, who described her being taken "into protection" by two maids of honor on a visit to Hampton Court -- Miss Lepell, he said, "walk'd all alone with me three or 4 hours, by moonlight."  In March 1720 she stayed with Pope at his house in Twickenham, Middlesex, allegedly for the benefit of her health.

On 21 April 1720 she married John Hervey in secret, so her payments as a maid of honor would continue.  On 25 October their union was finally announced, and they moved to a fashionable house in Bond Street, and Mary became known as Lady Hervey when her husband's elder half-brother Carr died in 1723.

She and her husband were perhaps the most celebrated couple in the court of the prince and princess of Wales. In the words of the second verse of a ballad by Pulteney and Chesterfield:
Bright Venus yet never saw bedded
So perfect a beau and a belle
As when Hervey the handsome was wedded
To the beautiful Molly Lepell.

Of course she was the subject of gossip.  When she bought a new house in Great Burlington Street for her growing family (she ended up with four sons and four daughters) in 1725, the Duchess of Marlborough alleged that the money had come from the four thousand quid she had been given to desist from openly flirting with King Geoge I. 

John Hervey was bisexual as well as handsome, but this doesn't seem to have worried Mary a whit -- indeed, she became great friends with his male lover, Stephen Fox, selling him her house in 1730, and in 1740 she allegedly  lent a later passion of her husband's, Francesco Algarotti, the money he needed to leave London and move to Berlin -- maybe to get him out of the way.  In the summer of 1735, she cooperatively spent the time in France, despite  her pregnancy with her last child, Caroline, allowing Hervey to revive his affair with a female lover, Anne Vane.

 Despite this open tolerance, for some unknown reason John refused to see her for several weeks before his death, on 5 August 1743, and the fashionable world was shocked by the terms of his will, which left Lady Hervey no more than her jointure of £300 a year. The will did not reflect a breach in the family. Lady Hervey lived at Ickworth with her father-in-law, Lord Bristol, almost until his death in 1751.

After that, she lived a life of politics and letters, much of it in France, until she was immobilized by gout.  Lady Hervey died in September 1768, and Walpole wrote an epitaph for her gravestone.

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