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LADIES OF THE HAUTE TON 1: HARRIET PONSONBY, LADY BESSBOROUGH

I'm posting a series of blogs featuring various characters and events in my recently re-released first book, 'Amy, The Story of Coram Foundling', starting with some of the larger-than-life ladies that made up the Regency 'haute ton'.

The Amazon links are below.


Lady Bessborough features heavily in my first novel 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling'. Amy is sent from the Foundling Hospital in 1798, at the age of 14, to work as a nursemaid in the household of Harriet, Lady Bessborough at 2 Cavendish Square, the Bessborough's London residence.



She was born Henrietta Frances Spencer in 1761 and was the youngest surviving child of the 1st Earl Spencer and his wife Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. Her sister was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the celebrated beauty, and society hostess.

Harriet was good-natured, kind, intelligent, well-read, and an accomplished pianist, and in 1780 she married Frederick Ponsonby, 3rd Earl of Bessborough who was a cousin of her sister's husband, the Duke of Devonshire. The marriage turned out to be deeply unhappy for both Harriet and Lord Bessborough as they were completely incompatible and shared no interests together. Lord Bessborough's only pleasure was gambling, and he, like many other aristocratic man and women became an addict.

Both Harriet and Lord Bessborough ran up huge debts and they often lived beyond their means, causing them to be plagued by creditors throughout most of their life.


Below: Harriet, Lady Bessborough in Naples in 1792


Harriet was utterly devoted to her four children: John, Lord Duncannon, Frederick, Lady Caroline, who later married William Lamb, and William or 'Willy'. She became separated from them in 1791 when her sister Georgiana became pregnant with her lover's child, and the Duke sent her away to France to have the baby. Harriet accompanied her there, and it wasn't until two years later that she saw her children again.

Due to her unhappy and loveless marriage, Harriet had many affairs, most notably with Lord John Townsend and the playwright and Whig MP Richard Brinsley Sheridan, but the love of her life was Lord Granville Leveson-Gower whom she met in Naples in 1792. They managed to carry on their affair after returning to England, and Harriet later had two children with him: Harriet Arundel Stewart and George Arundel Stewart who were raised by foster parents and their existence kept a secret from her husband and children.



Below: Hopner's portrait of Harriet with John, Lord Duncannon and Frederick Ponsonby


Harriet suffered agonies over her difficult and mentally unstable daughter, Lady Caroline, who ever since early childhood had exhibited behavioural problems. She would suffer from raging temper tantrums that could only be quelled by giving her laudanum, and Harriet feared she would be unable to find a husband if news of her metal state became public. Lady Caroline married William Lamb, son of the formidable Lady Melbourne, and at first, the marriage was happy and resulted in the birth of their son Augustus, but it soon fell apart, and Lady Caroline embarked on numerous love affairs, most notably with the poet Lord Byron.

Harriet's health suffered, and she was struck with paralysis after a minor stroke, but she slowly recovered. When hearing news of her son Frederick's serious injuries at Waterloo, she travelled day and night from Switzerland to Belgium, making the trip in three days to be near him.

Harriet died in Florence in 1821 after a short illness. She had been travelling with her youngest son Willy and his wife Barbara Ashley-Cooper when she fell ill with a stomach complaint and a fever, thought to be either typhoid or food poisoning. She was buried next to her sister Georgiana in the Cavendish family vault in Derby Cathedral.

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