If Jane Digby had been invented by Jane Austen, we’d never have learned very much about her turbulent life. Digby would have figured as one of those peripheral characters who Austen bustles offstage after a few satiric scenes—a flirtatious little sister or imprudent cousin who decamps from polite society on the arm of a sweet-talking hustler in evening wear and presumably settles down to a life of regret after he’s deserted her.
Digby, though, was very much her own invention, and she seems never to have regretted her expulsion from Austen territory. Her long life serves as testimony to the fact that an early-19th-century girl with a little gumption and some ready cash could actually do pretty well for herself once she got kicked out of the country club. Despite its many failings, Mary Lovell’s Rebel Heart: The Scandalous Life of Jane Digby deserves recognition for bringing this extraordinary “fallen” woman back into historical sight.
Digby’s life began respectably enough. Born in 1807 to the renowned beauty Lady Andover and the Trafalgar hero Capt. Henry Digby, Jane was described by all who knew her as a sweet-natured, smart, and alarmingly pretty little girl. By early adolescence she was the belle of Regency England and by 18 had married Edward, Lord Ellenborough. But she soon grew fidgety in her marriage to a neglectful, philandering, and (at 34) much older man. As her friend Lady Isabel Burton would delicately phrase it years later, “I am afraid that after that she led a life for a year or two over which it is kinder to draw a veil.”
Lovell does not share Lady Burton’s fears, and in Rebel Heart she gleefully lifts the veil, revealing not “a year or two” of indiscretion but a quarter-century of almost continual bodice-ripping escapades. Digby took her rakish cousin George Anson as a lover shortly after her marriage. That affair ended quietly, but she soon began a more lasting and disastrous dalliance with the Austrian Prince Felix Schwartzenburg. Their tryst in Brighton was exposed by a loose-lipped servant, who told the judge at the divorce hearings that he kept his ear to the couple’s door for a good 15 minutes and was convinced by the noise within that “the act of cohabitation was taking place.” Digby’s case became so notorious in Britain that the London Times broke its rule of running only classified ads on the front page to report on it (the paper extended such treatment to no other news item until the policy ended in 1966).
Digby followed her prince to Europe and, with a stipend from her ex-husband, financed more high-profile travels and affairs. Over the next 20 years she befriended and bedded King Ludwig I of Bavaria, married the sweetly self-effacing Baron Carl Venningen, deserted him for the Greek Count Spiros Theotoky (who deserted her), eloped with Col. Hadji Petros of the Palikare mountain people of northern Greece, perhaps had a few brief encounters in Italy, definitely fell in love with her first Syrian guide, Saleh, had a casual affair with a second, Sheikh el Barak, and fell, finally, in deep and permanent love with a third, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, the leader of a branch of the Anazeh bedouin tribe. To her own surprise and the shock of her family at home, she married Medjuel and stayed with him from her late 40s until her death in 1881 at the age of 76.
Digby’s interests were not limited to flirtation and “cohabitation.” Fluent in nine languages, an amateur archaeologist, and an accomplished painter, she was also, with the exception of Sir Richard Burton, the Westerner with the most thorough experience of “the Orient” in the whole of the 19th century. (Digby befriended Burton in Damascus, and Lovell speculates plausibly that she was the source for much of the famously salacious detail in the essay on the harem system that Burton appended to his translation of The Arabian Nights.)
It would be hard to imagine a dull biography based on such a full life. But while Lovell’s extensive research and her affection for Digby are apparent, the book is often laughably reductive in its reading of a complex woman and era. A minor but persistent annoyance is Lovell’s refusal to question the motives of her subject. For all Digby’s warmth of feeling, there is evidence that she was not all sweetness and light. Lovell wastes little ink and no sympathy on the five children Digby deposited in various European cities. She makes the odd claim that her subject was “completely free of any form of racial or cultural prejudice,” and then proceeds to quote Digby labeling the people of Palmyra “unmitigated barbarians.” Lovell also has the disturbing habit of referring to her subject’s Syrian slaves in quotation marks, as “slaves,” as if the fact that Digby was a kind master modified the terms of bondage.
Lovell writes in her preface that her interest in Jane Digby grew out of “a cocktail party at the RAF Club in London,” and her book bears the rhetorical mark of that chatty genesis. The character sketches are hurried and two-dimensional. Digby’s tutor is described as “soft and kind,” Honoré de Balzac (who encountered Digby briefly in Austria) is said to write “like an angel,” and Digby herself is characterized with bizarre understatement as “loving travel, loving people.” And while Lovell takes pains to show her heroine as a harbinger of 20th-century women’s liberation, it’s an unfortunate irony that Lovell’s own prose seems stuck in the more syrupy corners of the 19th. In one overheated scene between Digby and Prince Felix, Lovell compares Digby to “a beautiful butterfly that had fluttered within his grasp.” Later, in a continuation of the aerial motif, Digby is “a moth to [Count Theotoky’s] flame.” Digby’s progress to ever more exotic locales inspires Lovell to increasingly purple heights, and soon we are knee-deep in descriptions of “hot Greek skies,” “nights scented with wild herbs,” and “lovers’ murmurings.”
When Lovell drops this lush verbiage, it is only to take up empty relationship-speak, and on these occasions her flat tone is comically inadequate to the intensity of the situation. When Digby begins an impetuous affair with a Greek mountain chieftain, Lovell comments lamely that “she felt secure in the relationship and for the first time in years was prepared to make a serious commitment.” Later, Lovell writes that “from being fulfilled and happy, [Digby] was reduced, at the age of almost forty, to a life with no direction.” It sounds like the complaint of a bored housewife, not of a woman who has recently been dumped by a Greek nobleman and watched her 6-year-old son fall to his death while trying to slide down a banister. By the time Lovell has described King Ludwig I as a “workaholic” and informed us that that Digby “had reached a stage where she wanted to be free of the man for whom she had once cared enough to desert her home,” the book reads more like a transcript of The Oprah Winfrey Show than a chronicle of European and Middle Eastern nobility in the 19th century.
Rebel Heart suffers most from Lovell’s insistence on speaking of Jane Digby as “ahead of her time.” This is, in an important sense, meaningless; Digby was instead a creature of precisely her own time, and it is the interaction of the woman with her situation which made her life remarkable. Lovell seems blind to, or simply uninterested in, some of the most fascinating aspects of this story. How does it affect the conception of rigid Victorian morality to know that Digby communicated warmly with her upright family until her death? What might it say about the contradictions of the century that one of Digby’s close friends, the cosmopolitan Lady Burton, referred to Digby’s last love as her “dirty little black—or nearly so—husband”? And if Digby did form lasting friendships with the men and women of her husband’s tribe, what were those relationships like, and how did she understand them in the context of her upbringing and her century? It is clearly not Lovell’s ambition to answer these questions. But Rebel Heart, lurching between Harlequin gush and vapid psychologizing, doesn’t even manage to ask them.