Magazine article The Spectator

'Defiance: The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard', by Stephen Taylor - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Defiance: The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard', by Stephen Taylor - Review

Article excerpt

Lady Anne Barnard is a name that means almost nothing today, but her story is a remarkable one. She defied all the expectations governing the behaviour of upper-class women in 18th-century society, yet she made a success of her life. She died leaving six volumes of unpublished autobiography with a stern injunction that her papers were never to be published. For 200 years her memoirs have languished in the family archive, and Stephen Taylor is the first biographer to reveal her secrets.

Anne was the daughter of a threadbare Scottish peer, Lord Balcarres, and she grew up the eldest of 11 children in a prisonlike tower house in Fife. Pushed by her mother to contract a conventional arranged marriage, trading her breeding for newly-gained wealth, Anne dug in her toes. She was surrounded by eager suitors but, for reasons that remain unclear in this book, she could never make up her mind, and she gained a reputation as a coquette who broke men's hearts. The story of her life until the age of 40 is one of a constant procession of men -- 20 serious suitors and at least 11 proposals, as well as countless admirers -- but she refused them all.

Fleeing Scotland for London, she became a social sensation, in spite of her eccentricity, her Scottish accent and her strange, unfashionable clothes. She was friendly with the future George IV and an intimate of his mistress, the tiresome Mrs Fitzherbert. A fearless traveller, she thought nothing of paying a visit to Paris at the height of the revolution.

She attracted powerful patrons, many of whom were also her suitors. A vastly rich banker named Richard Atkinson managed her money, enabling her to buy a mansion in fashionable Berkeley Square. Another longstanding friend was Henry Dundas, one of the most powerful men in the country, who acted as Pitt's enforcer as well as ruling Scotland. Atkinson and Dundas both proposed to her, and she refused them both. She had no inclination to make an ambitious, worldly marriage. Instead, she embarked on a destructive affair with William Windham, a flashy politician and probably a suppressed homosexual, afflicted with commitment phobia. Manipulative and domineering, he treated her cruelly, and she tolerated his abuse for too long.

Anne related all these turbulent romances at length in the memoirs that she composed in her sixties. …

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