Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
Harriet Fane Arbuthnot
10 September 1793 – 2 August 1834
Harriet Fane Arbuthnot
Harriet Arbuthnot was born Harriet Fane, the daughter of the Hon. Henry Fane, second son of Thomas Fane, 8th Earl of Westmorland.
The young Harriet spent much of her childhood at the family home at Fulbeck Hall in Lincolnshire, sited high on the limestone hills above Grantham. The house, which had been given to Henry Fane by his father, was a not over-large modern mansion at the time of Arbuthnot’s childhood.
Harriet Fane’s father died when she was nine years old, but the family fortunes improved considerably in 1810 when her mother inherited the Avon Tyrrell estate in Hampshire and the Upwood Estate in Dorset. This yielded the widowed Mrs Fane an income of £6,000 per annum (£360,000 per year as of 2014), a large income by the standards of the day.
Harriet Fane married Rt Hon Charles Arbuthnot, member of Parliament, at Fulbeck in 1814. Born in 1767, her husband was 26 years older than she was, an age difference which had initially caused her family to object to the marriage. Another of the principal obstacles to finalising the arrangements for the marriage was financial. Charles wanted a larger settlement.
Charles Arbuthnot was a widower with four children. Charles Arbuthnot was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. At the time of his marriage to Fane, he was the member of parliament for St Germans. He had briefly interrupted his political career to become Ambassador Extraordinary to the Ottoman Empire between 1804 and 1807. Marriage to such a pillar of the establishment as Charles Arbuthnot opened all doors to his young new wife.
Throughout her marriage, Mrs Arbuthnot, formed close friendships with powerful older men. She described Castlereagh as her “dearest and best friend” until his death in 1822, when she transferred her affections to the other great 19th-century Anglo-Irish peer, the Duke of Wellington. All social commentators of the time, however, agree that her marriage was happy; indeed, her husband was as close a friend of Wellington’s as was his wife.
Married to a politician, she was fascinated by politics and enjoyed success as a political hostess while exerting her energies to promote Tory causes. However, while she was the dominant partner, her conservative outlook ensured her continued favour among her elderly Tory admirers. During the early part of her marriage, her husband served as an Under-Secretary at the Treasury. Later, in 1823, he was given the Department of Woods and Forests, a position which gave him charge of the Royal parks and gardens. The subsequent access to the Royal family this allowed increased not only his status but also that of his wife.
When remarking in her diaries on other women who shared their affections with great men of the day, Arbuthnot displayed a sharp, ironic wit. Of Wellington’s one-time mistress Princess Dorothea Lieven, wife to the Imperial Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834, she wrote “It is curious that the loves and intrigues of a femme galante should have such influence over the affairs of Europe.” Arbuthnot obviously failed to realise she was regarded by some in London society as a femme galante in a similar situation herself.
Her political observations are clearly written from her own Tory viewpoint. However, her detailed description of the rivalry for power between the Tories and Liberals which took place between 1822 and 1830 is one of the most authoritative accounts of this struggle.
It is likely that Arbuthnot first came to the attention of Wellington during 1814 in the re-opened salons of Paris following the exile of Napoleon to Elba. Wellington had been appointed the British Ambassador to the Court of the Tuileries, and the city was crowded with English visitors anxious to travel on the continent and socialise after the Napoleonic Wars.
Amongst those sampling the rounds of entertainment in this lively environment were the newly married Arbuthnots. Charles Arbuthnot was known to Wellington, as he had been a strong supporter of Wellington’s younger brother Henry during his divorce, and it is possible Wellington had met, or at least heard of, Mrs Arbuthnot—she was a first cousin to his favourites the Burghersh family.
However, it was only after the death of Castlereagh in 1822 that the Wellington–Arbuthnot friendship blossomed. It is unlikely any close friendship developed before this time.
The story of a “ménage à trois” between Mrs Arbuthnot, her husband Charles, and Wellington, widely speculated upon, has been rejected by some biographers. However, it has been said that the unhappily married Duke enjoyed his relationship with Mrs Arbuthnot because he found in her company “the comfort and happiness his wife could not give him.” Arbuthnot was certainly the Duke’s confidante in all matters, especially that of his marriage. He confided to her that he only married his wife because “they asked me to do it” and that he was “not the least in love with her.”
As a consequence of his unsatisfactory marriage, Wellington formed relationships with other women, but it was for Arbuthnot that “he reserved his deepest affection.” Her husband at this time was working at The Treasury and Arbuthnot in effect became what would today be termed Wellington’s social secretary during his first term of premiership between January 1828 and November 1830. It has been suggested that the Duke of Wellington allowed her “almost unrestricted access to the secrets of the cabinet“. Whatever her knowledge and access, however, it appears she was unable to influence the Duke, but even his refusal to bring her husband into the Cabinet in January 1828 failed to shake the intimacy of the trio.
Wellington made no attempts to conceal his friendship with Arbuthnot. An indication that their relationship was platonic and accepted as such in the highest echelons of society can be drawn from the Duchess of Kent permitting Wellington to present Arbuthnot to her infant daughter, the future Queen Victoria, in 1828. Had Arbuthnot’s own character not been judged respectable an audience with the infant princess would not have been permitted.
When Wellington and the Tories fell from power in November 1830, Arbuthnot lost interest in her diary, writing: “I shall write very seldom now, I dare say, in my book, for, except the Duke, none of the public men interest me.” Her account of the break-up of the Tory party is a thoroughly partisan narration, accurate as to happenings outside the Tory inner circle, but on a broader scale and not so completely political as that of Henry Hobhouse.
Arbuthnot died suddenly of cholera at a farmhouse near the Arbuthnots’ seat, Woodford House, near Kettering in Northamptonshire, in the summer of 1834. Immediately after her death an express message was sent to Apsley House.