The death of Jane Digby - 11 August 1881

An adventurous, spirited woman who ploughed her own furrow

The death of Jane Digby – 11 August 1881
11th August 2016 Jane Tomlinson

Jane-DigbyHere’s a bodice-ripping love story of sex and adventure: the story of Jane Elizabeth Digby, Lady Ellenborough.

She died on this day 1881. I celebrate her as a woman who did her own thing, when doing one’s own thing was very much not what women did.

During the course of her lifetime, today’s average British woman will have sexual contact with an average of 14.56 men.

Women weren’t always so free to express their sexuality. It was women like Jane who paved the way for her late 20th, early 21st century Sisters.

Jane Digby was born with a silver spoon in her mouth in 1807. Her father, an Admiral, had made the family pile seizing Spanish treasure. Jane was a stunner and the fact that her Daddy was loaded made her an extremely desirable marriage prospect. Aged just 17 she was married off to Lord Ellenborough, a man twice her age.

They had a son but he died as an infant. He was the first of Jane’s five children by four different fathers; only two of her children who would survive to adulthood.

Jane Digby by Carl HaagLady Jane and Lord Ellenborough divorced in 1830 after he had an affair. Like many young women today Jane enjoyed sleeping around, looking for someone to truly satisfy her. In a buttoned-up society ruled by duty and dos-and-don’ts her promiscuity was infamous. Her celebrity affairs with the rich and famous across Europe meant she was rarely out of the papers. Her affairs and four marriages included a Greek king, an Austrian statesman, a Bavarian king, a Bavarian baron, an Albanian general. Today, that good-looking girls in the public eye have affairs with footballers, princes and film stars is normal. Jane’s many lovers and husbands make Katie Price look like a part-timer.

A woman of many talents and huge spirit

But Jane shouldn’t be remembered for her high-class shags. She was an expert horsewoman and stock breeder; a cameleteer; an archaeologist; a falconer; a gifted linguist – she spoke and read nine languages. She could draw and paint, had considerable veterinary knowledge, was a fearless traveller, an eloquent writer and most of all, a woman with spirit.

It wasn’t until she was into her very late 40s she finally found what she was looking for in the form of a Syrian bedouin sheik 20 years her junior. Medjul El-Mesrab was the love of her life. He lived a traditional tribal, nomadic life, and Jane delighted in sharing it with him as his one and only wife.

palmyra columnsThey trekked through the desert in the winter, bivouacking at the ancient ruins of Palmyra, and spent summers at her house in Damascus.

It was women like Jane who unknowingly paved the way for modern women to both do their own thing and enjoy their sexuality. Jane still had her mojo aged 73, when she wrote in her diary: “It is now a month and 20 days since Medjul last slept with me! What can be the reasons?”

Of course it wasn’t until the contraceptive pill became widely available in the 1960s that women could truly express their sexuality. The pill gave women reproductive choice, a luxury denied to Jane.

Jane died of dysentery aged 74. She and Medjul had been married 28 happy years. Medjul was heartbroken. He took a block of pink limestone from Palmyra, carried it back to Damascus, carved an inscription on it and lay it on her grave.

jane digbys grave in DamascusWhen I visited the unkempt, neglected protestant cemetery in Damascus in 2005, Jane’s grave in was covered in dust and leaves. The boy who had come to unlock the cemetery gates to let us in found a hose and washed it down. The limestone block sparkled pink again.

Jane’s life story is such a ripping yarn, I cannot understand how Hollywood hasn’t made a film about it. I see Nicole Kidman in the starring role.

Read Mary S Lovell’s book about Jane’s astonishing life entitled A Scandalous Life.

Comment (1)

  1. mary S Lovell 5 years ago

    I dont know when you visited Jane’s grave but I suppose it was after a spell of wet weather. I have been paying the cemetery keeper for about 10 years to care for the grave and keep it looking tidy and clean. Every time I have been there (annually) it has been immaculate and the same goes for those who regularly sent me photos at other times. Of course it isn;t possible visit at present but my friend and interpreter Hussein Hinnawi visited the grave a few weeks ago to lay some red roses and found it in good order. I enjoyed your snappy mini-biog of Jane, but of course her life was so much more than just promiscuity. I am sure you realise that. Best wishes.

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