11 Jane_Digby

Women of Holkham: Jane Digby

March 2, 2020 | Holkham voices | 3 minute read

11 Jane_Digby

In May 2019 I was handed a box of letters from Australia. They were written by Jane Digby, for me, the most extraordinary women of the 19th century. Jane Digby, (1807-1881) was the daughter of Lady Jane Coke and her second husband, Sir Henry Digby. Her maternal grandfather was Thomas William Coke, first Earl of Leicester, and as a result spent much of her childhood in the nurseries and schoolroom with her cousins at Holkham Hall. She described Christmas at the hall as ‘wonderful, rumbustious and old-fashioned’.

Educated to match her brother and male cousins, much higher than most girls at that time, Jane was encouraged by her grandfather to ride and take an interest in horse management, appreciate the beautiful treasures within Holkham Hall, and to be politically aware, skills that she would draw on in later life. In 1824, aged just 17 she married Edward Law, Earl of Ellenborough. It was not a love match; Jane had several affairs which were much reported in national newspapers and she was hounded out of England, initially to Paris. By the end of 1830, newly-divorced Jane had given birth her third child and was single again. Over the next twenty years Jane moved gradually further east to Syria. She finally fell in love with Medjuel al-Mesreb, a Syrian Bedouin sheik who lived a very traditional nomadic life. They married under Muslim law in 1854 and split their time between their villa in Damascus (where she cultivated an English garden, ordering seeds and plants from England) and living a fearless life in a nomadic goat hair tent in the desert. Jane adopted Arab dress and customs, and learnt Arabic in addition to the other eight languages in which she was fluent. Jane became deeply involved in the life of the Mesreb tribe and eventually became seen as their matriarch. The wide skies of the desert must have reminded her of her halcyon childhood days at Holkham.

The letters in the Holkham archive were sent by Jane to various people including her brother, Kenelm and her former governess, Margaret Steele, who she addresses ‘Steely’ and are dated mostly when she was settled in Syria. They provide a marvellous insight into a pioneering woman, renowned for her beauty and passions but more interestingly was highly intelligent and skilled living a life so unfamiliar to the comforts she must have experienced at Holkham.


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