11 November 2008

Social Taboos: Compromised During the Victorian Era

By Michelle Styles

It reads like the synopsis from a historical romance--witty vivacious beautiful twenty-one year caught in the arms of upcoming politician and experienced rake in a Hampshire summer-house.

The rake suffers no long term damage but the young woman is ruined and is hastily married off to a wealthy cousin twenty years her senior.

In a novel everyone would forget her early indiscretion, and the woman would be able to take part in everything, including all of society. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826-1913), daughter of Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Oxford.

In 1847, Dorothy was compromised by experienced rake George Smythe. He suffered no long-term effects from the incident. But Queen Victoria refused to receive Dorothy at court. Marriage prospects ruined, Dorothy was married off to Mr Reginald Nevill, a wealthy cousin twenty years her senior. Still Queen Victoria refused to receive her.

At first Dorothy retired to the countryside and spent Reginald Nevill's money in a major way. Her passion became her garden at Dangstien, a neo-classical house near Petersfield. While there, Dorothy took up horticulture with 23 acres of gardens, 34 gardeners and 13 greenhouses to help her. The plant collection at Dangstien became famous. The great and good flocked there. Dorothy corresponded with Sir William Hooker and Charles Darwin. But still Queen Victoria did not relent. Lady Dorothy was not a fit person to be received at court because of her early indiscretion.

In 1878, Dorothy's husband died, and she was forced to sell Dangstien. (The Prince of Monaco bought the tropical palms). Her husband had noted her habit of spending money and had left most of his wealth (or that remained) in trust to his children, leaving her only a small annuity. Dorothy retired to London and became a noted political and social hostess. She was a close friend of Diserali's (rumoured to be the father of her youngest son) and was heavily involved in the promotion of Primrose Day. But still Queen Victoria did not forgive and Lady Dorothy Nevill was not considered a fit person to be received at court.

It was not until Queen Victoria died and Edward VII took the throne that her early indiscretion was forgiven and she was finally allowed back to court.

Being caught in flagrante in the summer house during the early Victorian period was a definite social taboo for Queen Victoria. But given that Lady Dorothy had such a glittering career in other ways, did Lady Dorothy truly mind?