At twenty-two she was forced into a marriage with a man she did not love, Edward Harley, 5th Earl of Oxford. There is even some suggestion that she was somehow blackmailed or sold into this marriage at the hands of her own brother (the particulars are sketchy).
Lady Oxford moved among the radical Whig circles and was a close friend of the Lady Caroline Lamb (disgraced by her obsessive affair with Lord Byron) and Princess of Wales (shamed and turned out by the prince after one a year of marriage).
Notorious for having numerous lovers throughout her marriage, Lady Oxford’s first was a handsome, charming, radical reformist politician and baronet, Francis Burdett. Apparently, this well-known indiscretion occurred when Lady Oxford’s husband left her in the house alone with Burdett for over a week while he traveled for business. She later confessed her affair, and the Earl of Oxford’s response was that her “candour and frank confession were so amiable” that he could do no less than forgive her.
Her subsequent affairs were hardly surprising after such a reaction. In fact, all of her future lovers were in some way connected with Burdett. In 1812, she was Lord Byron’s lover (surprise, surprise) even though she was fourteen years older and already the mother of five children (she had six in all—all with dubious paternities). The family was often referred to by the ton as the “Harleian Miscellany” for the miscellaneous fathers who were responsible for the children’s existence.
Byron stayed with Lord and Lady Oxford in Hertfordshire after his debacle with Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron described her as a woman “sacrificed, almost before she was a woman, to one whose mind and body were equally contemptible in the scale of creation; and on whom she bestowed a numerous family to which the law gave him the right to be called father.”* She was forty when their affair began, and Byron (always one attracted to older women) described her as “a landscape by Claude Lorraine with a setting sun, her beauties enhanced by the knowledge they were shedding their dying beams.”* She had other lovers even while she was with Byron.
As per usual with Byron, after many months he grew tired of her and did not follow the Harleys in their travels abroad. Jane was disappointed and angry, and it signaled the end of their affair.
Jane Elizabeth Harley was considered to have been intellectually brilliant, highly literate, and well-informed about political and religious issues. But she was uniformly hated by Society because of her sexual behaviors. Members of Society were not above extra-marital behaviors themselves, but her open and prolific activities were too much even for them.
Indeed, Jane Harley seems to have been in search of love that she had not received from either her father or her husband. Had she lived today, she might have been labeled a sex addict, unable to ever have enough lovers as she sought refuge from whatever plagued her mind and heart. Perhaps a loveless marriage and a romanticized and idealistic education coupled with the permissiveness allowed by the nobility contributed to her weaknesses.
I have enjoyed blogging about wild women of the Regency this month, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about them. You may have noticed that most of these ladies have some connection with Lord Byron. In my novel coming out next year, Dangerous to Know—based on the marriage of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke—I have included several of them. More information about that soon.
In many ways, people have not changed from the 1800s. Everyone still suffers from heartbreak, mental illness, and loneliness.
Do you think people were all that different in the 1800s from now? Did they have it easier? Or was their life harder?
*Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. Knopf. 1999.
By John Hoppner - http://theromanticqueryletter.blogspot.com/2009/11/still-more-ladies-of-regency.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9100548