Marguerite Power, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

Marguerite Power, afterwards Countess of Blessington, long known and admired in the world of fashion and light literature, was born in Knockbrit, county Tipperary, on the 1st of September, 1789. She was the second daughter of Edmund Power, a country gentleman in somewhat reduced circumstances. On the mother's side she was descended from the Sheehys, an ancient Irish family. As a child she displayed remarkable intellectual powers, and was noted for great beauty. When scarcely fifteen she married Captain Farmer of the 47th Regiment. The marriage proved unfortunate; her husband's violent temper and cruelty led to a separation, and the wife of three months returned to her father's house for protection. In 1816 she went to London, and took up her residence with a brother. In the following year her husband was killed in a drunken brawl in the Fleet Prison, and she was once more free. Her great beauty and accomplishments soon attracted a husband worthy of her, and in 1818 she became the wife of Charles John Gardiner, Earl of Blessington. After their marriage the earl and countess lived on the Continent for several years, moving in a brilliant circle of rank, fashion, and genius. The observation and clear penetration of Lady Blessington during her residence abroad are abundantly evident in her two delightful works, The Idler in Italy and The Idler in France.

In 1829 her husband died, and in the following year she returned to London, where for a short time she resided at Leamore Place, Mayfair, and subsequently settled at Gore House, Kensington. It was here Lady Blessington first devoted herself to literature. "For fourteen years," says a writer in the London Examiner, her house was "the resort of the most distinguished men of wit and genius of every country and opinion, where all classes of intellect and art were represented, and where everything was welcome but exclusive or illiberal prejudice. Some of the most genial and delightful associations of the time belong to that house." Lord Byron was a friend and admirer of Lady Blessington and her frequent visitor. In 1832 her Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron was published, and became one of the most popular books of the day. The Repealers next appeared, followed by The Victims of Society, The Two Friends, Meredith, and The Governess. The latter has been pronounced by some critics as among the best of the author's works. Then came The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman, deemed by The Athenaeum the best of Lady Blessington's fictions, and containing incident sufficient for several ordinary three-volume novels. The "elderly gentleman" has been in love six times, and relates his story so frankly and truthfully that the reader experiences a genuine fellow-feeling for the narrator. Country Quarters, Marmaduke Herbert, and The Confessions of an Elderly Lady followed in quick succession. The latter was intended as a companion to Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman, and in 1853 they were issued in one volume as Confessions of an Elderly Lady and Gentleman. By some critics the lady's confessions are considered superior to those of the gentleman, and a reviewer in The Morning Post gives the following estimate of their value:—"A more perfect moral anatomization of the female heart has seldom been exhibited in any work of fiction. The serious passages are agreeably relieved by some amusing sketches of the aristocracy of bygone times." The Idler in Italy and The Idler in France, published from 1839-41, were well received and universally praised by the critics. In the latter Lady Blessington introduces to her readers the leading representatives of art, literature, politics, and ton, whom she has received as friends or met in society. The anecdotes with which the work abounds are told with a charming frankness and piquancy. She afterwards wrote Desultory Thoughts and Reflections, a collection of terse and well-digested aphorisms of great moral value; The Belle of the Season, Tour through the Netherlands to Paris, Strathren, Memoirs of a Femme de Chambre, The Lottery of Life, and other tales.

All these works added to Lady Blessington's reputation as an agreeable, graceful, and acute writer. Notwithstanding the time devoted to society and her numerous literary productions, she edited The Keepsake and The Book of Beauty for several years, and also contributed articles and sketches to the periodicals of the day. Count d'Orsay the sculptor, who had married her step-daughter, the only child of the Earl of Blessington, was separated from his wife, and took up his abode with Lady Blessington. His presence no doubt increased the expenses of her establishment, already too great, and in 1849 she removed with the count to Paris, where she trusted her jointure of £2000 a year would enable her to live more easily, and hoping again to gather around her the society in which she delighted. On the 3d of June she dined with her old friend the Duchess of Grammont, and on her return home was seized with apoplexy, of which she died on the following morning, June 4th, 1849. Her remains were laid in a mausoleum designed by the Count d'Orsay near the village of Chamboury.

Mr. N. P. Willis, in his Pencillings by the Way, thus describes the personal appearance of Lady Blessington:—"She looks something on the sunny side of thirty. Her person is full, but preserves all the fineness of an admirable shape; her foot is not crowded into a satin slipper, for which a Cinderella might be looked for in vain, and her complexion (an unusually fair skin with very dark hair and eyebrows) is of even a girlish delicacy and freshness. . . . Her features are regular, and her mouth, the most expressive of them, has a ripefulness and freedom of play peculiar to the Irish physiognomy, and expressive of the most unsuspicious good humour." The character of this once popular lady is thus drawn in the epitaph written for her tomb by Mr. Proctor ("Barry Cornwall"): "In her lifetime she was loved and admired for her many graceful writings, her gentle manners, her kind and generous heart. Men, famous for art and science in distant lands sought her friendship: and the historians and scholars, the poets, and wits, and painters of her own country, found an unfailing welcome in her ever-hospitable home. She gave cheerfully to all who were in need, help, and sympathy, and useful counsel; and she died lamented by many friends. Those who loved her best in life, and now lament her most, have reared this tributary marble over the place of her rest." The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington, compiled and edited by Dr. R. R. Madden, appeared in 1855.