Milky Lady

Her heart was made for freedom and scandal. It carried her far from her English home, for there were many willing takers, daring to stand up to her spirit, thinking they could face her beauty unmoved. When her career took her to Syria, she was called Shaikhah Umm al-Laban (Shaikhah Mother of Milk) for the color of her skin, poured over her bones like a white ganache. She was also called “Aurora” for she was as bright and golden as the goddess who flew across the sky, gilding the air to prepare for the arrival of her brother, the Sun.

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Lady Jane Elizabeth Digby was a young woman in the early 19th century, when ladies’ gowns rode low on their shoulders and curved gently across their backs. This was fortunate, for Lady Digby had a swan-like neck which merged with a pliant spine, its vertebrae fluttering just below the skin’s surface. Her hair was a deep honey color which dripped in corkscrew curls as was the fashion. And her eyes were pale blue, rimmed with a darker blue – they glowed like cathedral glass.

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She married the 2nd Baron Ellenborough in 1824, when she was 21, and he a decade older. But she was too romantic for marriage, and quickly embarked on an affair with her maternal cousin, Colonel George Anson. He was handsome and subtle – a dangerous challenge for a girl just sprightly enough to pick up the gauntlet through down by a charming reprobate.

But she did not care about the fluffy judgements of her peers. In 1828 her attentions turned to Prince Felix of Schwarzenburg, slim and swathed in military severity, when he was still a London attaché for the Austrian embassy.

princefelix

After two years he deserted her, leaving her pregnant with their second child. The affair left Jane to face scandal, divorce and society’s shocked, albeit fascinated twitterings, and it left the Prince with a new title: the “Prince of Cadland”. Outside of a few brief visits, she never saw England again.

In Munich Jane became the mistress of King Ludwig I, who despite his quiet shabbiness attracted such luminaries of the demimonde as the dancer/courtesan Lola Montez.

ludwig

It is not known who felt the urge to move on first – Nancy or the King. But one of the partners did and in 1833 Jane had married the Baron Karl Von Vennigen. They had two children, and her mettle was calm for five years.

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But a roving eye cannot be shuttered for long. In 1838 Jane fell in love with the Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis.

spyridon

Baron challenged Count to a duel, and though wounded Vennigen agreed to set Jane free but kept custody of the children. They remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives.

Though not legally divorced until 1842, Jane converted to the Greek Orthodox faith and married Theotokis in 1841. Oddly, Jane showed a particular lack of patience for a lack of loyalty, and when Theotokis returned to his old habits – which were the very antithesis of fidelity – he and Jane were divorced.

Jane then turned not to her old friend Ludwig I – perhaps getting up in years – but to his son, the far more dashing King Otto of Greece.

ottogreece

However the King was married to a fierce and politically formidable woman – Amalie of Oldenburg. The Queen wouldn’t have her dark and slim-waisted husband sleeping with this adventuress and Jane was forced to leave Athens.

She turned next to the hero of the Greek War of Independence, Christodoulos Chatizipetros, who had led the rebels under King Otto with flamboyant and successful distinction against the Ottoman forces.

christo

He rose to the rank of Major-General, but his debauched habits attracted Amalie’s disapproval. Her fury must have been intense upon learning that one of those habits included Lady Jane Digby.

Christodoulos continued to lead a guerrilla campaign, with Jane acting as queen of his rough army, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the sparse mountains. They roamed the Thessalian plains, where Odysseus once visited; where Jason and the Argonauts launched their search for the Golden Fleece, and now where a lady who did know her place could journey at will.

But Christodoulos’ weaknesses, long offensive to Queen Amalie, now became an annoyance to Jane and she walked out on him for his numerous infidelities. In the late 1840’s, Jane continued her journey East, stopping in Syria.

Jane Digby in Syria

She was now forty-six, and her soft beauty had become resolute and mature. She would fall in love one more time, and he, though twenty years her junior, was not seeking the pretty follies of a young girl.

He was Sheikh Abdul Mijwal al-Musrab, sheikh of a sub-tribe of the Anizzah tribe of Syria.

sheikh

The two were married under Muslim law and Lady Jane Digby became Jane Elizabeth Digby el Mezrab. Jane added Arabic to the eight other languages in which she was fluent. She adopted Arab dress which buried her face beneath sheaths of fabric so long they erased her footsteps from the sand as she walked.

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Half of every year was spent in the nomadic style of the Bedouin, while for the rest of the year they lived in a palatial villa she had built in Damascus.

Their marriage was a happy one and lasted until she died in 1881, twenty-eight years later. She died of fever and dysentery – the nightmares of soldiers and other adventurers who find themselves in faraway climates. At the funeral her name was written in Arabic on a block of limestone by her widower and then carved into the rosy granite by a local mason. The sheikh then rode alone into the desert and sacrificed his finest camel to honor her departure and her memory.

But maybe he should not have grieved; perhaps he should have spared that most excellent beast. For Aurora returns to the quickening of every morning, when dawn stirs between day and night. And then one can look into the sky and watch the stars as they spiral through the Milky Way, outlining the Milky Lady’s eyes and lips; her curving, radiant profile.

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7 responses to “Milky Lady

  1. Thank you for the lovely post about Lady Jane, aubrey. I first read about her in a biography of Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer and linguist. Burton admired her sophistication and knowledge of Arabic, but had to throw in a comment that he couldn’t understand how she could tolerate the touch of “black skin.” Apparently she was far more open-minded and cosmopolitan than Burton, himself a scandalous adventurer and romantic.

    • As I was researching/writing this, differences in ‘color’ never occurred to me…only that of status, or personality. In fact, Jane even dyed her hair dark, as in the East light hair was considered bad luck

  2. That is indeed a fantastic women, adventures at every turn and a true free spirit
    Thankyou for sharing

  3. What an amazing woman — with a brilliant life, at that point in history… Just, WOW. I read a bit more in the comments of her, and am all that more impressed. Thanks so much for sharing her light! 🙂

  4. That’s a lot of living to pack into relatively few years. I took particular note of this: ” She adopted Arab dress which buried her face beneath sheaths of fabric so long they erased her footsteps from the sand as she walked.” Ironically, both the burqa and the traditional habit worn by nuns are meant to erase traces of individuality as surely as those footsteps were erased. An interesting post about an interesting woman, that raised some interesting questions in my mind.

  5. What a fascinating woman. Love the detail of the fabric erasing her footsteps. I think she was also lucky though with the latter stages of her life, and her final love, because you read the stories of many beautiful scandalous adventuresses who flamed high society, and often they end up alone and penniless, shunned and punished by judgment, snobbery and sexism. Especially if they are not aristocratic in the first place. Many thanks for this post!

  6. A Humble Shadow – During my reading, I never got the impression that she was a victim; if a man didn’t come up to her expectations, she thought nothing of moving on – until she found one, the last one, with whom she was truly content to settle down.

    FeyGirl – ‘at that point in history’ – exactly. There were formidable women then, courtesans like Harriette Wilson and Cora Pearl, but in the end the disapproval of society defeated them. Jane would be having none of that.

    shoreacres – So tempting to wonder about those questions roaming about your wonderful and inventive mind! I’m wondering if she ever wrote an autobiography; a handful of biographies exist but something from her own hand would be worth seeking out.

    Alex – Exactly so. Some ladies lived so fast and daring, that their surroundings were a blur, and they couldn’t be bothered to slow down and take in the details, the boring things like economy and responsibility. It’s strange to say, but I don’t think Lady Jane was particularly indulgent, hence – perhaps – the control she always had over the course of her life.

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