Reading in Progress: Amphibious Thing: The Life of Lord Hervey by Lucy Moore

Amphibious Thing: The Life of Lord Hervey - Lucy Moore The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace - Lucy Worsley

I'm doing it again - starting multiple books because I can't resist reading a bit here and there. In general I try to only do this with history books in very different time periods or it can get a tad confusing.


Happily I have Lucy Worsley's The Courtiers to blame/praise for this book choice. (I love having the excuse "but I had to buy this book!") She introduced me to the courtier John, Lord Hervey (or 2nd Baron Hervey) and the woman he married, Mary Lapell (later Mary Hervey or Lady Hervey). In Worsley's book the couple makes a secret love match - two clever, good looking people, sought after by others but choosing each other. But like some husbands of the time Hervey tired of Lapell, was unfaithful and treated her badly. Unlike most husbands he was quite open about his relationships with other men, especially the one whom he considered the love of his life.


Hervey was always known for his biting wit - and we all know from our history (and from people in general) that that type of person makes plenty of enemies. As fun as it is to read their snark you also have an idea that this type of person is not easy to be friends with - or live with, or be related to, etc. I immediately thought of Dorothy Parker, for instance. (Long review of the Marion Meade bio for quick reference.)


I really wanted to read about Mary Lapell first, but thanks to Worsley's citation of this book, I decided to start with Hervey's bio for the story of his and Lapell's relationship. (What I really want is to read more from his letters and memoirs, to see if they're really as good as the bits and pieces I've read.) The key to giving in and buying the book was reading Moore's introduction. Here's a chunk of the introduction that sums things up, and gives you specifics of what I mean by "treating his wife badly."


p 1-2:

"...But it was not Lord Hervey's worldly success that turned Alexander Pope against him. Although Hervey was a Whig, and Pope a Catholic, and therefore a Tory, their rift ran deeper than mere politics. What Pope despised about Hervey (and, arguably, also envied in him) was his bisexuality, an open secret among the five hundred or so people who made up aristocratic society in early eighteenth-century England. Amphibious thing, Pope called him, implying that his sexual duality - 'Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord' - masked a more sinister threat:

A Cherub's face, a Reptile all the rest.
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust.
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the Dust.

Pope transposed Hervey's courtliness into obsequiousness and his effeminacy into evil, all the while creating a contrasting image of himself, as a poet and narrator, as a man of honor and virtue.

In some ways, Pope's malevolent portrait of Lord Hervey is an accurate one. Hervey could be vain, selfish and cruel. His treatment of his wife is just one example. Throughout their life together he ignored and belittled her, consistently rejecting the devotion she showed him, mocking her attempts to please him, betraying her with other lovers. Even as he lay dying, he could not bring himself to soften towards her. He did not leave her a penny. He bequeathed his money to her children 'born in wedlock.' which was not a common legal term, mysteriously implying that she had born children out of wedlock. He tried (unsuccessfully) to prohibit his wife from bringing up their youngest daughter, entrusting her to the care of another woman, the mother-in-law of the love of Hervey's life."


I'll chime in here to add that Pope had mentioned Mary Lapell in his poems and spent much time walking and talking with her at court. Worsley said (22% in) he was "hurt" by the news of her marriage.


p 3:

"...Hogarth's enigmatic group portrait survives (more here), and great sheaves of private letters, as well as two volumes of memoirs of his years at court: these are Hervey's posthumous defense, his ambiguous justification. They reveal a man more complex than the caricatures drawn by his enemies, which are circumscribed by their topicality as well as their spite. This is the man who has drawn me in over the past years, keeping me fascinated even though I still cannot decide whether or not I like him."


I like the honesty of the historian trying to figure out if she likes the man she's studying, and the examples of what makes him unlikeable.


We'll see how my reading of this progresses. Meanwhile I can definitely recommend Worsley's book for lots of great details and biographical information on Hervey and Lapell.