The 55-year-old ’flu-ridden John Charles Wallop, 3rd Earl of Portsmouth, his feet in a basin of warm water, shivered in the dock with fever but also with fear. Would the jury, assembled in 1823 in London’s jam-packed Freemason’s Hall at the end of an unpredecentally sensational two-week trial, find him eccentric, delusional, simple-minded or, instead, stark raving mad?
Elizabeth Foyster, a historian and senior lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge, was alerted to this enthralling, almost unbelievable true story with the caveat that the vastness of the material in Lambeth Palace archives concerning a scarcely remembered trial of a hugely wealthy, relatively obscure aristocrat had deterred anyone else from attempting to make sense of it. Foyster, a writer with a brilliant lightness of touch who preserves every illuminating detail, including the ‘shop tickets’ still attached to dresses worn for an indecently hasty wedding, was the perfect person to take on the challenge.
For long periods of his life the earl had ostensibly lived in his grand Hampshire house in the manner in which his class were expected to exist, managing his estates, socialising with the neighbours, marrying a decent woman, hobnobbing with the rich and famous. In 1773 the five-year-old John Charles had been sent away to board with George Austen in the Rectory at Steventon for help with his stammer. The Reverend’s daughter Jane became a guest at the adult Portsmouth’s balls. Byron (a friend of Portsmouth’s lawyer) was the best man at his second wedding.
But all was not as orderly as it seemed. Portsmouth was sexually turned on by secret bloodletting trysts with local women; indulged in atrocious treatment of animals at abattoirs; obsessively sought out ‘black jobs’ (his term for funerals), while singing wincingly loudly, out of tune; went bell-ringing with his estate workers while half naked; was spied on by servants as he snored on one side of the marital bed while on the other his second wife bonked the night away with a male family friend. If vacillation between cruelty and patheticness and the inability to tell the difference between right and wrong amount to insanity, then Portsmouth certainly sounds quite bonkers.
However, the excessive exploitation of his mental weakness might have been enough to send anyone mad. Foyster’s character list includes school friends taunting Portsmouth for his ‘singularly silly ways’, blackmailing servants who accused their boss of sodomy, and a self-serving lawyer pimping his daughter. Portsmouth’s own family were the most culpable: the scheming, cold, formidable mother, an appalling cuckolding second wife, who ‘kept a whip under her pillow’, using it on the naked earl ‘with very great severity’, and a brother and a nephew who brought the Commission for Lunacy in order to safeguard their own position and inheritance.
Eccentrically and disturbingly childlike, a victim all his life of bullying and unkindness, who often clung to inappropriate people and crossed boundaries in a search of compassion, the earl was a man so innocent that he believed pregnancy lasted nine years. And yet dappling the darkness of this riveting story is evidence of someone quick at figures, capable of inspiring loyalty and of showing kindness and compassion in return. Jones the gardener, who ‘felt very uncomfortable’, resigned at the inhuman treatment of his boss, while Foyster describes Portsmouth’s tenderness towards his much older first wife, who cared for him with touching affection.
This is a fascinating if deeply disturbing Hogarthian tale, often shockingly painful, involving corruption, class, power, sex and acute family dysfunction. It is also a story of its time. In Georgian Britain ‘power and wealth were no protection from the tyrannies of the mind’. In 1823 mental instability was a hot topic: the foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh had committed suicide the year before, intermittently mad King George III had died three years earlier and Spencer Percival, the prime minister, had been shot by a lunatic in the House of Commons lobby in 1812. Private madhouses, where the insane could be locked away out of sight, were ubiquitous.
In the courtroom the truth remained elusive. As Foyster explains, the trial ‘unsettled this society’s confidence in its ability to judge itself’. She makes no definitive judgment about her story of a ‘mind on trial’ that occupied that chilly February fortnight but instead invites the reader to listen to the testimony of more than 100 witnesses and decide for themselves whether the earl was certifiable.
Portsmouth’s crime may have been that he never grew up. He had always been happiest in his childhood home in Hampshire and in a moving and profoundly sane letter to his brother, he says he ‘will never part from this house’. He was then in his eighties, with the trial behind him, and
Hurstbourne Park continued to provide the protection and stability that human beings had denied him.