Juliet Nicolson

More sinned against than sinning

Elizabeth Foyster treats this shockingly painful story — of corruption, sex and family dysfunction — with admirable sympathy and lightness of touch

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.

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