Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Vicereine's Jewels

By on Sunday, November 08, 2009 6 Comments

British Raj in India Part 2 of 2
Mary Victoria Leiter (1870-1906) later Baroness Curzon of Kedleston, was an American heiress (see my past post on Jewels for the Dollar Princesses) whose father was a partner in the Marshall Fields retail empire. Her privileged life was filled with glittering jewels but her story shows the one thing all the wealth in the world could not buy, and that was her health.


She was born in Chicago and grew up to be a tall, willowy and elegant beauty. By all accounts, she was refined, educated, gracious and utterly charming.

It was love at first sight when she met George Nathaniel Curzon, an ambitious English politician when she was just 20. He was 11 years her senior. Although he was heir to the Barony of Scarsdale, it was his strong personality and talents which captivated her, not his aristocratic position. Curzon was not rich and had to supplement his private income with writing. Members of Parliament back then were unpaid. He was an academic overachiever whose life's goal was to serve his country as an imperialist statesman.

In a very forward move for a woman of her time, Mary sent Curzon a pearl from her necklace which she had made into a gold tie pin soon after they met. She considered him "the most wonderful, the most charming, the most handsome, the most clever of all the men I have met. I almost died when he touched my hand." It was to be the first of many gifts enclosed with the numerous letters she wrote him for the next five years until they finally got married.

Curzon played hard to get for although he was initially charmed by Mary, he wasn't so sure about marrying an American and besides he had much travelling to do while furthering his political career. Meanwhile, Mary was perfectly sure of her choice for a husband. She wrote to a friend, "I will have him, because I believe he needs me. I have no shame." He sure did and Mary made it easy for him. He really didn't have the time or the money to woo her. When  he finally proposed 3 years after they met, he insisted on a long secret engagement mainly because he was afraid his father would disapprove (he didn't).


The saintly Mary had to fend off other suitors until Curzon eventually got down to naming the date. He really lucked out with Mary because he would have been no good at courting. In typical Curzon bluntness he wrote in 1895, "Now, darling, apply yourself. I want to talk business, and ask your views and your plans. There are practically only two times when I can come out from England and marry you. One is Easter and the other is Whitsun. I shall want at least 3 weeks' leave, one to get out, one to wed you and find out what a darling you are (or what a mistake I have made), and one to get back again (or to bolt)."

Amongst Mary's wedding gifts were family diamonds and rubies from Curzon's father. Curzon himself gave Mary a turquoise belt from Cairo, a silver brooch and clasp from Baghdad and a Thai silver box.

Curzon was soon to discover what a jewel he had in Mary. She became his confidante and his strength when things got rough and they often did for this uncompromising man. If he looked stern and ramrod stiff, it was partly because he suffered from terrible back pain incurred from a riding accident in his youth. He was never free of pain forcing him to wear an uncomfortable back brace. So Mary was his solace and he grew to love her dearly. She was utterly devoted to him.  Interestingly, he never saw any reason to change his political stance against women's suffrage.

Practically the only thing she failed in was giving him a son and heir - they had 3 daughters. Curzon did want an heir but comforted Mary by saying he did not mind, "Girls are very lovable and we have no reason to be anything but proud of ours. Perhaps too a boy might be thought to be filling the cup of good fortune to overflowing....After all, what does the sex matter as long as you are alright?" He was terrified of losing Mary for the birthing of babies was still risky business back then.



She played a very important role in his career. Lady Curzon was enormously popular as the Vicereine when he became the Viceroy of India in 1898 - the youngest in history. In 1903 Lord Curzon organized the Delhi Durbar or "Court of Delhi" to celebrate the ascension of King Edward VII after the death of Queen Victoria. The elaborate pageantry included Mary's famous coronation gown, the Peacock Dress by Worth. It was made of gold cloth and decorated with real peacock feathers with a blue-green beetle wings in each eye - these were mistaken for emeralds. She also wore a tiara studded with pearls and diamonds.

She was considered by many to be a woman of impeccable taste. She also supported local industry - she ordered all the fabric for her state gowns from a factory in Chandni Chauk, a Delhi marketplace.

The Curzons at the Delhi Durbar

The Curzons at a tiger hunt

The above tiger hunt picture might offend our modern senses but she was actually responsible for the founding of the Kaziranga National Park which is the wildlife reserve to save the endangered Indian rhinoceros known as the Great One-horned rhinoceros.

The hot Indian climate, her weak constitution and the burden of social responsibilities all proved too much for Mary. She nearly died from infection after her last miscarriage and was sick for a long time.  She went back to England a number of times to recover her health but to no avail. She returned  to India one last time - against medical advice - to be at Curzon's side. She knew he needed her in the political turmoil leading to his forced resignation as Viceroy.

They returned to England where she died at just 36. Curzon never left her side for her final four days. His loss was so profound he could not bear to give her a public funeral. He stayed at his family home, Kedleston, for months after, "hiding my head in loneliest misery." He was not overly religious but later on he sometimes said he was unafraid of death because it would reunite him with Mary in Heaven. 

Ironically she once said, after seeing the Taj Mahal in moonlight, that she would gladly embrace death if someone would build such a monument for her at her grave. It was not the style of the Taj Mahal, but Curzon did commission a special Gothic marble effigy for her tomb and when he died nearly 20 years later, he was laid to rest by his beloved Mary.



Related Posts
References
  • Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace (1989). To Marry An English Lord or How Anglomania Really Got Started. Workman Publishing, New York.
  • Leonard Mosley (1960). The Glorious Fault : The Life of Lord Curzon. Harcourt, Brace and Co. New York.
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6 comments:

  1. Fascinating history encapsulated in a well written post. Love it! It sounds like they had a wonderful marriage. I love the sweet touch of having a pearl made into a tie pin!

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  2. Thank you, I learnt much from your last two posts.

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  3. Such a beautiful love story! She was so stunning! Her waist was SO tiny! I appreciate all the work you do to share these wonderful stories with us!!

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  4. What a wonderful love story Pearl...it would make a great movie don't you think...I agree with GemmaBeads... she had an extremely tiny waist...was that her corset do you think or was she just tiny???

    Cheers

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  5. Glad everyone enjoyed this bejeweled biography :-)

    Definitely a corset! The hourglass figure was big in her day.

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  6. Wow what a fascinating history lesson. And what it must have been like to wear all those sparkling jewels!
    -Stephanie

    ReplyDelete

 

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