Monday, September 5, 2016

Lunacy among the English Aristocracy: John Wallop, Third Earl of Portsmouth

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LRB
"Urania [mother of John Charles Wallop, third Earl of Portsmouth] ordered that her son be strapped to his bed. She also threatened to place him in the custody of the chief physician at Bethlem, England’s most notorious madhouse. Her own sister had grown paranoid during the years of the French Revolution, convinced that her life was under threat from the insurgent masses of Twickenham. She spent the rest of her days confined to an asylum. Another of Portsmouth’s relatives kidnapped the woman he loved at pistol-point, and later declared that he was the figure described in the Book of Revelations as bringing peace on earth. He also challenged Napoleon to single combat. He, too, ended up in what was politely known as a Private House. The family were well schooled in how to close down any members who threatened to become a public embarrassment, and Wallop could be forgiven for suspecting that he was next in line.
Instead, Urania found another kind of keeper for her wayward son in the form of a wife, Grace Norton, whom he married in 1799. At 47 years of age, 15 years older than the earl himself, she seemed sufficiently mature and level-headed to keep him safely bridled. ...
Grace proved an excellent mother to Portsmouth, who to the astonishment of his dinner guests would sometimes stop eating, lay his head on her neck, fondle her affectionately and sob loudly, while she humoured him like a fractious child. He would then resume eating with a hearty appetite. He also took to arranging secret meetings in the woods with young working-class women from around the estate – not for the traditional patrician purpose, but so that they might bleed him with a case of lancets he carried around with him. Since he paid the women for doing so, he was rarely short of volunteers. One volunteer reported that Portsmouth was obsessed with how women’s pockets bulged out, believing that this was because they carried basins under their skirts in which to collect the blood of the men they bled. Spilling his blood into female basins seems to have been his substitute for sexual intercourse, an activity with which he was unfamiliar in both theory and practice. He scoffed incredulously at a member of his staff who tried to inform him of the facts of life, and seemed to believe that a woman’s pregnancy lasted for nine years. Brothels he regarded as places where gentlemen went armed with their lancets. He did, however, have some acquaintance with masturbation, since on some occasions when his arm was tied for him to be bled he would delightedly watch the rising of the veins while applying his other hand to a similarly tumescent part of his body. It was, he told his doctor, the only situation in which he ever had an erection. Given a choice between giving up his wife and his case of lancets, he added, there was no question of which he would abandon.
Compared with his so-called black jobs, however, being bled in the woods seems relatively rational. ‘Black jobs’ was the name Portsmouth gave to those of his activities which involved a morbid obsession with death. When the young daughter of one of his workmen was dying, the earl, to whom the girl was a complete unknown, insisted on being present at her death and had to be forcibly prevented from entering the house by her outraged father. The workman was able to allow his daughter to die in peace, but only at the cost of not being present at her deathbed himself.
Portsmouth also turned up uninvited at funerals. On one occasion he posed as chief mourner at the burial of a total stranger, and gleefully reported that he was served turkey and wine at the lunch that followed. He would request his servants to place logs on their shoulders as though they were coffins, and would then walk behind the bogus cort├Ęge singing psalms. He knew all the main hearse drivers in London, and would visit undertakers to find out if there were any forthcoming funerals. He would then join the procession in his phaeton, driving so close as to scrape the wheels of the mourning coaches while laughing and shaking his whip. Admirably egalitarian in his necrophiliac tastes, he once accompanied to the grave the body of a former servant of his who had landed up in a lunatic asylum. When his park keeper told him that his wife was seriously ill, Portsmouth replied that he was glad of it and hoped she would die soon. It was not quite the attitude of a model paternalist landlord. At the funeral of another servant, he winked and laughed constantly at the scandalised members of the congregation. There were times, however, when it proved difficult not to join in his merriment. When he officiated at burials, he would read out psalms by the graveside in such a droll manner that some mourners had to stifle their laughter."



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