Hedonism of a 19th century libertine
Biography: The Great Leviathan, Anne Chambers, New Island Books, hardback, 400 pages, €32.90
With dramatic twists and a vast cast of characters worthy of a Tolstoy novel, the 2nd Marquess of Sligo lived a life every bit as compelling as his contemporaries Napoleon, Byron and Nelson.
Historian Anne Chambers' latest biography has more characters flitting in and out than a Tolstoy novel, sending the reader repeatedly thumbing backwards to remind themselves who's who. Happily, the exercise is worth the effort, and one lightened by the fact that many of the featured players are famous characters from a turbulent time in world history.
The full title is The Great Leviathan: The Life of Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo 1788-1845, and the aristocrat from Connacht proves to be as compelling a figure as Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Byron, Admiral Nelson or any of the other giants who populate this life story packed with endless twists and turns.
As Chambers tells us early on (deep breath): "His relatively short lifespan of 56 years was crammed with a diverse and extensive range of activities as a Regency buck, an embattled Irish landlord, a peer of the realm, a West Indian plantation owner, Lord Lieutenant of County Mayo, Knight of Saint Patrick, militia colonel, Governor General of Jamaica, legislator, intrepid traveller, favoured guest at the court of successive Kings of England, as well as in the courts of Napoleon's family, founder and steward of the Irish Turf Club, spy, sailor and jailbird, as well as the father of 15 children." (And I had to substantially trim that author's list for reasons of space.)
Howe Peter Browne was born into vast wealth, the son of the Earl of Altamont, who owned 200,000 acres in Mayo and Galway, plantations in Jamaica and a stately home on Dublin's Sackville (O'Connell) Street. From Gaelic nobility and English planter stock, the family's forebears included the pirate queen Granuaile.
Transplanted to England by his mid-teens, Browne embraced the hedonistic lifestyle of a privileged libertine. He forged close friendships with the debauched bisexual poet Lord Byron, and the "notorious alcoholic and drug addict" Thomas De Quincey, who would go on to pen the bestselling Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
A hopeless spendthrift, Browne would splash enormous sums on wagers. On one occasion, "for a bet of one thousand guineas, he accepted a challenge to determine the quickest route from London to Holyhead". He apparently succeeded, too, covering the 270 miles in a record 35 hours despite suffering a breakdown of his carriage.
On another occasion he won £100 on a shrewd bet that the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington would put an end to Napoleon's reign.
Browne's numerous affairs as a young man were the stuff of scandal. One brief but passionate fling was with Pauline 'Cherie' Pacquot.
Chambers writes: "[She] was, ostensibly, a French ballerina but, as Byron more shrewdly observed 'to my certain knowledge was actually educated from her birth for her profession' as a courtesan.
"Educated in the art of seduction and possessing a certain exoticism to judge from her surviving letters, Pauline was actually well-versed in emotional blackmail. Like most wealthy patrons, Sligo provided her (and her mother) with a house, as well as paying her regular maintenance. However, as he later found out, he was not the only 'client' of his Cherie."
She gave birth to a son and claimed Sligo as the father. Despite raising doubts about his paternity, he supported mother and child to the handsome tune of £1,000 annually for years after. Betrayed by, and split from, perhaps the true love of his life, he found himself a suitable wife who, he told his mother, bore "the most remarkable likeness to Pauline that I ever saw".
But the Marquess might not have been around to see the birth of Pauline's son or got the chance to marry her doppelgänger had his sensational trial at the Old Bailey had a different outcome.
The charge - "of enticing and persuading (a seaman) to desert" - was tantamount to treason, which carried a death sentence. Indeed, the cases immediately before and after his appearance did end up with trips to the gallows.
Chambers writes: "Because of his youth, status and family connections, as well as the nature of the crime, it was the trial of the century. The courtroom was packed with many society celebrities, including the Duke of Clarence, brother of the Prince Regent, as well as members of the press anxious to report the novelty of a public trial of a peer of the realm."
Found guilty, Sligo stood in the dock to learn his sentence, aware that his life hung in the balance. He escaped relatively lightly, with a £5,000 fine and four months in Newgate prison, described as "an emblem of Hell itself". Infested with rats and lice, Newgate overflowed with the mad, the bad and the diseased. Dysentery killed more prisoners than the gallows, but it was a two-tier system and the Marquess belonged firmly in the top tier.
Chambers says Newgate was divided into "a 'commons' area for destitute prisoners and a 'state' area which housed those able to afford the 'luxuries' which made life more tolerable. Concessions ranged from a private cell with the services of a cleaning woman, lighter or no manacles, food and drink, to the services of a prostitute - all could be obtained for a price."
Browne's widowed mother was in court for the sentencing, and the oddest thing happened - she fell for the judge. The author writes: "Impressed by the judge's remarks, she asked to be introduced and a relationship that was to set society talking blossomed." He was more than 20 years her senior and the marriage was on the rocks within a year.
Having listed Sligo's 57 varieties of life choices, the author notes "each role seemed to warrant a biographical treatment in its own right". Instead she's admirably crammed the lot into 400 pages, which examine, among other things, his possible role as a go-between in arranging Napoleon's escape from Elba, his place in Caribbean history as "emancipator of the slaves" and his reputation in Ireland - after he'd mended his ways - as "the poor man's friend".