The Diamond of London
Born into an illustrious family of swashbuckling war heroes and brilliant political leaders, Lady Hester Stanhope pursued a freedom few Regency women could dream of: shaping her own remarkable destiny. Her unforgettable spirit is the heart of USA Today bestselling author Andrea Penrose’s dazzling new historical novel . . .
To understand me, and the forces of nature that have shaped my family, you need to know about The Diamond.
The story began in 1687 when the gem was discovered in the famous Kollur Mine of Golconda, an independent sultanate located in the heart of exotic India. Legend has it that the enslaved soul who found the treasure cut a slash in his thigh and hid it in the wound, and then with yet another show of boldness and bravery, he escaped during the Mughal siege of the sultan’s fort and made his way to the coast. There he encountered an English sea captain and offered to split the proceeds of The Diamond’s sale in return for safe passage out of India.
Alas, his courage was no substitute for cunning. The poor fellow paid for his naïveté in blood. The captain, who had a far more profitable deal in mind, murdered him and sold the stone—at 410 carats it was the largest diamond ever found—to a gem merchant named Jamchand. It changed hands again in 1701 when Jamchand sold it to my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Pitt, a raffish adventurer turned nabob of the formidable East India Company, which had established a lucrative trading monopoly between Britain and the vast subcontinent.
There were rumors that Pitt’s acquisition of the magnificent gem was less than legal. But then, the actions of those who are clever and daring are often shadowed in whispers of skullduggery. The truth is Pitt and The Diamond were made for each other. Both were bigger than life and glittered with a hard-edged fire, a fire lit by an inner ice-blue flame that seemed to burn both hot and cold, casting a mesmerizing glow.
In 1702, my great-great-grandfather—now known as “Diamond Pitt”—sent the precious stone back to England, concealed in the heel of his son’s boot. It was entrusted to the London firm of Long & Steele to shape into a polished gem. The cutting took over two years and cost the extravagant sum of £6,000. But when Pitt saw its final form on his return to England, he knew that Fate and Fortune had smiled kindly on him.
The Diamond, now a 140-carat white cushion-cut brilliant featuring lozenge and triangle facets that glittered with pale blue highlights, was truly extraordinary. Two of the smaller stones from the cuttings were sold to Peter the Great of Russia—the third one now graces my finger in a ring passed down from my mother—but the real treasure was brokered to the French regent, Phillipe II, Duke of Orléans, in 1717. Dubbed the “Regent Diamond,” it adorned the coronation crown of King Louis XV in 1723. Later in the century, the blue beauty cast its spell over Queen Marie Antoinette, who fell in love with it at first sight and often wore it sewn onto her favorite black velvet hat.
The gem survived the French Revolution and then fell into the hands of Napoleon, who had it set into his coronation sword when he had himself crowned Emperor of France in 1804. In 1812, Marie-Étienne Nitot, official jeweler to the Emperor, recrafted it into the hilt of Napoleon’s military sword. However, just as it had for the poor beheaded queen, it proved an unlucky talisman. Napoleon was defeated in battle by the British and their Allies, who forced him to abdicate the throne—but not before his wife, the Empress Marie Louise I, fled with the gem to her family in Austria. I have heard that it has since been returned to France, though my present circumstances don’t allow for me to say so for sure.
Luck, however, continued to shine on Thomas Pitt. The sale of The Diamond made my great-great-grandfather—already a wealthy man—fabulously rich, and his fortune gave the Pitt family entrée to the highest circles of power and privilege. Destiny continued to favor them as they gained increasing influence in Britain through marriage with the illustrious Grenville and Stanhope clans, as well as through their own scintillating talents. I can’t help but wonder whether that singular gem sparked some indefinable inner fire in the family blood, for the descendants of Diamond Pitt have more than their fair share of luminaries.
My grandfather, the legendary orator and politician William Pitt the Elder, served as prime minister of Britain during the epic Seven Years’ War with France to determine global supremacy . . . his son, my uncle William Pitt the Younger, made history when he was chosen as our country’s leader at age twenty-four—the youngest prime minister ever handed the royal seals . . . my cousin, Sir Sydney Smith, was a swashbuckling war hero, who through sheer bravado held the citadel of Acre against Napoleon and his army, forcing the Little Corsican to abandon his dream of conquering Jerusalem and the East.
Then there was my other cousin, Thomas Pitt—1st Lord Camelford—a rakehell rogue and sometimes spy . . . William Grenville—1st Baron Grenville—Pitt the Younger’s cousin and yet another British prime minister . . . my own father, Charles Stanhope, an eminent man of science who along with his good friend Benjamin Franklin was renowned for his experiments with electricity . . .
So you see, we of The Diamond’s blood seem impelled by some elemental force to live large and follow our fire-kissed passions, no matter that passions are rife with danger.
Especially for a lady.
• • •
I have just paused to sharpen my pen and reflect on what I’ve just written. I’m old now, and see things much more clearly. Here in the deserts of Syria and Palestine, the searing sunlight and scouring sand strip away all artifice and illusion. One of my present passions—a tamer one compared to my youthful follies—is to excavate the region’s ancient ruins, carefully exposing the hidden layers in search of subtle secrets from the past. History has much to teach us.
Some of which are lessons I should have learned long ago.
Do I regret my life and the choices I have made? It’s a question that I am often asked.
Ah. How to answer . . .
Like Icarus, I’ve soared impossibly close to the Sun, lifted on wings made of hubris and a refusal to be bound by the earthly strictures that seek to keep those of my sex locked in a cage. From such glorious heights, the view is intoxicating.
One feels invincible.
A foolish thought. The Heavens are not made for mere mortals.
So, of course, each time I dared to fly—I am stubborn to a fault—I fell back to terra firma, leaving me battered and bruised in both body and spirit. I don’t deny that it hurt. Loss, grief, betrayal, the bitter taste of ashes after all hope goes up in flames.
I have heard what people say of me now. Strangers whisper that I am a wit-addled eccentric, living alone and unloved in my mountain fortress. A cautionary tale for any woman who wonders whether daring to shuck off the corset of conventional behavior is worth it.
Which again begs the question—do I regret my life and the choices I have made?
Yes, regret has been part of the journey. As has disappointment. But so has triumph. I lived—truly lived—unyielding to any voice, save for the whisper of my own heart. And in refusing to let the cacophony of voices around me drown out that fragile sound, I have, against all odds, achieved things that men said couldn’t be done by the weaker sex.
But I suppose that my deepest satisfaction has come from the fact that I stayed true to my heart, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of my most egregious mistakes, each time reforming into a new and stronger self.
Tomorrow I shall pick up my pen again. There are so many stories told about me. Lies, conjectures, exaggerations. Fear is an elemental human emotion—I frightened people and their preconceptions. Time is slipping away. The truth will blur over the coming years and so I find myself compelled to write my own narrative. I shall leave it for future readers to decide whether I am truly mad . . . or merely a woman who refused to be defined by all the naysayers.
Ha! A truly scary thought to those who don’t dare to stray off the straight and narrow road.
A story must have a beginning. So perhaps the best place for me to start is the night my father put a knife to my throat, cutting away the last, lingering illusions that my life was ever meant to follow a conventional path.
The steel was cold as ice against my throat, and yet I wasn’t afraid.
“Put the knife away, Papa,” I said calmly. “One little slip and you might accidentally prick your finger.” I could always govern my father better than anybody because I could bear his oddities and understood how to use humor to coax him back to reason when plain sense and argument would have failed.
The flame from his desk lamp shivered, casting a flicker of light over his face. I saw the spasm of conflicting emotions—razor-sharp logic warring with his increasing eccentric ideas about power and privilege, and how our family should live within the rarified world of the British aristocracy.
“I am like King Lear! My daughters have abandoned me!” His voice was plaintive, as if he couldn’t comprehend how such a thing had come to pass. “And all the noble principles upon which I raised them.”
I felt more sorrow than anger. The truth, noble or otherwise, was that his unorthodox method of raising us had been a cause of consternation among all our relatives.
Papa was an ardent admirer of the eminent Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mankind was born innocent and it was society’s rules and hierarchies that corrupted our natural state. Thus, while he taught us the rudiments of reading, mathematics, and a smattering of French, we were forbidden to have any intercourse with books, even the Bible, until he deemed that we had learned our primary life lessons from Nature. My younger half brothers—my own mother, a very charming and well-educated lady, a member of the illustrious Pitt family, had died when I was three and Papa quickly remarried—had found themselves apprenticed to the local blacksmith in order to learn the moral rewards of manual labor, despite being the sons of an earl.
“Clearly I haven’t abandoned you, Papa,” I replied. “Here I am, and the basic laws of physics say that I can’t be in two places at once.”
My quip make him smile.
The night breeze rattled the windowpanes. Moonlight fluttered over the library’s bookshelves, illuminating shelf after shelf of Papa’s leatherbound books. His scientific instruments and journals cluttered the worktables, his cabinet of curiosities rose up from the gloom, its wondrous collection of strange and exotic things coming to life for just an instant as a quicksilver gleam danced over the glass.
Genius and madness, blurred in the shadows.
My father’s intellect was unquestioned. His interest in electricity led him to form a fast friendship with the American luminary, Benjamin Franklin, as the two of them become the leading experimenters in the field. His other scientific inventions drew accolades, including an innovative printing press and the Stanhope lens, which allowed microscopes to create a greater magnification. It was his emotional stability that descended into the netherworld of darkness.
“Ah, Hester . . .”
Feeling his muscles relax, I dared to slowly ease away his arm, which was pressed against my chest, pinning me to the wall. I didn’t really think he was planning to slice through my windpipe, but the blade was making me uncomfortable.
“Clever, clever, Hester.” He patted my cheek. “I have missed our little games of logic.”
At a young age, I sensed that my father thought me the cleverest of all his six children. On the whole, he paid little attention to any of us. However, he seemed to enjoy devising philosophical puzzles for me to reason out.
“Think, think, Hester,” I recall him saying when I was twelve years old. “You are the best logician I’ve ever seen. Why, when you put your mind to it, you can talk through a problem and bring Truth to the point of a needle.”
Staring at the knife in his hand, as if seeing it for the first time, he blew out a sigh and set it aside. “Come, let us sit by the fire and talk about philosophy. I have a theoretical question that will test whether your reasoning is as sharp as ever.”
Oh, yes, I am sharp, I thought. Sharp enough to see that his increasing eccentricities, both personal and political, were fast alienating him from all his family and friends.
The French Revolution and its ideals had been the catalyst for my father’s transformation from august aristocrat to radical republican. “Citizen Stanhope” was now the laughingstock of London, fodder for the pens of London’s satirical artists, who dissected his foibles with surgical skill. His scathing criticism of his own country alienated his close friend, my uncle William Pitt the Younger—who was serving as the prime minister of Britain—and turned him into a lifelong enemy.
As for his family, there was a terrible irony to his ideas. His reverence for liberty, equality, and fraternity was in confounding contradiction to his despotic rule over our household. My stepmother soon wearied of his quirks and turned distant. She spent less and less time at Chevening, our ancestral estate, leaving all of us children to fend ourselves.
It was at that precise moment, with the chill of the blade still lingering on my throat, that I finally resolved to make an emotional and physical escape from the tyranny of his misguided genius. Though in truth, I suppose the rumblings of my discontent had been growing ever louder over the past year. An opportunity to spend time in London with my relatives had allowed me tantalizing glimpses of the world beyond the confining gates of Chevening.
And the experience of the last twelve months had kindled a spark in my Pitt blood and given me a yearning for adventures . . .