Monday, August 11, 2008
Marble Hill House
The weekend's book club picnic was in the best tradition of English lunches outdoors, held in a lovely park in the break between showers. The venue was an elegant monument to the fruits of adultery: the grounds of Marble Hill House in Twickenham.
It was built in the early years of the eighteenth century for Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk. Although born in genteel poverty Henrietta managed to shake off an inconvenient marriage and a badly timed child to become a key hanger-on at the court of the Electress of Hanover at Herrenhausen. This was an inspired tactical decision by Henrietta as the son of the Electress, George, was in pole position to become King of England. When he succeeded Henrietta saw to it that she became his son's mistress, and in time a grateful George II managed to bankroll the design and construction of Marble Hill Hall - apparently out of the sight of his wife.
Henrietta bought off her unfashionable husband and proceeded to hold glittering salons in Twickenham with the likes of writer Alexander Pope and our first Prime Minister Horace Walpole. And she lived to a ripe old age which shows you can get a long way in this world - and last a long time - by knowing the right sort of people.
Of course Henrietta lived in an age where monarchs and other leaders were expected to have mistresses. While people enjoyed a scandal then just as much as they do now, the moral climate is seemingly very different today as can be seen by the disgrace heaped on John Edwards at the weekend. It doesn't help that his wife is very ill, and he previously denounced Bill Clinton for having a mistress. But the lesson of Marble Hill House is that good architecture lends dignity to sexual frailty so maybe Mr Edwards should have thrown caution to the wind and built his girlfriend a mansion in the Hamptons.