Catherine Walters may have been Victorian London's most sought-after courtesan, but the greatest love of her life was a man out of reach. It was a question of class: Spencer Compton Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, later the 8th Duke of Devonshire, believed from the start that a public life with Skittles would have been social suicide for him, and he never changed his opinion about that, no matter how much he loved her.
I couldn't find any hard evidence of how Skittles and Lord Hartington met, but my guess is that because they were both horse lovers, they probably met at a hunt or on Rotten Row one day when Skittles was out riding. And I can further conjecture that Skittles was openly flirtatious with Hartington, which felt deliciously unfamiliar to him, and that he fell for her quickly because she was a beautiful and fun girl, unlike any woman from the aristocratic and repressed circle who shared his privileged background. Skittles’ open coquetry combined with a mysterious sense of hidden secrets, creating a seductive tension that was hard to resist, and Hartington didn’t.
In turn, Skittles liked Harty Tarty, as his friends called him, because he was so different from the dockworkers and sailors she knew from her early Liverpool days. He was a shy and shuffling bachelor politician of 26 when they met, very sweet in private, and his fear of other people's opinions might have seemed of little importance at the start, and certainly not a fatal flaw.
In addition to being a lumbering and well-read Englishman, very much of his time and place, Lord Hartington was a man who hid his more delicate sensibilities beneath a gravely impenetrable exterior. His portrait shows him to have a long face with a narrow and sensuous nose, thoughtful eyes that droop at the corners, and a surprisingly lush lower lip peaking out from his full Victorian beard. Educated at Holker Hall, the family’s lonely house in the northern county of Cumbria, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he entered Parliament in 1857 and was destined to hold a variety of posts including Lord of the Admiralty and chief secretary for Ireland before becoming leader of the Liberal opposition in 1875.
In short, Hartington was a cultured man with an impressive pedigree, and Skittles fell in love with him. And he, in his own way, fell in love with her. She got under his skin, making him excited and confused whenever he saw her. He might resolve to be cool and controlled before one of their trysts, but then there she would be, smiling up at him, and he looking down into her bright upturned face and feeling a sudden surge of passion.
Queen Victoria believed that Hartington's calm nature had a stabilizing influence on her fast-living son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, but more familiarly known as Bertie. What the queen didn’t know was that Hartington, like many Victorian men expected to display a virtuous purity they could hardly bear, had his down-and-dirty side, and it was Harty Tarty himself who first took Bertie round to Skittles’ Mayfair salon in the 1860s, when she was generally accepted as the queen of her profession. She numbered quite a few royals and several princes among her lovers, including the crown prince of Germany, a Russian prince who gave her a miniature phaeton and a matching pair of Viennese chestnut ponies, and so of course she welcomed the 20-year-old Prince of Wales, who became a frequent visitor to her Sunday afternoon parties of baccarat, an illegal yet popular card game. Skittles played her part well--she was a professional, after all, and knew just how to act the perfect sex kitten--and there was something in Hartington's animal nature that made him proud to share his girlfriend with Bertie.
Hartington was Skittles’ first big affair when she was young, however, and despite her party girl ways, she had vague hopes that it would end in marriage. Those hopes rose when her lover took her to balls, parties and the Derby Day horse races. He also provided for her, paying for her house off Grosvenor Square. Surely, her tender affection and gaiety would bring him around, and she knew he felt protective of her. He worried about the life she led, about the emotional risks she took on by being with so many men.
But Hartington's affair with Skittles was only one small part of his life. They rarely spoke of politics, for example, a subject he much preferred to talk about with his other mistress, Lottie, the Duchess of Manchester, who was very much interested in Hartington’s political career even though she was married to someone else. Her marital status did not trouble Hartington, as his previous romantic relationship had been with another married woman, the Countess of Waldegrave.
Indeed, according to historian Patrick Jackson, who winnowed through some 200 letters from Hartington to Skittles, while Skittles spent most of her time in London, Hartington traveled often. “His annual itinerary was the traditional one of his class: London in the spring season, living at Devonshire House in Piccadilly; shooting on the Bolton Abbey estates in Yorkshire in August and September; and during the rest of the year extended visits to the family houses at Chatsworth, Hardwick, Holker Hall in what is now Cumbria, where Hartington had spent a secluded childhood, and Lismore in Ireland,” Jackson writes.
With two women in his life, Hartington felt no qualms about Skittles’ other relationships, though she revealed them to him in detail. If anyone was jealous, it was Skittles. In one letter, Hartington wrote, “There are a lot of people here but I don’t look at any of them because Skits says I mustn’t.” If anything, Hartington encouraged Skittles to pursue other men. In another letter, he wrote, “It is very nice of you to say you are so fond of me but you know there is somebody you like better. Have you seen him lately?”
She was his “darling little Skitsy” or “poor little darling child,” and he spoke to her like she was his baby girl--“Cav loves oo and nobody else”--and he was her big daddy. As she worked with a governess to improve her English, he praised her efforts with this: “I am sure you will learn very quick if you take pains, for you are a clever little child when you like.”
Not only was Skittles his baby girl, she was also a prostitute by trade, and beneath Hartington's social class. True, he found her hard to resist, and they stayed together for years. But he would never marry her.
Instead, he offered her a down payment of £2,500 for a house and an allowance of £400 a year. In late 1861, he wrote, “Sometimes I think that it would be better for you if you could forget me because you are too good to be left in the world all alone so much, and some day you ought to find someone who will take care of you for the rest of your life…which I am afraid I shall never be able to do.”
Coming soon: In Part 7, Skittles gets angry at Huntington for dumping her and chases him down, with disastrous consequences.