Born and raised in the 20th-century Western world, I find it very difficult to understand why two people who love each other can't find a way to stay together, even if their families disapprove. I say that, and yet I once had a six-month-long love affair with a younger man who phoned me the Sunday after I met his family at a Thanksgiving weekend to say that I was too old for him. He tried to ease the blow by explaining that he was happy to have me as his lover, but that I just shouldn't get my hopes up for anything more because he could never marry me. I responded by saying that I never wanted to see him again.
I thought of this disastrous phone call when I read of Lord Hartington's offer to Skittles for the down payment on a house and a yearly allowance rather than marriage. It's a shame when two people who are well suited temperamentally and sexually and who share many interests stop seeing each other out of fear of what other people might think. According to the histories I found, an obsession with class distinction was one of Hartington's greatest weaknesses. This is what led him to tell Skittles: "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."
Uh, excuse me, Lord Hartington? To hell with you.
Skittles seems to have responded with wild anger, and she taunted Lord Hartington with stories of her bad behavior. Unfortunately, her side of the argument has been lost to time; the 8th Duke of Devonshire's heirs have his letters but not hers. But we do know that Hartington answered: “How unhappy it has made me this last year to think that you have been going all wrong.” At this point, I can imagine myself as Skittles, and I can see that the whole act of girlishly pleasing Harty Tarty is useless. So I might as well shock him instead.
"Good," I would say. "Let's see just how much more unhappy I can make you when I tell you all about the sex, fun and adventure I've been having without you." An innocent like Harty Tarty, with his sheltered upbringing, would have never understood the tough independence at Skittles' core. If it came to an end, she would steel herself to get over him more easily than he ever imagined. And in the meantime, she could try to make his life miserable.
When not furious with Hartington's obtuse self-righteousness, the 20-something girl from the Liverpool docks more than likely focused on the charms of staying right where she was, enjoying her courtesan's life in London. She couldn’t have relished the idea of socializing with Hartington’s boring set of country squires. Along with vaguely romantic thoughts of marriage, Skittles may not really have known what she wanted from Hartington, just that she wanted him. The dreamy gentleness of his character appealed to her, and I'm sure it frustrated her to find that he wasn't so easily bossed around.
In 1861, Skittles told Hartington that she might be pregnant. (Can't you just smell the desperation?) Though an actual birth or miscarriage was never mentioned in his letters, for a time he did accept the pregnancy as real. He wrote to her tenderly, suggesting that he was preparing himself to become a father even if he wasn’t willing to marry the mother of his child. “Mind you don’t squeeze yourself in too much,” he advised her on her corsets. “You must take great care of the little one, you know.”
Probably on the advice of family, in the autumn of 1862 Hartington escaped Skittles by going off on a six-month tour of North America. His stated reason for going was to visit his brother and see the Civil War at close range. But wasn't it lucky that the trip put so much distance between him and his darling little Skitsy?
As for Skitsy, a girl with an unusually robust constitution, she escaped to take the waters in Ems, Germany, which was the popular thing to do back then for people in fragile health. If she thought a sudden illness would bring Hartington back to her, it didn’t work. Lord Hartington sent Skittles a letter saying: “My poor child I trust you are better now, and that even if you have thought me very hard-hearted…you will begin to see that it must have been done some day and that putting it off only made it harder to both of us every day.”
Her answer was to follow Hartington to America. And I'll break in right now to say: "Skittles, don't do it!" Don't you just want to do a girlfriend intervention on her, and tell her she's making a big mistake?
It gets worse. Skittles had company, of course, choosing as her traveling companion a raffish young Irishman named Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk, a young man who had abandoned his wife in Ems to run off with Skittles. An inexperienced lover, Beauclerk was the sort who nevertheless bragged of his sexual exploits. Why Skittles would have chosen such a hot-tempered fop is a mystery, unless it was simply that he was there to flatter her vanity when she needed distraction--and he served as backup to her wounded ego, which might have needed even more backing up after she saw Hartington.
Skittles was young still, just 23, and fully capable of foolish behavior. (Then again, I don't think foolishness is age-specific. We've all heard stories of old fools.) Beauclerk, meanwhile, congratulated himself on winning Skittles as his prize, and then he became smitten. As you do. Skittles was such a lovely, entrancing girl, winning him over with her natural sympathy and sexual skill. They traveled first to Italy, leaving Beauclerk’s wife to find her own way home, before heading to America. If Skittles had to give up Lord Hartington, she wouldn't let him go without a fight.
Now, you could say this episode is the tiniest of moments in the history of Victorian England. But at the same time, it reveals so much about star-crossed lovers and the end of an affair that I'm going to stretch out each excruciating moment.
So here's the end of Skittles and Lord Hartington, without apology:
Thinking to surprise Hartington, and anticipating his look of delight, Skittles showed up unannounced one day at his New York hotel. He was stunned to see her there. Though he gave her a kindly reception as best he could, Hartington kept the meeting brief. His thoughts were turned to the Civil War, politics back home and the Duchess of Manchester’s place in his life. Skittles was a mistake of his waning youth.
In an anguished conversation, a conversation that Hartington had been hoping to avoid, he made it clear that Skittles needed him more than he needed her.
I'll invent what they said:
"My God, Skitsy, here you are in New York! I never expected to see you here, my darling girl."
"Harty, my sweet, I just had to look at your face. I've missed you so much."
"But dear girl, can't you see? This is just not on. Really, you must go back home."
"Is that all you have to say to me, after I've come this far? Oh, how I hate you!"
Corny, isn't it? These conversations always sound so corny when you're not in them. At any rate, Hartington knew with utter finality that when it came to love, he would never stray again from his class.
And Skittles? She resolved that no man would ever break her heart again. Her trip to America was the worst episode in her emotional life, and she returned to England determined to lead the full-on courtesan's life. (As for Beauclerk, the little weasel, he resolved to reconcile with his wife, and the happy ending there was that Skittles never heard from him again.)
Stayed tuned for Part 8, when Skittles runs off to Paris to put Harty Tarty behind her forever--and to properly learn the artful ways of the courtesan.