13 November 2013

Pitt's interest in women

From Dr. Burney’s memoirs of September 1799:

"No one can be more cheerful, attentive, and polite to ladies than Mr. Pitt; which astonishes all those who, without seeing him, have taken for granted that he is no woman’s man, but a surly churl, from the accounts of his sarcastic enemies."

This was Dr. Burney’s first-hand account of several days spent at Walmer Castle in company with Mr. Pitt and others. I enjoy reading anecdotes of Pitt - particularly first-hand accounts as they are subjective but direct observations - since they help to furnish a rounded glimpse of his private life. Lord Glenbervie made a direct observation of Pitt’s great attachment for Lady Eleanor Eden at the end of 1796 when he stayed at Lord Auckland’s Eden Farm in Beckenham, Kent at the same time as Pitt. Glenbervie records in his journal of November 21, 1796 that “from Pitt’s manner, in a walk we took yesterday, his constantly sidling up to Eleanor, and particularly his reluctance to go away and various pretexts for staying beyond an hour…I am now persuaded he is in love and means to marry her [Lady Eleanor Eden]” (Glenbervie Journals, Volume 1: 98). Of course, due to “decisive and insurmountable” obstacles, Pitt never married Lady Eleanor (letter from Pitt to Lord Auckland dated Downing Street, January 20, 1797, printed in Rosebery, 1900).

Many of Pitt’s biographers have conveniently omitted any and all references to Pitt being interested in women (or quickly gloss over them in order to undermine their importance) as it doesn’t fit with their watered-down notion of his supposed homosexual inclinations (of which there is not a shred of evidence) or asexuality.  Indeed, others have gone so far as to assert that Pitt “never in his life showed interest in or affection for women” (Reilly, 1978: 332). Really?

Many years after his death, Pitt’s niece Lady Hester Stanhope, who was in a position to know as she lived with him for the last three years of his life, recalled in 1829 that Pitt “was always polite to women, and a great favourite with many of them.” Wraxall, in his posthumous historical memoirs, mentions that Pitt “in different periods of life distinguished certain ladies, some of whom I could name, by marks of great predilection” (Wraxall: 165, in Waldie’s “The Select Circulating Library, Volume 9, Part 1). I sincerely wish Wraxall would have named some of those ladies!

Perhaps most convincing of all is Lord Sidmouth’s (Henry Addington) testimony to John Wilson Croker when Croker came to visit him in 1838. Henry Addington knew Pitt from childhood as his father was Lord Chatham’s (Pitt the Elder) family physician. Addington later went on to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons, and then briefly as Prime Minister (1801-4) in between Pitt’s two administrations. Despite their political differences, they were friends up until Pitt’s death in 1806. Sidmouth, age 82 in 1838, said to Croker “Pitt is never said to have had a female attachment; it is not true. He had, I believe, more than one. One I know of; it was to the present Dowager Countess of Buckinghamshire, then Miss Eden” (The Croker Papers: 338).

Addington was well aware of Pitt’s attachment to Lady Eleanor Eden, and was clearly one of the first to know of its demise. This is referenced by an extant letter written from Pitt to Addington in the Sidmouth MSS, whereby Pitt writes (in reference to just breaking it off with Miss Eden), “I think I can command my feelings enough to bear the rest, and not be wanting either to the calls of public duty or to what yet remains to me of the private relations of life…” (Ziegler: 83-84). It does seem, from letters Pitt wrote to Lord Auckland on this occasion, that it was truly painful for Pitt to extricate himself from Eden, or at least cared deeply for her, as he wrote on January 23, 1797 from Hollwood that “…I cannot help adding that it would be the greatest possible relief to me to know that the Anxiety of the last two days has been as little distressful in its Consequences, as you could expect” (Pitt to Auckland, printed in Rosebery: 21). Whatever his reasoning, there can be little doubt that his sentiments were genuine. I personally trust the statement of Addington, who personally knew Pitt and knew of the closeness he felt for Miss Eden, more than I trust biographers who re-hash statements given by people who never actually knew Pitt.

Speaking of different periods in Pitt’s life, his own sister Lady Harriot Eliot (nee Pitt), in a letter to her mother dated “Crescent, Bath, Decr ye 27th [1779]” wrote “I am amazed that you have not heard from William. Lady Charlotte [her emphasis] must be the cause.” Hmm…who was this Lady Charlotte in Pitt’s life at the end of 1779? No more is mentioned of her, and her surname is unknown, but she must have spent a sufficient amount of time with William if both his sister Harriot in Bath (William was in London and Cambridge at the end of 1779) and his mother knew of her. Perhaps it was a fleeting affair. William was only 20 years old in 1779, and had not yet entered the grinding world of Parliament, so maybe he found time to be a Beau? Although we will never know the whole of the matter, this snippet shows William did display an interest in women throughout his life. Despite the fact that, for whatever reason, he never wed, it’s quite unfair to assert that he was asexual based upon this evidence. 


Burney (1832) Memoirs of Dr. Burney arranged from his own manuscripts, from family papers, and from personal recollections by his daughter Volume 3, pp.278-280.

Croker, J.W. (ed. by Louis John Jennings) (1885) The Croker Papers: The Correspondence and Diaries of the late Right Honourable John Wilson Croker, Secretary to the Admiralty from 1809 to 1830, Volume 2. London: John Murray, p. 338.

Douglas, S. (ed. Francis Bickley) (1928) The Diaries of Sylvester Douglas, Lord Glenbervie, Volume 1. London: Constable, p. 98.

Eliot, H. (1914) (ed. by Cuthbert Headlam) The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot, 1766-1786. Edinburgh: Constable, pp. 45-46.

Lady Hester Stanhope’s recollections to Mr. Madden (1829) The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, pp. 361.

Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, pg. 332.

Rosebery (ed.) (1900) Letters Relating to the Love Episode of William Pitt together with an account of his health by his physician Sir Walter Farquhar. London: John Murray, p. 3, 21. Printed for Private Collection.

Wraxall’s Historical Memoirs, in Waldie, A. (1837) The Select Circulating Library, Volume 9, Part 1, pg. 165.

Ziegler, P. (1965) Addington: The Life of Henry Addington, First Viscount Sidmouth. London: Collins, pp. 83-84.

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