Those who knew the Duchess of Leinster best had probably envisioned an early demise. Before she moved to County Kildare in 1884, she was regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Western Europe. But in the ensuing decade, she had become a frail creature, much given to depression and paranoia. If there were any surprises about her death, it was probably that the 30-year-old châtelaine of Carton House succumbed to disease rather than suicide. Nonetheless, for friends, family and her innumerable fans, the death of Hermione, Duchess of Leinster, in 1895, was a tremendously sad occasion.
Hermione’s story forms the heart of an epic book by Terence Dooley, the country’s foremost expert on Irish country houses. ‘The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster 1872-1948’ examines the lives of the 5th, 6th and 7th Dukes who succeeded in turn to the miscellaneous lands and titles of the FitzGerald family. Sub-titled ‘Love, war, debt and madness’, it was billed as Ireland’s ‘Downton Abbey’ when it was first published. It is certainly a gripping if tragic saga.
Born in 1864, Lady Hermione Duncombe enjoyed a happy childhood. Her forbears had made a sufficient fortune from banking to build a stately pile in north Yorkshire – Duncombe Park. Her father became an integral part of the British establishment when he was created Earl of Feversham in 1868.
All four of Lord Feversham’s daughters were considered beauties but it was Hermione who caused the greatest splash when she appeared as a 17-year-old debutante in London in 1881, with her long brown hair spilling over her shoulders, peering at the world through her soft brown eyes.
‘So lovely in face is rarely seen,’ marvelled the Penny Illustrated. Daisy Fingall, later to become one of her closest Irish friends, recalled her as ‘divinely tall’ with a ‘wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that … you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat.’ Winston Churchill also declared her the most beautiful woman he ever met.
Her first season as a debutante was followed closely by the Victorian press who eagerly reported on her every step at race meetings, dances and other society events.
Not surprisingly Britain’s aristocratic elite were soon queuing up to seduce the poor girl. Perhaps she might have fallen in love with one of them but Cupid was not consulted. It seems almost certain that her father orchestrated an arranged marriage for her with Gerald FitzGerald, Marquis of Kildare and heir to the 4th Duke of Leinster, Ireland’s premier peer. Short, square, deadly serious and more inclined towards philately and books than the whirl of society, Hermione clearly feared the worst. A month before she left Duncombe Park to marry Lord Kildare, the 19-year-old penned a short lament:
Home I must leave thee, the sweet days here are numbered,
I turn and look upon you with regretful eyes.
Fate beckons to me with her unrelenting fingers,
Hope and lost love have no answer for my sighs.
Their wedding in Knightsbridge, London, was the society bash of 1884, not least for the Anglo-Irish elite lucky enough to score an invitation. Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and a friend of Hermione, was the principal guest. In Ireland, the occasion was marked with ‘an elegant dejeuner’ for 400 schoolchildren on the lawns of Carton, with bonfires and banners strewn through nearby Maynooth.
The newly weds spent their first three years together at Kilkea Castle in south Kildare. When Gerald – or Gerry, as she called him – succeeded as 5th Duke of Leinster in 1887, they relocated to Carton where they retained at least 100 servants and estate employees, 44 of whom worked within the mansion itself.
Initially, all was well. The couple attended races at Punchestown, the Horse Show in Dublin and other such events. Hermione became a benefactor of numerous institutions including Alexandra College in Dublin. She also became a mother to two sons Maurice and Desmond and although, like most aristocratic Victorian parents, she saw relatively little of her children, she adored them and was a dutiful mother.
She appears to have suffered severe post-natal depression, particularly after the death of their first child, a baby girl, but again following the birth of her sons. Perhaps she had always been prone to depression but her black spells certainly increased from 1890 and she would frequently write to her closest friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, of Abbeyleix, describing in one instance how she was assailed by ‘the legions of black dogs’.
Meanwhile, the FitzGerald estates were in a downward spiral, not least supporting Gerry’s nine siblings. His father had already been compelled to sell quarter of the estate. Gerry was a firm opponent of Home Rule and president of the Irish Unionist Alliance.
Preoccupied with the turmoil of Irish politics and the burden of his inheritance, the Duke became increasingly aloof at home. Worse, he smothered all of Hermione’s opportunities to flourish as an independent woman. He virtually forbade her from painting. He refused to give her a room of her own. She confided to a sister that he ‘humiliated’ her in front of the servants, countermanding her orders. ‘And fault is found with me for anything and everything I do and say.’
In another letter, she wrote how his ‘petty tyranny’ extended to the bedroom where he insisted on sleeping alongside her ‘for fear of what the servants may think!’ if they did not. As she observed, ‘the servants only have to listen at the door to be aware that recrimination continues late into the night and begins early in the morning.’
With her creative spirit crushed, she resorted to letter writing. Rarely can a friend have received a letter from Hermione anticipating a fun read. Feeling ever more ‘wretched’, Hermione was plunging into deep depression and Carton had become ‘this black dog haunted place’.
Her friendship with Evelyn became so intimate that she was subsequently compelled to write an apology letter for what would seem to have been an unrequited pass at the Viscountess.
In the end she found love, or certainly lust, with Evelyn’s brother Hugo Charteris, a handsome, gambling-addicted cad who had seduced many an upstanding woman before Hermione. Charteris belonged to a group of pseudo-intellectual aristocrats known as the Souls whose principal Irish base was the de Vesci’s home at Abbeyleix. The Souls’ liberally-inclined banter would ultimately pave the way for a relaxation of strict Victorian traditions in favour of the rather more fun-loving Edwardian lifestyle. Hand in hand with this was a penchant for extra-marital affairs, which the members of the Souls conducted with rigorous frequency.
The upshot was that Charteris fathered Hermione’s third son Edward who would one day succeed as 7th Duke of Leinster. Most people in high society knew he was the father, not least when Hermione eloped to live with him. However, when their affair petered out, she returned to live with Gerry at Carton and young Edward was ever after raised as a FitzGerald.
Hermione’s beauty still caused huge excitement wherever she went. In Dublin, men would pursue her down Dawson Street simply ‘for the delight of seeing her move’. However, her private life was to take another sharp turn in the winter of 1893 when, just weeks after her return, Gerry contracted typhoid and died aged 42.
While their small son Maurice became 6th Duke, administration of the family estates passed to a trust. Curiously disconsolate at losing Gerry, Hermione moved to Surrey and took up painting and sculpture, the arts her late husband had denied her. However, her self-confidence was shattered and her letters suggest she was now utterly haunted by her past.
Less than a year after Gerry’s death, Hermione was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Narrowly side-stepping a surgeon’s proposal to inject creosote into her blood stream as a cure, she travelled through the warm climates of Europe with her mother and a sister before fetching up at Menton, near Monte Carlo, on the French-Italian border. When her condition worsened, her mother summoned Charteris and, for a while, his presence did boost her morale.
But her tuberculosis was terminal. Unable to see her children, lest they become infected, she spent her last days in Menton, drifting ever deeper out of consciousness until her death aged 30 on 20 March 1895. Her body was dispatched to Ireland and she was buried alongside her late husband in the family cemetery at Carton.
Her three orphaned sons were also destined for unhappy lives. Maurice, the epileptic 6th Duke, was confined to a psychiatric institution outside Edinburgh where he remained, attended by a butler, until his death in 1922. Desmond, his dashing younger brother, was killed in the Great War.
Edward, the youngest son, ran up such huge gambling debts that he was obliged to hand over the income from the Duchy’s Irish estates to a Tory millionaire who cleared them. Thrice married, he died by his own hand in 1976.
In 1949, Carton House was sold to the Liverpool brewing magnate, Lord Brocket. His grandson Lord Charlie Brocket became a household name after his appearance in the 2003 edition of “I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here”. In 1977 the Brockets sold the house to the Mallaghan family from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, who ran the Carton estate as a major golf and country club. It is now managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
‘The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster 1872-1948’ by Terence Dooley is published by Four Courts Press.