She lived vividly at the heart of Georgian society, wrote a ballad acclaimed by Scott and Wordsworth, was privy to one of the great secrets of the age and left a body of papers that bear comparison with those of Fanny Burney. So why is she better known today in South Africa than in her native land? As the biographer of Lady Anne Barnard, it is a question I puzzled over for years.
I knew when I started my research that the materials were rich. Anne’s years at the Cape of Good Hope from 1798 established her as one of those indomitable women travellers of the early empire, a free spirit who mixed as easily with indigenous Africans as with aristocratic proconsuls sailing to and from India. Her diaries, published in South Africa and pored over by historians, showed too that she was a brilliant writer and artist.
What I did not realise when I asked her descendants for access to her papers was how much broader the sweep of her pen had been. Rather than a starting point, the Cape had been a climax in Anne’s bewilderingly busy and adventurous life; and her chronicle of it – unpublished and virtually unseen – is a trove of fresh information and insights into the Georgian age.
But to go back to the starting point: why is she not better known?
The eldest child of the Fifth Earl of Balcarres, Anne Lindsay grew up in the brilliant milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment, sharpening her wits among the likes of David Hume and Adam Smith. James Boswell used to relate a story from their Scottish tour how this 23-year-old “lady of quality” could hold her own in exchanges with Samuel Johnson.
But hers was an age when the daughters of impecunious lairds were commonly married off to men of fortune, and from the outset Anne stood her ground against such a fate. She rejected at least eleven suitors, insisting that marriage must go with love. “Matrimony, I am not ready for thee!” she wrote. “To say Yes to a proposal that would thwart the heart as long as I existed? To cheat an honest man out of the only fortune he can expect to get with me, a free heart? No, I can’t”.
Her defiance of convention sat ill with Edinburgh’s pillars of rectitude. When Anne rejected the son of a judge, Lord Kames, he called her “a witch and a she-devil.” Attempting to turn a page, she fled to London.
Brilliance in company quickly established her as a figure in fashionable society. The Prince of Wales became a close friend and Anne introduced him to Maria Fitzherbert, the Catholic widow with whom he became infatuated. As his attentions intensified, Anne and Maria escaped to Europe, travelling together for almost a year before Maria’s resistance melted.
Meanwhile reputation started to catch up with Anne. To the cream of the social whirl, the haut ton, she was always an outsider. The respectable thought her eccentric – what a later era would have termed bohemian – because she lived independently, buying, decorating and renting houses in fashionable locations like Berkeley Square.
There were also scandals. London loved gossip and though Lady Anne Lindsay never gained the notoriety of Frances Villiers or Mary Coke, her love affairs attracted a good deal of attention. An incident involving a dissipated wastrel, Lord Wentworth, led to Anne being dubbed “the Devil in Scarlet” by Lord Byron’s mother-in-law. In the course of another doomed liaison, with the politician William Windham, she travelled to France to observe the Revolution.
These episodes left scars. As became clear when I discovered her papers, it was Anne’s sensitivity about her past that resolved her, in effect, to blot out her story.
The prospect that she would marry appeared to have passed when she received what was her thirteenth proposal at the age of 42. Andrew Barnard, a handsome but unknown former army officer, was 30. She accepted, and began the biggest adventure of her life.
Together they sailed to the Cape where she had obtained him the post of secretary to the governor. The Barnards lived in a simple cottage called Paradise at the foot of Table Mountain where she kept a small menagerie of wildlife. At the same time she acted as the governor’s hostess.
For this land, which they both came to love, she had a wider vision. When the Barnards set off on a wagon tour of the interior, Pitt’s government saw the Cape as no more than a strategic bastion to protect its vital shipping network to India from the French. Anne did her best to convince influential friends at home that Africa too had potential. “Here is scarcity, but here will be plenty,” she wrote to Pitt’s deputy, Henry Dundas. “It is in the power of activity to make this the finest scene in the world by planting.”
Andrew Barnard died at the Cape. It is clear from their letters that the marriage had been supremely happy and nothing could replace him in her life. Anne lived at Berkeley Square until her death aged 74 in 1825, devoting her final years to the creation of six volumes of memoirs in which she recorded her life with wit and irony, along with a searing honesty. Hence the edict she issued shortly before her death that they were for the eyes of family only and never to be published.
When writing to the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, custodian of the memoirs, I had no idea of their scope and content. As it transpired, they opened the door to exhilarating and ever more astonishing places. Anne kept me fascinated, and had surprises in store right to the end. So for the reader too, I hope, will Defiance: The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard.