Cultural Capital Gallery - Georgian Era [1714-1837] Contributors: Mary Eleanor Bowes

Mary Eleanor Bowes
1749-1800
Countess of Strathmore, ancestress of the present queen, and one of England’s wealthiest heiresses, MEB retired here after a notoriously unhappy marital life, which inspired Thackeray’s 1844 novel Barry Lyndon (filmed by Kubrick in 1975). The model for the novel’s opportunistic fortune-seeking scoundrel was her brutal 2nd husband, who held her in miserable captivity; when finally able to break free after a public scandal, she retired to a house on a 450-acre estate, on a hillock in the midst of Stourfield Heath, in what is now the east end of Bournemouth.

Stourfield House's isolation was likely part of its appeal for her: there is a reference to her choosing to live here as it was "...out of the world." Its original owner was a barrister, Edmund Bott, who had moved down to the coast from London when his health declined, and was known for entertaining learned guests such as local antiquarians. She herself rented it from its 2nd owner, Sir George Tapps, who bought it in 1790, after Bott's death. It became her final peaceful retreat from a past marital life the local historian Druitt characterised as one of "tears of blood."

She wrote at least two works, a now-forgotten antiquarian 5-act verse drama set during the Crusades, The Siege of Jerusalem (1771), and her 1793 Confessions, which were written under duress from her husband and were at the time a public sensation to the point of scandal. Though there was predictably a broader interest in the latter, it was the former work that allowed the Countess, an ancestor of the present monarch, a tombstone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets' Corner, where in April 1800, she was buried (in a macabre touch) in her wedding dress.

Mary Eleanor Bowes
Mary Eleanor Bowes. Her maiden name Bowes was incorporated in the surname Bowes-Lyon maintained by her descendants as the family name up until the time of the last Queen Mother, who died in 2002.

Though they lack detail on her last two (celibate) years of life, at Stourfield, there are three biographies dealing with Bowes’s scandalous and tragic marital life: Ralph Arnold’s 1987 The Unhappy Countess, Derek Parker’s 2006 The Trampled Wife, and Wendy Moore’s 2009 Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met his Match. It was also the basis of a 2008 Radio 4 play, 'An Unhappy Countess' by documentary filmmaker Paul Watson, with Susannah Harker as the Countess Strathmore. Her 1793 Confessions were reprinted by Forgotten Books as a paperback in 2012. The Parker biography has appendices covering her play The Siege Of Jerusalem and the connection with Thackeray's Barry Lyndon.

Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon

In the Kubrick adaptation of Thackeray's novel, Marisa Berenson plays the wife who soon realises her husband is a fortune hunter who feels no love for her - exactly what happened to the real Mary.

Compton Acres in Poole as Spa in Belgium

The film of Barry Lyndon was partly shot locally: here the Italian Gardens at Compton Acres in Poole stand in for the town of Spa in Belgium, where Barry first spots his luckless future wife.

Site Of Interest: Stourfield House
Stourfield HouseUnfortunately nothing is left of Stourfield House [built 1766], except for the double staircase and white portico, with a blue plaque just to the left of the entrance.
The stylised inset image is from the blue plaque; the actual building was said to be red brick.
This was MEB's final home: she resided here in the late 1790s, dying there in 1800, age 51. Despite it being the present town's original major building and a stately home in its right (said to be the first 'marine villa' on the south coast), it appears on few maps. The £10,000 house had its own icehouse and greenhouse and the surrounding 450-acre estate stretched down to the present Cranleigh Rd. A subsequent owner found it too large and had it partly demolished, and it was converted into a hospital [West Southbourne Sanitarium] built in 1898 on the same site, Douglas House Hospital in Douglas Mews, a cul-de-sac [outlined in the Google Maps screenshot below] between Southbourne and Pokesdown. The present brick building dates only from 1993, the hospital being demolished in 1991.

Google Maps screenshot

Pokesdown Station is the village green  signboard

Above: Opposite Pokesdown Station is the village green with a signboard showing location and historical details of Stourfield House, which was used for early Council meetings.

Below: A section of map from 1826, showing Stourfield House situated on what was then open heath, which began to be Inclosed after 1802. The dark-greyish area the house sits on the edge of was the limit of the Inclosures and conifer plantations that were the first sign of the new township of 'Bourne.'
map from 1826, showing Stourfield Hous

MEB’s stay here is not well documented. Biographies barely mention her final move to Stourfield in 1795. In 1796, her beloved servant-companion Mary, who had helped her escape captivity, died and was buried in Christchurch Priory, with a brass plaque erected by MB. Her other companions were two young-adult daughters and a pack of dogs.
When future Poet Laureate Robert Southey moved into a cottage outside Christchurch, she invited him to visit her library. She spoke Italian and Spanish, and Southey was interested enough to walk over through the "desolation" of the adjacent heathland and visit her, not long before her death. The only local documentation of her stay here was the memories of an elderly Pokesdown resident, later transcribed for a village local-history booklet [Pokesdown Past 1750-1900 by JA Young 1997]; she was remembered by locals as a somewhat strange but kindly lady, who took an interest in their welfare. The last thing she wrote was her will, which she had witnessed by Pokesdown locals, and which would lead to her brutal scheming ex-husband's final downfall (see below).

Trampled Wife cover
The cover image above is based on a caricature by the political cartoonist Gillray, showing her carousing, with a pair of suckling cats dangling from her bosom.
Wedlock cover
Right: Barry Lyndon, 1975: Thackeray’s 1844 novel was inspired by his hearing of MEB’s fortune-seeking husband Stoney from MEB’s grandson. Kubrick’s film adaptation was partly shot locally (Compton Acres and Wilton House), but Kubrick, a former magazine photographer, just used the story to film a period piece as an exercise in aesthetic formalism. Hence he removed all the picaresque satire where the boastful ‘Barry’ is the classic unreliable narrator and made him a sympathetic underdog, played straight by American comedy actor Ryan O’Neal, while the hapless wife was played by an American fashion model, treated as a clothes-horse with almost no dialogue. Barry’s downfall is due to a single incident, pictured here, where he is provoked into losing his temper and attacks his titled stepson, who has tried to embarrass him in front of the assembled company.
Below right: In reality, MEB’s relentlessly violent and brutal husband Stoney-Bowes, who had eventually been jailed for abduction, was released when she died in 1800, but ended up in debtors’ prison when he tried unsuccessfully to contest her will (witnessed by locals) and could not pay his lawyers’ fees, dying penniless. This is said to be the inspiration for the expression someone is "stoney" broke. Below right, a contemporary illustration of his arrival in court, by the political cartoonist Gillray.

Barry Lyndon, 1975

cartoon by Gillray


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