Don’t Save It Too Long
Did you know that General James Wolfe was ginger? No, nor did I. It’s amazing the snippets you find when delving far too deep on a really shallow level. It sounds as though it was that really sexy Damian Lewis ginger, too, as he was described as having an ardour that flamed like his hair. Blimey.
He was also 6’2″ – which in the 18th Century was approaching giant proportions – and with strong features. He was only let down by a chin weaker than the beer being served up at Greenwich Hospital. (I have a friend who has a beautifully-cultivated goatee beard to hide such a chin. It works rather well…)
Even the kindest pictures have to show that chin, though there seem to have been more-than-necessary profile portraits done of him.
Still, if you were careful to only look at him from the front, he was, by all accounts, a bit of a catch, especially when you add all that derring-do heroism to the mix. And he wasn’t short of cash, either. His parents were pretty well off – they lived in McCartney House, which still backs onto the park up among all the Greenwich toffs.
Next door, lived the charming Elizabeth Lawson, niece of General Sir John Mordaunt. She was sweet-tempered, sensible and polite, just the kind of simpering attributes that would make me heave, but Georgian men found captivating. Young James, who was back home recuperating after getting wounded at Lauffeldt in 1747, was smitten.
Happily, Lizzy did have one flaw. Sadly, that flaw seems to have been coquette-ishness. Suitors flocked around like seagulls, and she toyed with them all. She’d already turned down the proposals of a clergyman who had £1300 a year, and was currently enjoying the attentions of ‘ a very rich knight.’ Luckily for Wolfe, the knight’s wealth wasn’t matched by his mental health.
Wolfe did a little sniffing around, and found that the object of his affections carried a dowry of £12,000 – which, though considerable, wasn’t huge bucks. His mum and dad were against the idea – they wanted him to marry a Miss Hoskins of Croydon with a much-more-like-it thirty grand.
Still, it was good enough for James – they could live on Love, couldn’t they? (the twelve grand would come in handy) but he couldn’t immediately propose, because by now he was stuck in Scotland. He worried that out-of-sight might become out-of-mind “Young flames must be constantly fed or they’ll evaporate,” he wrote to his best mate.
I guess it would have been best if his ardour had dampened. It would have saved him the misery of being turned down.
It’s hardly surprising that in his disappointment he started thinking that maybe thirty thousand wasn’t so bad after all. But poor old James Wolfe may have been lucky in War, but he was most definitely unlucky in Love. That one didn’t happen either.
In 1750, Mum ‘accidentally’ let it slip in a letter that Elizabeth Lawson was to marry, just as soon as she got better from an illness. Wolfe, who had thought he was over her, realised he wasn’t. He was furious with the way he’d found out. “I don’t think you believe she ever touched me at all,” he wrote, in a right tizz.
We’ve all been there. And I guess a lot of us have done exactly what poor old James did next. He had what we might now call a lost long-weekend…
“I went to London in November and came back in the middle of April,” he confessed to his pal. “In that short time I committed more imprudent acts than in all my life before. I lived the idlest dissolute abandoned manner that could be conceived.”
There’s been all sorts of speculation over what exactly Wolfe got up to in those months, given the manifold delights available to a wealthy young man disappointed in love in 18thC London. It’s been suggested he got himself into a homosexual relationship – and it’s possible, though it’s just as likely he got himself a copy of Harris’s List, and worked his way around the bawdy houses of Covent Garden, or gambled and drank his way around Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
You know what? I think I’ll move on quickly…
He woke up with one hell of a hangover in April and went back to war, taking himself to ever higher and higher celebrity as a hotheaded General.
George II heard of his crazy behaviour on the battlefield and exclaimed “Mad, is he? Then I wish he would bite some of my other generals.” But for all his bravery, Wolfe just couldn’t get Elizabeth out of his mind. For ages afterwards he “could not hear her name mentioned without a twitch or hardly ever think of her with indifference.”
In between battles, he went to stay with Sir Mordaunt at his country pile in Hampshire, and was completely put off his stroke by a portrait of Elizabeth hanging there.
There’s a poem, Brave Wolfe, written about an unknown man, later adapted to mark the victory (and death) of Wolfe at Quebec. One verse reads:
I went to see my love only to woo her
I went to gain her lover not to undo her
Whene’eve I spoke a word my tongue did quiver
I could not speak my mind while I was with her.
The odd thing about this, is that it’s not written about Elizabeth Lawson. There are no names mentioned, but this is actually about what I can only assume is what would have been a rebound marriage – had it ever taken place.
Katherine Lowther’s father was a former governor of Barbados and her brother, Sir James Lowther, was worth a few bob. They fell in love very quickly. And hey. Why not? She was beautiful and rich. He was a national hero. Besides, Elizabeth had been stringing him along for years (despite all the engaments and wooing, she still wasn’t wed…)
Wolfe spent the last couple of months before Quebec charging around seeing Katherine and getting his army ready for war. We all know what happened next.
Wolfe died in 1759.
So did Elizabeth Lawson.
Neither ever married anyone.
In the words of the immortal Julia Lee, Don’t Save It Too Long, girls…