Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, Irish novelist, journalist, and literary hostess, is born near Clonmel, County Tipperary on September 1, 1789. She becomes acquainted with Lord Byron in Genoa and writes a book about him.
Born Margaret Power, she is a daughter of Edmund Power and Ellen Sheehy, small landowners. She is “haphazardly educated by her own reading and by her mother’s friend Ann Dwyer.” Her childhood is blighted by her father’s character and poverty, and her early womanhood made wretched by a compulsory marriage at the age of fifteen to Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer, an English officer whose drunken habits finally bring him as a debtor to the King’s Bench Prison, where he dies by falling out of a window in October 1817. She had left him after three months of marriage.
Marguerite later moves to Hampshire, England to live for five years with the family of Thomas Jenkins, a sympathetic and literary sea captain. Jenkins introduces her to the Irishman Charles John Gardiner, 1st Earl of Blessington, a widower with four children and seven years her senior. They marry at St. Mary’s, Bryanston Square, Marylebone, on February 16, 1818, only four months after the death of her first husband.
Of rare beauty, charm and wit, Lady Blessington is no less distinguished for her generosity and for the extravagant tastes she shares with her second husband, which results in encumbering his estates with debt. On August 25, 1822 they set out for a continental tour with Marguerite’s youngest sister, the 21-year-old Mary Anne, and servants. On the way they meet Count Alfred D’Orsay, who had first become an intimate of Lady Blessington in London in 1821, in Avignon on November 20, 1822, before settling at Genoa for four months from March 31, 1823. There they meet Lord Byron on several occasions, giving Lady Blessington material for her Conversations with Lord Byron.
After that they settle for the most part in Naples, where she meets the Irish writer Richard Robert Madden, who is to become her biographer. They also spend time in Florence with their friend Walter Savage Landor, author of Imaginary Conversations which she greatly admires.
It is in Italy, on December 1, 1827, that Count D’Orsay marries Harriet Gardiner, Lord Blessington’s only daughter by his former wife. The Blessingtons and the newly-wed couple move to Paris towards the end of 1828, taking up residence in the Hôtel Maréchal Ney, where the Earl suddenly dies at the age of 46 of an apoplectic stroke in 1829. D’Orsay and Harriet then accompanied Lady Blessington to England, but the couple separates soon afterwards amidst much acrimony. D’Orsay continues to live with Lady Blessington until her death. Their home, first at Seymour Place, and afterwards Gore House, Kensington, now the site of the Royal Albert Hall, become a centre of attraction for all that is distinguished in literature, learning, art, science and fashion. Benjamin Disraeli writes Venetia whilst staying there, and it is at her home that Hans Christian Andersen first meets Charles Dickens.
After her husband’s death Lady Blessington supplements her diminished income by contributing to various periodicals as well as by writing novels. She is for some years editor of The Book of Beauty and The Keepsake, popular annuals of the day. In 1834 she publishes her Conversations with Lord Byron. Her Idler in Italy (1839–1840), and Idler in France (1841) are popular for their personal gossip and anecdotes, descriptions of nature and sentiment.
Early in 1849, Count D’Orsay leaves Gore House to escape his creditors. Subsequently the furniture and decorations are sold in a public sale successfully discharging Lady Blessington’s debts. She joins the Count in Paris, where she dies on June 4, 1849 of a burst heart. On examination it is discovered that her heart is three times normal size.
(Pictured: Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1822)