Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fox, Elizabeth Vassall

FOX, ELIZABETH VASSALL, Lady Holland (1770–1845), daughter of Richard Vassall of Jamaica, was born in 1770, and was married on 27 June 1786 to Sir Godfrey Webster, bart., of Battle Abbey, Sussex. The marriage was dissolved on 3 July 1797 on the ground of adultery committed by her with Henry Richard [q. v.], third baron Holland, to whom she was married at Rickmansworth three days afterwards. Lord Holland had just restored Holland House, and there he gathered round him that brilliant circle of statesmen, wits, men of letters, and other people of distinction, which gave the house a European celebrity. Lady Holland possessed a remarkable power of making her guests display themselves to the best advantage. Traits in her character that were by no means attractive rendered her power of fascination the more extraordinary. Cyrus Redding says of her: ‘Polite, cold, haughty to those she met first in social intercourse, she was offensive to those to whom she took a dislike,’ adding, as an instance, that Campbell having jestingly taken her to task for using the expression ‘take a drive,’ she treated him ‘with an hauteur to which he would not again expose himself’ (Fifty Years' Recollections. iii. 176–8). ‘Elle est toute assertion,’ said Talleyrand, ‘mais quand on demande la preuve, c'est là son secret’ (Raikes, Journal, i. 300). Moore tells how on one occasion she asked him how he could write those ‘vulgar verses’ about Hunt, and on another occasion attacked his ‘Life of Sheridan’ as ‘quite a romance’ showing a ‘want of taste and judgment.’ To ‘Lalla Rookh’ she objected, ‘in the first place because it was eastern, and in the second place because it was in quarto.’ ‘Poets,’ says Moore, ‘inclined to a plethora of vanity would find a dose of Lady Holland now and then very good for their complaint.’ To Lord Porchester she once said: ‘I am sorry to hear you are going to publish a poem. Can't you suppress it?’ ‘Your poetry,’ she said to Rogers, ‘is bad enough, so pray be sparing of your prose.’ To Matthew Gregory (better known as Monk) Lewis, complaining that in ‘Rejected Addresses’ he was made to write burlesque, which he never did, she replied, ‘You don't know your own talent’ (Moore, Diary, Russell, ii. 328, v. 262, vi. 41; Quarterly Review, cxxv. 427). Byron, supposing that she had prompted the article on ‘Hours of Idleness’ in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ satirised her in ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,’ but afterwards made reparation by dedicating the ‘Bride of Abydos’ to her husband. In Ticknor, the historian of Spanish literature, she met her match. Referring to New England she told him that she understood the colony had originally been a convict settlement, to which Ticknor answered that he was not aware of the fact, but that in the King's Chapel, Boston, was a monument to one of the Vassalls, some of whom had been among the early settlers of Massachusetts (Life of Ticknor, i. 264 n.) She kept a tight rein on her guests when they seemed inclined to monopolise the conversation. Macaulay once descanting at large on Sir Thomas Munro, she told him brusquely she had had enough of the subject and would have no more. The conversation then turned on the Christian Fathers, and Macaulay was copious on Chrysostom and Athanasius till Lady Holland abruptly turned to him with, ‘Pray, Macaulay, what was the origin of a doll? when were dolls first mentioned in history?’ This elicited a disquisition on the Roman doll, which in its turn was cut short by Lady Holland (Greville, Memoirs, 1837–52, i. 367–8). On another occasion she sent a page to ask him to cease talking, as she wished to listen to Lord Aberdeen. She would also issue her orders to her more intimate friends with very little ceremony. ‘Ring the bell, Sydney,’ she said once to Sydney Smith, to which he replied, ‘Oh yes! and shall I sweep the room?’ She dined at the unfashionably early hour of six or half-past six, merely, according to Talleyrand, ‘pour gêner tout le monde,’ and often overcrowded her table. ‘Make room,’ she said to Henry Luttrell [q. v.] on one of these occasions. ‘It must certainly be made,’ he observed, ‘for it does not exist.’ Lord Dudley declined her invitations, because ‘he did not choose to be tyrannised over while he was eating his dinner.’ Lord Melbourne, being required to change his place, got up with ‘I'll be d——d if I dine with you at all,’ and walked out of the house. Nevertheless her beauty, vivacity, and the unrivalled skill with which she managed the conversation so that there should never be either too much or too little of any one topic, atoned for everything. Her house was neutral ground on which men of the most opposite schools of thought met and conversed freely and with mutual forbearance and respect. Though herself a sceptic she never encouraged an irreverent treatment of religion; and though, like her husband, a staunch whig, she impressed a temperate tone on the discussion of all political questions.

In 1800 she became entitled, under the will of her grandfather, Florentius Vassall, to some estates in Jamaica, on condition that she assumed the name of Vassall only after her christian name. She did this by royal license 18 June 1800 (in Heralds' College, I. 36, 20). She aspired to exert an influence on politics. ‘Lady Holland,’ writes Lord Hobart, under date 16 Sept. 1802, ‘is deep in political intrigue, and means for the preservation of peace to make it necessary that Fox should be in power’ (Journal of William, first lord Auckland, iv. 163). By degrees Holland House came to be the headquarters of the opposition, where the leaders of the party were accustomed to hold council every Sunday (Buckingham, Memoirs of the Court of the Regency, i. 169–70). On the collapse of Lord Goderich's coalition ministry (1828) Lady Holland was ambitious of high office for her husband. ‘Why should not Lord Holland be secretary for foreign affairs,’ she asked, ‘why not, as well as Lord Lansdowne for the home department?’ Lord John Russell is said to have quietly replied, ‘Why, they say, ma'am, that you open all Lord Holland's letters, and the foreign ministers might not like that’ (Croker, Corresp. i. 400). During the progress of the Reform Bill, some of the cabinet ministers often dined with her, and freely discussed the political situation. Brougham accuses her of pursuing him with bitter spite on account of an affront put on her by his mother (Memoirs, ii. 102), but much importance cannot be attached to such a charge emanating from Brougham. He and Lady Holland were, however, at feud for a great many years; she made an advance in the direction of a reconciliation by sending him an invitation to dinner in 1839, which he declined (Greville, Memoirs, 1837–52, i. 245–6). She was an ardent admirer of Napoleon, to whom she was introduced at Malmaison in 1802, and sent him a message of respect and sympathy at Elba in 1814, and parcels of books and Neapolitan sweetmeats at St. Helena. He bequeathed to her a gold snuff-box ornamented with a fine cameo, the gift of Pius VI after the signature of the treaty of Tolentino, 1797, and she procured and preserved as relics a ring and cross of the Legion of Honour which had belonged to him, a sock which he had worn at his death, and a copy of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (October-December, 1816) containing pencil marks in his handwriting. Dr. John Allen lived in her house, and Macaulay says she treated him like a negro slave [see Allen, John, 1771–1843]. By the death of Lord Holland in 1840 the gaiety of her house suffered a brief eclipse. But three months afterwards Greville was present at one of her most brilliant dinner parties (ib. 1837–52, i. 367). These, however, were now for the most part given at her house in South Street, Grosvenor Square, and to a somewhat smaller company. Thiers and Palmerston were both present at the last she ever gave (October 1845). Her own death, the approach of which seemed to cause her neither fear nor concern, took place at her house in South Street, Grosvenor Square, at two o'clock on the morning of 16 Nov. 1845. She was buried at Ampthill Park, Bedfordshire. Her will was unnatural, her children being almost entirely excluded. She was a kind mistress to her servants, and a warm, sympathetic, and faithful friend. Greville says that ‘she dreaded solitude above everything.’ A portrait of her, painted by Gauffier at Florence in 1795, and another by Fagan are at Holland House. Lady Holland had issue by her first husband two sons (Godfrey Vassall, who succeeded his father in title and estates, represented Sussex in parliament, and died in 1836; and Henry, who entered the army, and rose to the rank of colonel) and one daughter, Harriet, who married in 1816 the Hon. Sir Fleetwood Pellew, captain R.N. and C.B. She also had a son by Lord Holland before her marriage with that nobleman, viz. Charles Richard Fox [q. v.], who entered the army, and married in 1824 Lady Mary Fitzclarence, second daughter of William IV by Mrs. Jordan.

[Lords' Journals, xli. 333, 348, 379; Gent. Mag. 1797 pt. ii. 614, 1846 pt. i. 89; Burke's Extinct Peerage; Lord Holland's Foreign Reminiscences, pp. 188–205; Trevelyan's Life of Macaulay, i. 207, 211, 230, 234, 266, 339, 352; Quarterly Review, cliii. 116, cliv. 110; Princess Liechtenstein's Holland House; Addit. MSS. 20117 f. 17, 20125 f. 259, 20140 f. 54, 20158 ff. 12 b, 13; Greville's Mem. (Geo IV–Wm. IV), ii. 130, 245, iii. 316; Sir Henry Holland's Recollections of Past Life (2nd ed.), 228 et seq.; Hayward's Biographical and Critical Essays, new ser. ii. 262–3.]

J. M. R.