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Lee, Rachel Fanny Antonina (DNB00)


LEE, Mrs. RACHEL FANNY ANTONINA (1774?–1829), heroine of a criminal trial, and the subject of chapter iv. of De Quincey's 'Autobiographic Sketches,' was a natural daughter of Francis Dashwood, lord le Despenser, and was probably born about 1774. The incidents of her early life have been related by herself, but in so confused a manner, and with such liberal resort to dashes and initials, that it is exceedingly difficult to frame any coherent narrative from her statements. It appears, however, that she was very carefully educated, and endowed by her father with a fortune amounting, De Quincey says, to 46,000l. After several advantageous offers of marriage had been declined under her mother's influence, she eloped, as it would appear, about 1794, with Matthew Allen Lee, esq. Lee married her, but she separated from him about a year and a half afterwards. Her husband was 'distinguished for nothing.' according to De Quincey, 'but a very splendid person, which had procured him the distinguishing title of Handsome Lee.' Shortly after leaving her husband she took up her residence at Manchester, where she made the acquaintance of De Quincey's mother. Manchester society was dazzled by her beauty, astonished by her learning (rather extensive, however, than profound, for she speaks of the chisel of Zeuxis), and horrified by the violence of her attacks on Christianity. After several changes of residence, and continual quarrels with friends and connections, she was in 1803 living in Bolton Row, Piccadilly, whence, on 15 Jan. 1804, she eloped with a young Oxonian named Loudoun Gordon, accompanied by his brother, Lockhart Gordon, a married clergyman. The circumstances of this affair were differently represented by the parties, but there can be no reasonable doubt that the Gordons could not have carried Mrs. Lee off against her will, and that consequently the case was not one of abduction. That they behaved very basely to an unprotected and half-deranged woman is equally certain. Mrs. Lee and her companions were pursued at the instance of Mrs. Lee's trustee, and overtaken at Gloucester, where Loudoun Gordon was arrested on a warrant (cf. Gent Mag. 1804, pt. i. p. 81). Mrs. Lee, under pressure, as was supposed, from her husband, committed the irreparable fault of appearing as a witness against the brothers at the Oxford assizes on 6 March following. Her examination was speedily stopped upon her declaration of disbelief in Christianity. De Quincey, who was present at the trial, says that she also professed disbelief in God, but this is contradicted by the report, and is at variance with the entire tenor of her writings. The case against the Gordons having thus broken down, they were acquitted, though severely censured by the judge; and Mrs. Lee, regarded not unjustly as a false witness, was dangerously mobbed, and had much difficulty in escaping. Public interest in the scandal was prolonged by the sad death at Dorchester, 'of a broken heart.' of Lockhart Gordon's deserted wife in the following May (cf. ib. pt. i. pp. 485, 594). Mrs. Lee's friends placed her in the family of a Gloucestershire clergyman, distinguished, De Quincey says, for his learning and piety, but in Mrs. Lee's estimation a fell and insidious persecutor. This became, sooner or later, her opinion of every one with whom she was brought into intimate connection, and there can be hardly any doubt that she was partially insane as regarded her perception of ordinary matters, while the higher intellectual faculties were so little affected that the 'Essay on Government,' which she published in 1808 under the pseudonym of 'Philopatria,' was, De Quincey assures us, read twice through and highly commended by a reader so chary of his time and his praise as Wordsworth. Some morbid eccentricity is apparent where the authoress alludes to herself, but otherwise it is a sound, well-intentioned, and rather commonplace composition. In 1807 Mrs. Lee published a 'Vindication of her Conduct,' and in 1808 she returned to London on hearing of the death of her husband, who had committed suicide. About 1810 she assumed the title of Baroness le Despenser, to which she had, of course, no claim. The rest of her life seems to have been spent in a series of disputes with various persons, including Mrs. Dashwood, a relative, another relative or connection named Fellows, Bolaffy, who assisted her Hebrew studies, and one Marshall, an amanuensis whom she accused of treachery. She was undoubtedly partially of unsound mind, and evinced it by the morbid suspiciousness which usually accompanies insanity. Her quarrels produced a number of pamphlets from her pen appealing to the public, but they are of no interest at the present day. She died early in 1829.

[Memoirs of B. F. A., about 1812, and Mrs. Lee's other publications; Apology for the Conduct of the Gordons, by Loudoun Harcourt Gordon, 1804, which contains a report of the Gordon trial; De Quincey's Autobiographic Sketches, chap.iv.; Gent. Mag. 1820, pt. i.p. 040.]

R. G.