She is little known today, but one of Clonmel’s most famous historical figures is being brought back into the spotlight in a new book.
The fantastical life of writer and socialite Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, forms the basis of novel Bounty of a Stolen Empire, which has just been released.
Author and Blessington expert Martin Cohen says his aim is to reintroduce Gardiner, who died in 1849, to a new generation of readers after decades of criminal neglect.
His book is believed to mark the first time that the Countess, who for a time was the UK’s bestselling author, has been the central character in a novel.
Speaking from his home in London, Cohen, a retired history lecturer, says he first learned about Blessington while studying for a PhD in economic history and felt compelled to champion such an extraordinary character.
He said: “The Countess led an incredible life, akin to that of a real-world Cinderella.
“She had to cope with a great deal of grief, betrayal and brutality, but somehow managed to transcend it all to become the UK’s bestselling author.
“Yet today, both she and her work have long since faded into obscurity, which is a crying shame for such an extraordinary character.
“Having spent the many years researching her life, I wanted to do my bit to put her back on the literary map.” Born Margaret Power in Knockbrit in 1789, she was the daughter of small landowner Edmund Power and his wife, Ellen Sheehy. Her upbringing wasn’t a happy one, and her drunken, spendthrift father sold her in marriage to a mentally unstable soldier, Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer, when she was only 14.
Within three months, she left Farmer, but not before his violent attacks had cost the life of her unborn child and left her sterile.
Upon hearing of her husband’s intentions to reclaim her, she fled to Hampshire under the protection of suitor Captain Thomas Jenkins.
For the next five years, under the patronage of Jenkins’s mother, she devoured the family library to become, says Cohen, the best-read woman in England.
But Jenkins couldn’t wed her because she was still married to Farmer and when finances became tight he agreed to sell her to Charles John Gardiner, the 1st Earl of Blessington, for the equivalent of £5million in today’s money.
She married the Earl, heir to half of Dublin and vast estates in County Tyrone, in 1818 after Farmer was murdered and swiftly became a noted socialite, mixing with prime ministers and the leading literary figures of the day.
She was famed for her beauty, intelligence and wit, and was immortalised in a famous portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence that now resides in the Wallace Collection in London.
Having changed her name to the more continental-sounding ‘Marguerite’, she turned to writing after the Earl died prematurely leaving her with a pitiful allowance.
In the remaining 20 years of her life she wrote “a great many” novels, poetry, travelogues and reminiscences, and died in Paris at the age of 59.
In Bounty of a Stolen Empire, Cohen wittily resurrects the Countess in the present day to recount her colourful life as well as berate her past biographers for getting so much wrong.
Bounty of a Stolen Empire by Martin Cohen is out now, priced £11.99 (€13.52) in paperback and £11.39 (€12.84) in Kindle edition. Visit Amazon UK.