Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wives in the shadow (1). The Lady of the Lake.

This will be the first in a new series of posts about some of the women who were connected to the administrators or other prominent men instrumental in the running of the British Empire. Often, these men remain famous and are still commemorated in statues, geographical features, books, etc. or remembered in other ways, but the women in their lives are for the most part shadowy figures and all but forgotten.

The Lady of the Lake (Lady Swettenham #1). 

Sydney Lake, Kuala Lumpur

Port Swettenham was a name familiar to me as a child from several pages in my father’s stamp collection headed “Straits Settlements”. In what is now Malaysia, the port is now Port Klang but it was originally named after the first Resident-General and later Governor of the Straits Settlement, Sir Frank Athelstane Swettenham, a man said to rank in importance in the region with Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore.  Frank’s brother, Sir James Alexander Swettenham, also had links to the region.

In May 1938, divorce on the grounds of incurable insanity was allowed for the first time in the British court system. One of the first petitions brought was by Sir Frank Swettenham against his wife Lady Constance Sydney Swettenham. Frank had married her sixty years earlier in 1878 when she was only 19, a daughter of Cecil Frederick Holmes, housemaster at Harrow School. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography gives only a little information about her:
Her inherited tendency towards manic depression was exacerbated by Swettenham's treatment of her; the marriage blighted his personal life for sixty years

In 1894 Swettenham's wife returned to Perak from the most serious of several mental breakdowns, pregnant by another man. Swettenham dispatched her in semi-public ignominy to Britain, where her son was described as stillborn. Swettenham's own personal life was far from blameless; a misdemeanour formed the basis for blackmail, to which he was subjected from about 1890 until his retirement in 1904.
While Swettenham certainly was a highly accomplished administrator on behalf of the Empire, he clearly wasn’t good husband material, or he simply chose the wrong woman. Was Sydney (she seems to have preferred this name to Constance) already on the edge when she married Frank and what exactly was it in his treatment of her that tipped her over? What were the real circumstances of her pregnancy? Without knowing Sydney’s side of the story and only that of Sir Frank on the record, it has to remain conjecture.

The imperious man of empire as seen
 by John Singer Sargent
Frank first tried to rid himself of Sydney in England in 1904, bringing a petition for divorce and accusing her of adultery with a man called Ernest Henry Mander. The paperwork for this divorce petition has just recently been released under the 100 year rule and makes for interesting reading. 

The judge believed Sydney when she said she wanted a reconciliation with her husband and so he threw out Frank’s petition. This indicates that the judge considered the adultery charges to be false, and it tends to raise more questions as to other motives behind Frank wanting a divorce. It seems that Sydney was abandoned to her own devices for months and years at a time, yet Frank still expected her to undertake wifely imperial duties as and when he insisted on them. As the ODNB is so vague on the circumstances of Sydney’s pregnancy and stillborn child, it seems rather too convenient that the baby didn’t survive and it could be there was a cover-up to avoid further embarrassment. Perhaps he did survive and was quietly set up for private adoption as was often the case with upper class “mistakes” during this era.

Whatever the real facts, poor Sydney Swettenham seems to have had a blighted life at the hands of an overbearing and arrogant husband who was rather typical of such men of his time, but she continued to insist she was sane when the second divorce petition was brought in May, 1938. 

In June 1939, Sir Frank, then aged almost 90, married his long-time live-in lover (Lady Swettenham #2). Sydney died a year after Frank, in 1947.

Malaysian playwright and actor Sabera Shaik was intrigued by this sad story and recently wrote and acted in a play called Lady Swettenham about Sydney that has been presented in India and a number of other Asian countries.

This only accessible photo is alleged to be Constance Sidney [sic]  (unable to confirm as Harrow Photos website currently unavailable) but from the feathers in her hair this suggests this would have been her in debutante dress rather than her wedding.

Copyright ? Harrow Photos

The old Port Swettenham has long gone from the map, but at least some small vestige of Sydney lives on in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Sydney Lake is the centrepiece of the Lake Gardens.

Several images of Sir Frank taken by Gertrude Bell can be found at the Newcastle University Library