Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

John, Lord Hervey:
The Third Sex

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This essay may not be republished without the permission of the author.


The childhood of John, Lord Hervey (1696-1743) was more vigorous than that of most noblemen. He heartily engaged in dice-playing and horse-racing, and supped on mutton and plum-cake before retiring to bed with his doting father. At Westminster School, and then at Cambridge, Hervey's career very probably resembled that of the typical scholar he would later satirize: "He went vigorously through a Course of Academical Learning, drank with his Tutor, lay with his Laundress, broke the Chapel Windows, and then took a Degree of Master of Arts". On the other side of the coin, however, Hervey early acquired in Paris the habit of wearing white make-up to give his features a fashionable pallor, and in later life he would wear a set of false teeth carved out of brown mottled jasper. For a time he wore a silk eye patch for chronic watering of the eye, and his health steadily worsened until his frailty became proverbial. The modern opinion, now unverifiable, is that he suffered from periodic epilepsy. His generally high-strung nature and frequent fainting spells made his "effeminacy" a subject for cruel satire. In 1735 Alexander Pope in "An Epistle from Mr Pope to Dr Arbuthnot" caricatured Hervey as "Sporus", the youth whom the Emperor Nero had castrated and then married as his bride:

Let Sporus tremble what? that Thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white Curd of Ass's milk?
Satire or Sense alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded Wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings.
. . .
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis.
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupting Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.

Portrait of Lord HereveyThis masterpiece of malevolence (in which "Butterfly" may be a pun upon "catamite", and "Bug" may be a pun upon "bugger") possibly has had more influence in creating the stereotype of the Effeminate Pansy than any other document in English literary history, and even today it is seriously believed by some that these malicious lines accurately portray the modern homosexual male. Unfortunately the real Lord Hervey is relatively unknown to most students of English literature. He was certainly effeminate, but contrary to Pope's vindictive portrait of him as a eunuch, he was a robust bisexual. A study of his life gives us some insight into the life of a gay/bisexual man who did not participate in the molly subculture, and illustrates how the archetype of the Pansy came about.

Hervey could often be seen at the race tracks of Bartholomew Fair, and occasionally he would even take his seat in Parliament, but his more usual social round was either at the spa in Bath, "taking the waters", or in the London circle of aristocrats where, observed Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, "writing verse was as common as taking snuff". Another of Lady Mary's morceaux choisi has branded Hervey as the archetype of the so-called "Third Sex": "The world", she observed, "consists of men, women, and Herveys".

Hervey's ill health and effeminacy did not hinder his amorous pursuits. In 1720, at the age of 23, he secretly courted and then married Mary Lepell, a Maid of Honour whom Pope is believed also to have fancied. Indeed, Pope's foiled aspirations in the affair probably contributed to the vehemence with which he later attacked Hervey. In due course Mary Lepell gave birth to the first of the eight children she was to bear Hervey during their lifetime marriage sufficient proof of the compatibility of effeminacy and virility.

But Hervey's attentions were not directed toward only one of the sexes. While recovering his health at Bath in 1726 (the year, incidentally, when Mother Clap's molly house was raided), he met and began wooing a 21 year old country squire named Henry Fox. After Henry returned to his estate in Redlinch, Somerset, he and Hervey regularly courted one another through a fond epistolary intercourse. But when they met again in London the following year, Henry brought along his brother Stephen, aged 23, and Hervey, aged 31, promptly redirected his affection toward the older brother. And this time distance proved no barrier.

The friendship between Stephen Fox and Lord Hervey progressed rapidly, first with Hervey visiting Stephen at Redlinch, where they strolled in a garden playfully dubbed "Hervey-Grove", then together for a two-month health treatment at Bath – while Lady Hervey remained at her husband's estate at Ickworth, which she sadly described as "My Hermitage". After taking the waters, Hervey and Stephen travelled together for fifteen months on a Grand Tour: first to Ostend, in search of a more medicinal spa for Hervey's sake; then to Paris; then to Rome, where Stephen fell ill; then to Naples, where Stephen nursed Hervey through severe fevers and dizzy spells; then to Florence, where a surgeon so badly removed a large protuberance from beneath Hervey's chin that it left a noticeable scar. Lady Hervey, meanwhile, still at Ickworth, signed her letters "your melancholy wife".

During this period Hervey may have first discovered his capacity for loving a man, but the experience was not so simple as discarding a heterosexual facade for a homosexual core. Hervey was genuinely bisexual, and nine months to the day after he returned to greet his wife at Ickworth, Lady Hervey gave birth to their fifth child. Nor did Hervey abandon his travelling companion in favour of his wife. He persuaded Lord Bateman (who had been forced to separate from Sunderland's daughter because of his homosexual tastes) to open his house at Windsor so that Stephen could be near him. The three of them grew steadily closer, and Lady Hervey and Stephen were to remain lifelong friends even after Hervey's death.

Historical documents being what they usually are in such cases, we cannot be absolutely certain that Hervey copulated with Stephen. There is an awkward gap in the information regarding Hervey's early friendships: the first 26 pages of his volume of letters were torn out and destroyed by his grandson the first Marquess of Bristol. One cannot help but believe that Victorian prudery prompted this suppression. And all of the remaining letters, including those to Stephen, were preserved by copyists after Hervey himself had had the opportunity to excise any indelicate passages from the originals. There nevertheless is one letter to Stephen in which Hervey explicitly refers, with fond remembrance, to bruises left upon his frail limbs by Stephen's rough caresses. Common sense would suggest that such marks were the result of their vigorous lovemaking, although one scholar has been cautious enough to dismiss them as evidence merely of "innocent horseplay". Modern psychologists would recognize that even horseplay is seldom innocent, but I think the letter speaks for itself, and with passion, however playfully:

You have left some such remembrance behind you that I assure you (if 'tis any satisfaction to you to know it) you are not in the least Danger of being forgotten. The favours I have received at Your Honour's Hands are of such a Nature that tho' the impression might wear out of my Mind, yet they are written in such lasting characters upon every Limb, that 'tis impossible for me to look on a Leg or an Arm without having my Memory refresh'd. I have some thoughts of exposing the marks of your pollisonerie to move Compassion, as the Beggers that have been Slaves at Jerusalem doe the burnt Crucifix upon their Arms; they have remain'd so long that I begin to think they are equally indelible.

Pollisonerie is the French word for "lewdness". I have printed additional extracts from these gay love-letters.

There is also some secondhand evidence about Hervey's homosexuality in a somewhat cryptic letter written by Charles Hanbury Williams to Henry Fox shortly after Hervey's death: "Upon my word Lord Hervey has left Winnington a very handsome legacy & I suppose he'll enter into possession immediately – I suppose Lord Lincoln won't push at him any more. If he does, Hervey will certainly appear backward to him. Poor Fitzwilliams!" Lord Lincoln was famed among his friends for possessing a large penis, and using it well. The Earl Fitzwilliam was so frightened at his marriage that it had to be postponed for a day. Thomas Winnington MP, great friend of the Fox brothers, inherited a legacy from Hervey. Williams' own underlinings provide the clue for the following interpretation: Winnington now has an inheritance of his own and need not submit to the large penis ("handsome legacy") of Lord Lincoln; but if Lincoln persists in trying to bugger ("push at") Winnington, Hervey (as symbol of the inheritance he left Winnington) will appear to bend over and present his arse ("backwards") for Lincoln's desires. Or something along those lines; there are too many clever nudges and winks here for us to quite make sense of it all, but we can see easily enough that Williams is suggesting, by means of italicized puns, that Hervey liked to be buggered.

In the mind of the public, Hervey was a homosexual, not merely an effeminate fop but a hermaphrodite, as he is portrayed in the satire levelled against him by William Pulteney: "pretty Mr. Fainlove . . . is a Lady himself; or at least such a nice Composition of the two Sexes, that it is difficult to distinguish which is more praedominant. . . . it would be barbarous to handle such a delicate Hermophrodite, such a pretty, little, Master Miss, in too rough a Manner; yet you must give me Leave, my Dear, to give you a little, gentle Correction, for your own good" (A Proper Reply to a Late Scurrilous Libel (London, 1731), from which I print fuller extracts). In another libellous work Pulteney is even more explicit:

But you seem, pretty Sir, to take the Word Corruption in a limited Sense and confine it to the Corrupter – Give me Leave to illustrate This by a parallel Case – There is a certain, unnatural, reigning Vice (indecent and almost shocking to mention) which hath of late, been severely punished in a neighbouring Nation. It is well known that there must be two Parties in the Crime; the Pathick and the Agent; both equally guilty. I need not explain These any farther. The Proof of the Crime hath been generally made by the Pathick; but I believe that Evidence will not be obtained quite so easily in the case of Corruption when a Man enjoys every Moment and Fruits of his Guilt. (Observations on the Writings of the Craftsman (London, 1731)

In other words, the proof of sodomy can be provided by a medical examination of the receptor's anus in order to discover the evidence of semen or unusual dilation, caused by the inserter. The neighbouring nation to which Pulteney refers is Holland, where, in 1730-31, at least more than 250 men and boys were hanged, burned, beheaded, garrotted and drowned for the offence of sodomy (see newspaper reports of this notorious persecution.)

The insinuations of Williams and Pulteney of course are not conclusive, though perhaps as near as we can expect at this distance in time. The fact nevertheless remains that Hervey's letters to Stephen are obviously love letters, interspersed with ejaculations such as these: "Every Body has some Madness in their Composition, & I freely acknowledge you are mine"; "I have often thought if any very idle Body had Curiosity enough to intercept & examine my Letters, they would certainly conclude they came rather from a Mistress than a Friend"; and "Adieu, que je vous aime, que je vous adore; & si vous m'aime, de meme venez me le dire". ("Farewell, how I love you, how I adore you; and if you love me too, come and tell me so.") Their friendship was rather more passionate than platonic, and it certainly became domestic when they set up house-keeping together in a house near St James's Palace (which still stands as No. 31 Old Burlington Street) – while Lady Hervey tended the children at their own town house in St James's Square, or in the country at Ickworth.


Hervey was a professional politician and courtier. A Member of Parliament in 1725, he carefully sought preferment through royal favour, though he was not immoderately ambitious. In 1730 he was appointed Vice-Chamberlain, a post he retained until 1740. His duties were the supervision of court functions: ambassadorial receptions, royal birthdays and marriages and funerals, court balls, and the seasonal removal of the Court from St James to Windsor, to Richmond and to Kew. His role as the master of ceremonies contributed even more material to his satirical persona as a fop of the highest order, as a creature of mere decorum.

But he also served Walpole's Whig ministry as a political propagandist, and his pamphlets provoked the opposition, whose leader William Pulteney descended to nasty innuendo about Hervey's sex life. Hervey may have been "pathic", but he was by no means passive. He responded to this gross libel by challenging Pulteney to a duel, and he instructed Henry Fox to inform Pulteney of the time and place of combat: the New Walk (now Green Park) in St James's Park, at 4 o'clock, 26 January 1731. On that afternoon Hervey drank his chocolate as usual, gave his wife some verses to copy, and told her he would dine with some members of the House of Commons. He then proceeded to St James's, attended by Henry Fox as his second, where he met Pulteney and his second, Sir John Rushout. The duellists stripped to their shirts, though it was a frosty morning and snow covered the ground, and they crossed swords. It was a somewhat foolish act of valour, ending in Hervey being led fainting from the field with a slight wound in his side and four or five nicks on the hand, while Pulteney, with only one cut on his hand, strutted away victorious. The duel ended a twelve-year friendship between Lady Hervey and Mrs Pulteney.

Hervey recovered quickly, and a few days later attended the Drawing-Room at St James's – where the duel "made a great noise". The Grub Street satirists seized their pens, and within days they had parodied the clash in numerous lampoons, limericks, broadsheets, ballads, and even a full-length opera. It was a disastrous occasion for Hervey's persona, for Pulteney's caricature of him as an hermaphrodite was lifted from his pamphlet, embellished and polished until it was eventually refined and sharpened by Pope's pen. Such was the line of coincidences which led to the literary stereotype which still continues to foster prejudice against homosexuals. One pamphlet calls itself An Epistle from Little Captain Brazen to the Worthy Captain Plume [i.e. from Hervey to Pulteney]. In another, Hervey is cast as Roderigo, Pulteney as Cassio, and Walpole as Iago. In the ballad opera The Intriguing Courtier, Hervey becomes Lord Whiftler, a coward who is relieved when the duel is forbidden (a very unfair perversion of the facts). In the broadside ballad The Duel we read:

It matters not how this Quarrel did rise,
With Miss and – with Master, and Master and Miss;
Or whether a Coward he should not be stil'd,
Sets his Sword to a Woman, and Wit to a Child.

In another Ballad, The Court Garland, we read this vilification:

Full hard I hold it right to tell,
     Which Sex may justly claim thee,
For those scarce know, who know thee well
     What kind of thing to name thee.

Thou powder-puff, thou painted toy,
     Thou talking trifle, H[erve]y;
Thou doubtful he, she, je ne scais quoy,
     By G[o]d, the K[in]g shall starve ye.

The anonymous squib titled The Lord H[e]r[ve]y's First Speech in the House of Lords, a direct source for Pope's own satire, has Hervey say:

So I, the softest, prettiest thing,
     This honourable House of Lords,
Come here by order of the King,
     Created Lady of the Lords.

Hervey was amused by this particular satire, and even sent a copy of it to Henry Fox. He expressed no offense in public, and remained strangely silent during the scurry of the scribblers, though he must have been aware that his transformation into the archetype of the effeminate pouf would effectively destroy his political reputation. Prime Minister Walpole may have advised Hervey – his political agent – to remain silent for fear of himself being drawn in as fuel for the fire. The Sunderland faction had been disgraced only recently by homosexual accusations against its members, and Hervey and Walpole would have been aware of dangers of stirring the waters. We must not forget that only a few years previously, widespread public attention had been given to the raid upon Mother Clap's molly house and the subsequent hanging of three sodomites; in 1730-31 great numbers of homosexuals had been executed in Holland; while in London, in the same period, several homosexuals had been pilloried and hanged (e.g. Gilbert Lawrence was hanged at Tyburn on 7 October 1730). Only a few weeks prior to the farcical duel, one John Bambridge had been exhibited in the pillory for attempted sodomy. It would not have been wise for Hervey to have risked the scandal that might have been caused had he attempted to sue Pulteney for libel. Hervey did the most that he reasonably could be expected to do. Having failed to kill his most dangerous opponent, it was wiser for him to retire from the field altogether, than to pursue the matter and provoke a fate far worse than a nick in the wrist.

Frederick Prince of Wales, son of George II, may have given just such advice to Hervey, for fear that he himself would be accused of being the "agent" to Hervey's "pathick". Hervey and the Prince were publicly intimate, though we know little about their private intercourse, for the two-year segment torn out of Hervey's Memoirs also covered the period when their relationship flowered. At the Prince's request, Hervey often wrote to him, sometimes likening their relationship to that of Alexander and Hephaestion. They were frequently together – once when ill, the Prince sent for Hervey to soothe him with conversation until he fell asleep – and the Prince carried with him a gold snuff box bearing Hervey's portrait. Indeed, they grew close enough for Stephen to become jealous, and Hervey wrote to reassure the latter of his abiding love: "Adio, sempre amiable, & sempre amato". Stephen wrote: "Why did you not come to my Lodgings for a Minute after the Opera?" Hervey replied, seemingly careful to explain away all doubts: "I did not stay a quarter of an Hour with the Prince; he went immediately to bed & I came home". The Prince was doubtlessly a womaniser, though not necessarily exclusively so, and he confided his amours to Hervey, who replied: "What Game you po[a]ch, Sir, what you hunt, what you catch, or what runs into your Mouth, I don't pretend to guess".

The Prince and Hervey had a falling-out, however, when both became rivals for the affections of Anne Vane, a Maid of Honour. For a time she was mistress to the Prince, then to Hervey, or perhaps to both of them concurrently, or perhaps the affair was a bisexual menage à trois, until she camped with Hervey after Frederick tired of her in 1734. A ballad opera called Humours of the Court exposed the triangle of Adonis (Frederick), Vanessa (Anne), and Aldemar (Hervey), the latter being a "gay young Rover of Quality". The identity of the father of the child which Anne bore in 1733 is still a matter for some dispute, with even a third candidate for the honours, Lord Harrington. Frederick's eldest sister settled the matter by decreeing that "it was a child of a triumvirate". In 1734 (the year, incidentally, that Lady Hervey bore another girl), Miss Vane finally left her various houses in Soho Square, Kew Green and St James's Street, where she was installed at the pleasure of the Prince, for a house in Wimbledon, where she and Hervey met until her death of convulsive fits in 1736. A sexual object and a political pawn, she was mourned by neither Hervey nor Frederick, who by now had patched up their friendship and often passed entire evenings together in the Prince's private apartments.

Hervey's steadily increasing duties often prevented him from living with or visiting Stephen at Redlinch; the less-busy summer season at Kew which allowed him two nights a week (Sunday and Monday) in London with Stephen became a luxury. He rigorously set aside these two days, he says, for "pleasure"; the fact that Sunday was also the favourite day of rendezvous in the London molly houses has lead to some speculation that Hervey went into town for this reason – but there really is no evidence to support the view that Lord Hervey ever would have entered a molly house. On the face of it, this was simply an opportunity for him and Stephen to be together. Robert Halsband in his definitive biography Lord Hervey; Eighteenth-Century Courtier (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973) suggests that the love between the two men gradually cooled, because of the sharp difference between their two natures. Stephen was a country squire, practically a rustic, while Hervey was a polished courtier; perhaps they had not enough intellectual interests in common to sustain a relationship whose physical basis would naturally mellow with time.

But, on the other hand, this marked contrast between city and country pleasures might have been one of the chief delights of their love throughout its duration, and not likely to be undermined as it might had they been in continual contact with one another. Hervey said he preferred Stephen "rusty better than any other body polish'd". Hervey's visits to Redlinch became shorter in duration, but this may well be due more to Hervey's increasing attendance at court than to any deliberate evasion or gradual attempt to break away. A lessening of their emotional attachment is refuted by the fact that their frequent separations and reunions continued to provoke in Hervey vehement fevers and faintings, extreme ecstasies and deep depressions. Hervey in 1736 arranged for Stephen's marriage to the child-heiress Miss Horner, which was merely a formal bond until they lived together in 1739, after which Hervey and Stephen continued to be close friends. In the aristocratic world, homosexuality was never sufficient reason for a man not to marry; it would have been unthinkable for a man of any public consequence to play a role in society without a hostess, or at any rate without a wife back at the country seat.

Swan of Padua

One friendship need not exclude another, and in 1736 (the year, incidentally, that Lady Hervey bore her eighth and last child) there ensued an additional romance when Hervey, like most of the London aristocracy, was awestruck by the arrival of 24 year old Francesco Algarotti. In tribute to the grace with which Algarotti glided through the courts of Europe, the ordinarily philosophical Voltaire had dubbed him "the Swan of Padua".

Portrait of Francesco AlgarottiIn somewhat more gossipy vein, Voltaire later called Algarotti "the Venetian Socrates", and once quipped of the Swan's relationship to the young male secretary of the French ambassador to Berlin: "When I see the tender Algarotti crush with passionate embrace the handsome Lugeac, his young friend, I imagine I see Socrates fastened onto the rump of Alcibiades".

Algarotti was a paragon of beauty, with the full lips of the Italian sensualist. His genius lay in his ability to charm the cognoscenti, and his immediate election to the Royal Society was one step higher on the ladder of his achievements. His verse resembled Ariosto's, his prose resembled Locke's, and he had translated Newton's Optics into a set of graceful dialogues. Hervey fell passionately in love with him. Unfortunately Hervey's very good friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu proved to be his rival for the affections of the Socratic Swan, for Algarotti was also bisexual. Thus began one of the silliest love-triangles in the eighteenth century.

After a brief summer in London, during which Hervey was repeatedly detained at Kensington with Queen Caroline, Algarotti returned to Venice to prepare his Newton for publication. Soon he received an avalanche of billets doux from both of his devoted English admirers. Lord Hervey wrote, "je vous aime de tout mon coeur"; Lady Mary wrote, "je vous aimerai toute ma vie". Hervey and Lady Mary boasted to one another how frequently they were receiving letters from Algarotti. In one pair of letters that must have been a source of great amusement to the young Italian, Hervey invited Algarotti to come to him in England while Lady Mary invited herself to go to him in Italy. Algarotti returned polite encouragements to both, but had his own affairs to attend to. At this precise moment he had taken up with a young man named Firmaçon in Milan, with whom he made a leisurely tour of southern France. Lord Hervey playfully scolded Algarotti for not writing more often; Lady Mary sent agonizing pleas for more missives. Lord Hervey wisely controlled his hurt; Lady Mary foolishly kept posting cris du coeur. Lord Hervey grew jealous; Lady Mary became distraught. Lord Hervey cynically acknowledged the ways of the world; Lady Mary wept like Dido upon losing Aeneas.

Algarotti finally returned to London in March 1739, staying briefly with the young lawyer Andrew Mitchell in his chambers in the Middle Temple; then moving into Hervey's apartment in St James's Palace; then moving on to Lord Burlington's villa at Chiswick; then, in May, accompanying Lord Baltimore on a voyage to St Petersburg, during which he wrote to Hervey: "Vouchsafe, my Lord, not to forget a poor traveller, who, sailing to the North-east, casts his eyes from time to time upon the rhumb of the compass that is to guide him back to you. . . . continue to love me, and sometimes think of me". Lady Mary resolved upon abandoning her friends, home, family, and dull husband Wortley for Algarotti's sake. In July she set off on a pilgrimage of love to Venice, hoping someday to be reunited with her wayward Swan.

While Lady Mary, like Hannibal, was crossing the Alps with elephant loads of baggage and an enormous snuff box, Algarotti was heading back towards England – but with an eight-day stopover at the court of Berlin. Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia was immediately infatuated with his guest, and Algarotti returned his affection, though he also wrote to Hervey that he hoped soon they would be able to sup together in London, "where you will certainly be the tastiest dish for me [le meilleur plat pour moi]". But hardly had Algarotti stepped foot upon English soil eight months later – and into the welcoming embrace of Lord Hervey – than he received word that Frederick's first royal act upon the death of his father was to recall Algarotti to the Court of Berlin. After the reunited lovers had spent a sufficient number of months walking in St James's Park and "dining" together, Lady Hervey kindly lent Algarotti the money for the return trip. In short order Algarotti was to replace the Crown Prince's former favourite Baron Keyserling.

It will not be out of place to digress briefly upon the loves of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), King of Prussia (1740-1786) and Prince of the Enlightenment. His friends as a youth included two young lieutenants, the Scottish Jacobite Keith and Hans von Katte, eight years older than Frederick and believed to be the "active" partner. Frederick's father had been suspicious about their relationship for some time, and had tried to interrupt this pattern by providing Frederick with a military tutor, Count von Keyserling. But Keyserling had the same tastes as his pupil, and was soon to become the sole favourite. Frederick had conspired with Keith and Katte to flee to England; the plot was revealed, and on 6 November 1730, Frederick's father had Katte executed in public, outside his son's window.

Frederick was temporarily a broken man, and henceforth obedient, though he retained other intimates such as his valet the young solder Fredersdort. He dutifully married, but seldom saw his wife. Eventually his father died, and, as we have just noted, Algarotti became his Chamberlain, while Voltaire became his writer-in-residence. The latter described Frederick as "a likeable whore". Frederick, for his part, told Voltaire: "We've got here a cardinal and several bishops, some of whom make love before and others behind – good fellows who persecute nobody". Frederick's younger brother was especially notorious for his homosexual liaisons. Mirabeau, special envoy at the Prussian court, claimed that "An old servant of Prince Henry, apt in serving his master's passion for pederasty, became his favourite at first and was then made canon of Magdenburg where the prince was bishop. . . . The aristocracy of the army knows that with Prince Henry the Ganymedes have always made and shall always make the decisions". Prince Henry was actually put forward as a candidate to head the constitutional monarchy of the United States, though eventually the plan was dropped.

The period 1740-41 was a time for titles: Algarotti became a Count in the Court of Berlin; Lord Hervey was appointed Keeper of the Privy Seal; and Stephen became Lord Ilchester, Baron of Woodford Strangways. Meanwhile, in the world where Don Quixote still quests after Dulcinea, Lady Mary had begun her trek across Europe: from Venice to Rome, then Genoa, then Naples, then Turin – where she "almost accidentally" met Algarotti at last, who was on a diplomatic mission from Frederick. Their meeting ended in disaster. Though they spent the greater part of two months together, there was a definite rift, with Lady Mary finally realising that her pursuit was futile. In May they went their separate ways, he back to Berlin and she in the opposite direction.

Bust of Lord Hervey Back in England there was another disastrous rift. Prime Minister Walpole was defeated in 1742, and Lord Hervey dismissed from office. In a bold yet petty gesture of defiance against the King, Hervey went into Opposition. He tried to persuade Stephen – now Lord Ilchester, and therefore a Peer – to join him, but Stephen wisely refused. Their consequent argument finally brought to an end their fifteen years of friendship. Hervey was a broken man, politically, emotionally, and physically. He retired in very ill health, and his last words to Lady Mary – in her bored retirement at Avignon – were hardly the sugar plums from a Thing of Silk: "The last stages of an infirm life are filthy roads, & like all other roads, I find the farther one goes from the capital the more tedious the miles grow. May all your ways be ways of pleasantness and all your paths peace. Adieu". Hervey died in 1743, at the age of 46; Alexander Pope, whose Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot with its vicious portrait of Sporus was now in its sixth edition, remarked, "requiescat in pace!"

Regrettably Lord Hervey's last act was to humiliate his wife by leaving her only the minimum required by the terms of the marriage contract, which necessitated the disposal of even her personal jewels. This provided gossip for Grub Street, despite there being no evidence that their marriage was ever anything less than amicable. A granddaughter of Lady Mary suggested that Lord and Lady Hervey "lived together . . . without any strong sympathies, and more like a French couple than an English one", yet nowhere can we find any reason for his apparent vindictiveness at the final hour. Perhaps there was a recent domestic quarrel, ordinarily of little consequence but now compounded by the bitterness of political disgrace and by the pains of his severe illness – the last flourish of rebellion from a sick man on his deathbed.

As for the other characters in this drama: Count Algarotti moved to the Court of Poland in 1742 but returned to Frederick in 1747, until ill health forced him to seek the warmer climate of Italy, where he remained until his death in 1764. Lady Mary retired to Brescia, and then to Venice from which she and Algarotti corresponded with restrained flattery and kind remembrances of Hervey; she returned to London in 1762, and died six months later. Lady Hervey lived on in modest but not severely restricted circumstances until her death in 1768. Stephen, who often visited her, had settled into a happy marriage, produced numerous offspring, became an Earl, and died in 1776.

Hervey's correspondence and his Memoirs, though seriously truncated by his heirs, remain the only enduring monuments of their circle. Lady Mary's reams of letters were similarly excised by her descendants, and very few of Algarotti's personal letters survive; his translations and travel essays are largely forgotten. But all of these lives and works have been eclipsed by Alexander Pope's abusive portrait of Sporus, the "Illustrious Nothing". In the year of Hervey's death, Pope revised his Dunciad, and portrayed Hervey, in a kind of begrudging epitaph, as "a Fool of Quality".

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "John, Lord Hervey: The Third Sex", Gay History and Literature. Updated 3 March 2012 <>.

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