“As well-bred as if not married at all”
~ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on the Hervey marriage
Sweet, pretty Mary Lepell was one of Princess Caroline’s “Virgin Band,” as her Maids of Honour were known. The royal chaplain had complained to the princess that her maids were causing distractions during his sermons. When attempts to discipline them failed high panels were erected around their pew to prevent them making eyes at the gentlemen of the court.
Bishop Burnet perceived that the beautiful dames
Who flocked to the chapel of hilly St James’
On their lovers alone did their kind looks bestow;
And smiled not on him while he bellowed below.
~ Lord Peterborough
Lady Mary Lepell (known as Molly) won acclaim at court for her beauty and amiable character. She was unusually well educated for a woman of her day, and developed intellectual interests which she shared with correspondents and friends.
Lady Molly was one of the most popular of the Virgin Band and was celebrated in verse by great men of the day such as John Gay, Alexander Pope and Voltaire. In 1720, Gay wrote of the couple, “Now Hervey, fair of Face, I mark full well, / With thee, Youth’s youngest Daughter, sweet Lepell!”
However, unbeknownst to John Gay, the couple had actually been married in secret for six months. Despite the later scandals of homosexual behaviour by Lord Hervey, it can be assumed because the match was secret, and both parties were relatively impoverished, that it was a love match. The proof that Lord Hervey was not simply a homosexual followed shortly afterwards as Lady Molly bore him four children in swift succession.
However Hervey appears to have bored of his wife and sought amusements in London and Bath, and it was there, in 1727, that he met the man who was to shape the larger part of his life, Stephen Fox, universally known as Ste. Lady Molly knew both Stephen and his brother Henry but her opinion of Stephen was not high. He was a country mouse rather than a town one and as she wrote to Henry Fox, “Ste is such a country gentleman that unless one could be metamorphosed into a bird or hare he will have nothing to say to one.”
She was, literally, abandoned–ordered by Hervey to remain in Ickworth, Suffolk, whilst he and Ste socialised from London to Bath, but this did not seem to dampen her love for her husband as her outpourings of letters seemed to prove. However, she could not help but sound a little bitter, adding in one, “yet I think I should in his case rather have desired, than forbid, one I loved to be with me.”
Even when Hervey went abroad with his amarato, she played the dutiful wife and wrote to Ste, rather than to Hervey himself asking for news of his ill-health. If she resented Ste’s affections with her husband she was sensible enough not to speak openly of it. This loyalty paid off, as upon Hervey’s return to England they were temporarily reunited, and nine months later, her fifth child was born.
This was the pattern of her life, and some have said, that her willingness to be so estranged from Hervey bored him more. Hervey’s relationship with Fox continued until 1742, after which Hervey retired to Ickworth and to his wife, to die.
After her husband’s death in 1743, Molly moved to a beautiful little house off St. James’ Park where she entertained some of the great names of day, such as Chesterfield, Horace Walpole and Thomas Carlyle.
She remained good friends with Stephen Fox until she died in 1768.