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Stealing the Limelight by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 3 mars 2021

1875 was a very odd year.

For example, the Midland Railway decided to abolish Second Class carriages on its trains, so you only had First or Third to choose from, removing the ‘middle class’. A group of second-year university students from Rutgers University stole a cannon from New Jersey College, now Princeton, just down the road, and started the peculiar Rutgers-Princeton Cannon War. To get his country out of debt, Isma’il Pasha, known as Ismail the Magnificent, sold Egypt’s share of the Suez Canal, to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who forgot to mention it to the British Parliament.

And, Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, was born, and so began one of the strangest stories the British Aristocracy has to offer.

And they have many.

Let’s begin with a bit of historic context.

Paget, who titled himself both Lord Paget, and later the Earl of Uxbridge, was the eldest son of the 4th Marquess, also called Henry, by the Marquess’ second wife, Blanche Mary Boyd. His first wife was Elizabeth Norman, and his third an American heiress, Mary ‘Minna’ Livingston King, who was the widow of John Wodehouse, 2nd Baron Wodehouse, who titled himself as The Honourable John Wodehouse.

Kind of.

Because it seems that Henry Cyril Paget may actually have been the illegitimate son of the French actor, Benoît-Constant Coquelin, whose sister-in-law, it is alleged, raised Paget when his mother died, and who styled himself as Coquelin aîné, or Coquelin the Elder. Coquelin, born in Boulogne-sur-Mer, which is a sub-prefecture of the department of Pas-de-Calais, was supposed to be a baker like his father but failed to rise to the occasion. He chose acting instead, attending classes led by Henri-François-Joseph de Régnier, the poet and novelist, and ‘symbolist’, that artistic discipline that seeks to ‘represent absolute truths symbolically through metaphorical images and language’.

Coquelin’s acting career was astonishingly successful, and he was considered one of the original greats of the Comédie-Française, the premier French touring company of the nineteenth century.

He was a consummate performer as Figaro in The Barber of Seville, as well as taking leading roles in Theodore de Banville’s Gringoire, Paul Ferrier’s Tabarin. Emile Augier’s Paul Forestier, Charles London’s Jean Dacier, and many more.

And, he famously played Labussière, in a production of Victorien Sardou’s Thermidor, which was duly banned by the government, probably because of its link to the Revolution, the violent demise of Maximilien Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, and the end of the Reign of Terror, or because it was Republican a calendar month, with thirty days divided into three ten-day weeks called décades, with every day being named for a plant, except the fifth and tenth, which were named for an animal and a tool, and who wants that in their head before bedtime.

Glad that’s all clear, But, back to Henry Cyril.

Paget went to Eton College, studied in a rather mediocre aristocratic fashion, and joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who were formed in 1689, just after the Glorious Revolution, which deposed King James and replaced him with his loving and attentive daughter Mary, and her Dutch husband William of Orange, so named because of his love of citrus fruit.

At the age of twenty-three, and now peculiarly nicknamed ‘Toppy’, Paget, in true blueblood style, married his cousin, Lilian Florence Maud Chetwynd, and promptly inherited his title and estates when his father died later that year. The inheritance included one-hundred-and-twenty square kilometers of land, and an annual income of about sixteen-and-half million dollars, in 2020 equivalent.

I'll say that again, just in case you missed it. An annual income of about sixteen-and-half million dollars.

Ok, onward we go.

Lord Paget was now extremely wealthy, and determined to put his vast gains to use right away. He began, as you might not have expected, by renaming his family’s country seat, Plas Newydd, which sits sedately on the northern side of the Menai Strait, in a place called Llanddaniel-fab, near Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, as Anglesey Castle, because that was just a lot easier for getting a taxi home.

Next, Paget invested considerable amounts in clothing.

Costumes for performance, specifically, and jewelry and furs, particularly. Endless wardrobes were filled with spectacular outfits, flowing robes of silk, fabulous diamonded wings of gauze, velvet cloaks, headdresses that fanned out like peacock feathers.

And, in these he dazzled during his frequent extravagant parties and thronging soirees, as guests mingled and drank, and enjoyed the opulence of Paget’s balls, before being thoroughly entertained with his performances of song and dance, in which he always took center stage, as any respectable narcissist would.

As the parties grew in size and demanded more elaborate performances, so Paget accepted the challenge, and determined to give his followers what they wanted by converting the estate’s religious chapel into the Gaiety Theatre, with its ornate stage and over one-hundred-and-fifty seats, for his audience to sit in comfort as he played his roles with breathtaking aplomb.

He and his small troupe performed pantomime, perhaps some of the last Harlequinades, where the harlequin and the clown played the lead roles, or later adaptations, where songs and dancing, jokes and comedy, and audience participation, featured. Always present though, as it had been for centuries and continues to be to this day, was an element of gender-crossing and the mixing of roles between men and women, which Paget fully embraced.

Though other performances were taken from more serious works, like Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde's 1895 stage play An Ideal Husband, with its themes of intrigue and honor codes, or William Shakespeare’s Henry V, with it’s heroism, barbarism, and eventual marriage of two opposing cultures, most of the shows Paget put on were collections of sketches taken and adapted to highlight his dancing prowess, or static scenes, made by posing actors in costume, with scenery and lighting to create the moment.

A few years later, Paget made two life-changing decisions, and his wife made one big one.

First, he decided to renovate the theatre with new electric lighting at enormous cost, and re-opened it as a public entertainment space. And second, he took his theatre company on tour around Europe, for three years.

By this time, his spending was considerable, and his outrageous, flamboyant and self-indulgent lifestyle were well-known by all who came anywhere near Anglesey Castle, or the Gaiety.

It had also come to the attention of Lilian Florence Maud Chetwynd Paget that Henry the fifth might not be the ideal husband at all. And so, she divorced ‘the dancing marquess’, a moniker he’d earnt for his Butterfly Dancing, a dance style he’d based on Marie Louise Fuller’s performances, that featured contemporary movement, chemically-produced color- and luminescent-rich costumes, and atmospheric lighting, as well as voluptuous transparent robes and flapping wings.

Paget rejoiced in his new freedom, and mortgaged some of his estate to pay for his lavish lifestyle.

In 1901, while attending the premiere of Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle’s stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, his French valet, Julian Gault, stole sixty-thousand dollars worth of jewelry from him, and, being somewhat confused over the incident, asked the author, Conan Doyle, to investigate the crime. One can imagine Conan Doyle being about to explain that he had written a fiction rather than an autobiography, and then thinking better of explaining this to a man in a gossamer gown and angel wings, and just said sure.

By all accounts, no-one ever found Paget’s jewels.

This loss, on reflection, was a harbinger.

Within a few years, Paget had managed to spend much of his inheritance on his passion for the stage, and he was bankrupted by the eighty-million dollar debt, in today's money, that he’d managed to accumulate in a mere seven years. To offset this obscene deficit, everything he owned had to be sold. His jewelry alone made thirteen-and-a-half million dollars, in 2020 value, at auction.

In 1905, Paget, while in Monte Carlo lamenting his lost fortune, died. He was just thirty years old.

While the people of Anglesey mourned the loss of the Marquess, many were not so kind to the vivacious, extravagant, and theatrical aristocrat, with one commentator writing that Paget "seems only to have existed for the purpose of giving a melancholy and unneeded illustration of the truth that a man with the finest prospects, may, by the wildest folly and extravagance .. ‘play away an uniterable life, and have lived in vain.'"

Others were less complimentary.

Many, for reasons of no real consequence, determined that Paget must have been gay. Writing sixty-five years after his death, one commented that he was "the most notorious aristocratic homosexual at this period," and others that “bearing the form of a man, he yet had all the tastes, something even of the appearance, of not only a woman, but .. a very effeminate woman," while some said they had no doubt that Paget “must be included in the history of gender identity.”

Whatever his gender or sexual preference, as if it matters, he was certainly a splendid Victorian, and we shall never know the truth of it anyway. Because, upon his death his title passed to his cousin, Charles Henry Alexander Paget, who promptly destroyed all evidence of his predecessor, and converted the Gaiety back to the chapel it began life as. Charles’ excuse was that he wanted to remove anything to do with Paget’s debt from Paget history, but I suspect the shame that Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey brought to the family, with his outrageous behavior and outlandish lifestyle, got the better of his successor, and he just couldn't cope with the memory of it all.

But we won't tear down Lord Paget, or erase his theater, or extirpate his memory, and he can remain in the limelight for just a little bit longer.

photo by cottonbro

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