How did a 19th-century débutante end up in the Syrian desert?

While watching the recent BBC drama series ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, adapted from the novel by Jules Verne, I became interested in a character who saves the lives of Phileas Fogg and his two companions when they attempt to cross the Empty Quarter of Arabia.  

The character is named as Jane Digby.   When she first appears, she is described by Fogg’s companion, Abigail Fix, as “the most immoral and despised Englishwoman in the world.”  We learn that Jane was an aristocrat who’d had a series of scandalous affairs, and had then married an Arab camel-driver and gone to live in the desert.

I wanted to find out if Jane Digby - who is also addressed by her former title, Lady Ellenborough - was a real person.  And indeed, she was.  Everything that Miss Fix said was true, except that her husband, Medjuel el-Mezrab, was not a camel driver but a bedouin sheikh.


Holkham Hall, Norfolk 

Jane Elizabeth Digby was born at Forston House in Dorset on 3rd April 1807.  She was the first child and only daughter of Jane, Lady Andover, and Admiral Henry Digby, a hero of Trafalgar.  Her maternal grandfather was Thomas Coke, an influential landowner whose seat was Holkham Hall in Norfolk, and Jane spent much of her childhood in the nursery there, with her cousins and two younger brothers. 

Unusually for the time, Jane was educated to the same standard as her male counterparts.  Naturally gifted with languages, she was also a superb horsewoman and enjoyed the thrill of riding out on her own around her grandfather’s estate.  She was a true daredevil, and one of her ambitions, which she eventually achieved, was to be able to shoot a pheasant from the saddle at full gallop.

But Jane’s fortune, as she learned from an early age, lay not in her talents or her personality but in her beautiful face.  Aged 16, she was presented at the court of King George IV and immediately became the most celebrated débutante in London.  Within months she had accepted an offer of marriage from Edward Law, 1st Earl of Ellenborough, a distinguished Tory politician. 

Her family were delighted, and Jane believed herself to be in love.  But her happiness was transient:  on finding that Ellenborough had a mistress she refused to accept the fate of her contemporaries, who turned a blind eye to their husbands’ indiscretions.  Instead, she embarked on a series of doomed relationships that blackened her name and plunged her family into long-lasting scandal and controversy.


Jane, Lady Ellenborough by William Charles Ross, c.1824


Had Jane been more discreet, perhaps things might have been different.  But by her early twenties it was obvious that she was impulsive, reckless, and passionately romantic.  “Being loved,” she wrote, “is to me as the air that I breathe.”  She cared little what other people thought, and the warnings of her parents fell on deaf ears.  Divorce, at that time, was rare and usually disastrous for the reputation of both parties.  Lord Ellenborough, however, sued for divorce, and Jane did not contest it because she wanted to be free.  But freedom came at a huge cost.  The Times took the unprecedented step of devoting its front page to the divorce proceedings, and the details of Jane’s misdemeanours were the talk of every breakfast parlour in polite society.  She was the most notorious woman in England, and in December 1830 she had little option but to leave the country and seek a new life elsewhere.

In continental Europe Jane could have chosen to keep a low profile, but she did the exact opposite.   As she blazed a dazzling trail through the courts of kings, her lovers included Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg and King Ludwig I of Bavaria.  She married and then divorced, in fairly quick succession, Baron Karl von Venningen of Bavaria, and a Greek count named Spiridon Theotoky. 


Jane Digby by Joseph Karl Stieler, commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, c.1831


In 1853, aged 46, Jane had just emerged from a tempestuous relationship with a Greek war hero, Xristos Hadji-Petros.  She had borne six children, three of whom had died young, and three of whom were being raised by their paternal families.  She concluded that it was time to give up seeking fulfilment in relationships.  Instead, she remembered an old wish, which was to visit the ancient cities of the Holy Land.

Boarding a ship for Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv), she hired a dragoman to take her into the Jordan Valley.  Here they encountered a group of bedouin Arabs who invited Jane to their camp for dinner.  Towards sunset, a warrior treated her to a display of mock combat:  on horseback, screaming a battle cry and wielding a twelve-foot lance, he galloped at Jane as if intending to attack, but reined in at the last moment and halted just a few feet away.  Jane was captivated.  Not only did she admire the bedouins’ horsemanship, but something about their lifestyle and their code of honour appealed to her restless soul.

Before reaching Damascus, Jane hired a new bedouin escort called Sheikh Medjuel el-Mezrab.  A young man in his late twenties, he was the brother of the head of the Mezrab tribe, who in turn were a sub-tribe of the Anazeh.  The Mezrab had the hereditary right to conduct travellers to and from Palmyra, an ancient desert city some 150 miles from Damascus, which Jane longed to visit.  The bedouins earned a fee from their guests because they alone knew the position of all the wells along the route;  in addition, they provided camels, set up camps, and would repel attacks from desert marauders. 

The threat from raiders was very real.  Feuding tribes would often ambush each other, steal camels and kidnap or murder foreign travellers.  When the British Consul in Damascus learned of Jane’s intention to visit Palmyra he issued a stern warning, which she chose to ignore.  Instead, she strolled around the souk, shopping for Arab clothes to wear on her travels. 

When she set out on what she called the “greatest adventure, probably, of all my journeys,” Jane was wearing a cloak or abba over a simple cotton shift, and soft yellow kid boots on her feet.  On her head, a white keffiyeh was held in place by a band of coloured silks.  Medjuel, she noticed, was armed with knives, pistols and a sword, and carried a hooded hawk on his wrist.  With difficulty, she mounted a loudly protesting camel and her caravan set off across the desert.




Why was Jane so determined to see Palmyra?  Once an important city on the Silk Road, part of its allure may have been its connection with Zenobia, a Queen of the Palmyrene Empire who drove the Romans out of Syria in the third century AD.  Zenobia built her palace in Palmyra (then called Tadmor), but was eventually captured and taken to Rome in golden chains.  In 1813, Lady Hester Stanhope had become the first western woman to visit the ruins of Palmyra, and Jane Digby appears to have been the second.

On her first night in the desert, Jane slept on a pile of rugs in a khan or a walled enclosure.  After that, the bedouins pitched their black tents in the open desert and lit camp fires, singing wild, sad songs as the bright stars wheeled above.  Jane was astonished by the variety of the desert - patches of herbs, aromatic bushes and scarlet poppies punctuated the long stretches of sand, and she saw gazelles, gerboas and hares.  Medjuel showed her how to use the keffiyeh to protect her face and nostrils from the burning heat, and how to lie down and sleep comfortably on the camel’s back.  In time, she learned that she could also read and even write her journal while balanced on a moving camel.

Medjuel kept constant watch for marauders, posting scouts night and day around their caravan.  One night an alarm went up, and within seconds riders were pouring into the encampment, brandishing lances and uttering war-cries.  Medjuel sprang in front of Jane’s tent with a pistol in one hand and a sabre in the other, shouting orders to his men.  After some hand-to-hand fighting, the raiders were driven off.   Jane found it tremendously exciting, but she knew that she owed her life to these fearless men, for whom such attacks were a way of life.


Bedouin warrior, early 1900s

The caravan passed through the Valley of the Tombs with its strange towers dating back some two thousand years;  and soon they glimpsed Palmyra’s magnificent ruined temples and arches, gleaming like ivory in the sun.  Jane was led to a garden where she bathed in a warm stream, and then, as dusk fell and the moon rose, she wandered through the crumbling Great Arch and down the old main street, where the ruts of chariot wheels could still be seen.  Jane loved it so much that she made a vow to return.  She couldn’t have foreseen that when she did so, it would be as Medjuel’s wife.

Having decided that Syria was where her heart lay, Jane bought a plot of land in Damascus and set about building a palatial villa that would be her semi-permanent residence.  She devoted much time and energy to establishing a beautiful garden, combining “all that was best of a cool eastern courtyard and an English country garden.”  She bought roses locally, engaged a gardener, and rode out on plant-hunting expeditions. 


Damascus by Max Schmidt, 1844

Jane had other things to consider, too.  Shortly after her visit to Palmyra, Medjuel asked her to marry him.  His proposal took her off guard, and she needed time to consider.  He had never spoken to her about love, and she was unsure about her feelings for him.  Partly to see whether she could live as a bedouin, she joined another caravan that was setting out on a four-month trek to Baghdad in order to buy camels. 

It was winter, and the journey was cold, wet and miserable.  Jane had to sleep fully dressed, shaking the sand out of her hair in the morning.  Inevitably, raiders rode into the camp one night, but this time they could not be fought off, and Jane was taken hostage.  As the bedouin leader, Barak, negotiated her ransom, she listened, fascinated, from the other side of the tent.  By now, she understood many phrases in Arabic and could communicate in Turkish.  When the ransom was paid and she was set free, she wrote that her captors had looked demonic:  “I shall never forget the expressions on their faces…”   But she found the whole episode exhilarating rather than terrifying, and she was not at all dissuaded from becoming a bedouin wife.  When the caravan returned to Damascus, she saw Medjuel riding out to greet her.  Shortly afterwards, she accepted his offer.

The obstacles to Jane’s marriage with Medjuel were formidable.  He had to obtain permission from his brother to marry a woman of a different race and faith;  and Jane was warned that any British protection she had previously enjoyed would be invalid if she married a bedouin sheikh.  But Jane was popular with the bedouin, not least for her horsemanship and for her willingness to learn about their culture.  There was also the issue that Medjuel already had one wife, but out of respect for Jane’s wishes he obtained a divorce and became monogamous.  For Jane, it was the final proof that she had found someone who would sacrifice everything to be with her. 

They were married on 27th March 1855.  Two weeks later, they left for a honeymoon in Palmyra.  Jane wrote:  “Today… my dream has begun its accomplishment.  I leave Damascus for the loved desert with my adored, and adoring, Medjuel.” 


Palmyra in the 19th century

Jane and Medjuel divided their time between the desert and Jane’s house in Damascus.   As European interest in archaeological sites began to grow, Medjuel found himself increasingly in demand as a desert guide.  Jane usually accompanied him, but on one occasion she was alone in Damascus when a party of three British travellers called, and explained that they wished to visit Palmyra.  Medjuel was already en route there with other guests.  Seeing their disappointment, Jane responded instinctively:  she would take them herself.  She knew the way, she was a good horserider, and there were several members of the Mezrab tribe whom she could call on to accompany them. 

Dressed as a man in sheikh’s robes and wielding a lance as she sat astride her Arab mare, Jane led the exploring party out of Damascus.  The visitors were enchanted.  Keenly aware of her responsibilities, Jane circled around the caravan constantly as she had seen Medjuel do, keeping watch for potential trouble.  They travelled quickly, mostly overnight, and reached Palmyra without mishap on the fifth day.  Proud and delighted, Medjuel rode out to meet them.  Jane had proved herself to be a bedouin woman in more than just name.  She had taken a big risk, but she felt that her transformation was now complete.


Bedouin Family in the Syrian Desert by Carl Haag, 1859

In 1871, Jane was visited in Damascus by Lord Stafford and Barty Mitford (later Lord Redesdale).  Now aged 64, she was still an object of curiosity among members of the British aristocracy who had never quite forgotten the scandal she had generated in her youth.  Mitford had been expecting to see a “grand and commanding figure like the Lady Hester Stanhope… an imposing personage,” but instead he discovered that Jane had “the most beautiful and gracious old-world manners.”  

Mitford continued: “She told us how, the summer before, a hostile tribe had raided them and stolen some of their mares, and how this next summer they must ride out to avenge the outrage and get back the lost treasures.  There would be fierce fighting, she said, and she must be there to nurse the chief should anything happen to him.  ‘In fact,’ she added, ‘we have one foot in the stirrup, for we must start for the desert tomorrow morning…’”


Camels in Palmyra

Weaving fact into fiction, the BBC drama ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ is set a year later, in 1872.   In Episode 3, Phileas Fogg and his companions, Abigail Fix and Passepartout, meet Jane and Medjuel in Al-Hudaydah on the coast of Yemen.  Initially, Abigail is openly contemptuous of Jane, but when Fogg and Passepartout are lost in the desert she goes to her and begs for help.  Jane and Medjuel ride out to rescue them, and they end up escorting Fogg, Abigail and Passepartout across the Empty Quarter to Aden. 

Despite the geographical creativity, the relationship between Jane and Medjuel is beautifully portrayed.  With fierce pride, Medjuel admits to Fogg that his wife was once branded a disgrace to her country and to her sex, and ridiculed because she had run off with a camel driver.  But, he says, “my name is Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, from the great tribe of Anazeh.  I have never driven camels… and why would it matter if I had?  Whatever you think of me, I will be with that woman until the day that death parts us.”


Jane Digby el-Mezrab died in August 1881, and was buried in Damascus.  Her gravestone incorporated a block of pink limestone which Medjuel brought specially from Palmyra.   He never married again.


Quotes and reference:

‘Around the World in 80 Days’, BBC

Mary S Lovell, ‘A Scandalous Life - the Biography of Jane Digby’ (1995)