Bounty of a Stolen Empire is a witty fictionalised account of the life story of Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington – all but for forgotten today, but one of the UK’s bestselling authors back in the 19th Century.
As the novel, penned by Blessington expert Martin Cohen, amply attests, the Countess had a remarkable life marked by both triumph and tragedy, with more her hard-earned rise from humbleness to aristocracy having more than a touch of Cinderella to it.
Born plain-old Margaret Power in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1789, she was just a teenager when her ruthlessly ambitious yet inept father, a minor squire, sold her into marriage.
Her husband, the alcoholic, insane Captain Farmer, was anything but Prince Charming – something of a recurring theme throughout the Countess’s life – and they separated within a matter of months, though not before his violent attacks had resulted in the loss of an unborn child and left her sterile.
Yet her beauty and intelligence, combined with a relentless drive for self-betterment, ensured that Margaret would not stay down for long.
Another military figure, Captain Thomas Jenkins, falls in love with her and takes her to his stately pile in Hampshire, where she spends the next six years devouring the family library and educating herself under the guidance of his mother, emerging as arguably England’s best-read woman.
Though the relationship with a cash-strapped Jenkins ultimately turned sour, Margaret, now going by the more sophisticated and continental ‘Marguerite’, is able to enter the pinnacle of British society when she is again sold to another man – the eccentric Earl of Blessington.
They are able to marry after her presumed-missing husband Captain Farmer is found to have been murdered and they then take an extended grand tour of Europe, joined by the earl’s lover, dandy artist Comte D’Orsay.
Despite the odd arrangement, all goes well until a questionable encounter with the rakish Lord Byron leads to Marguerite losing the Earl’s favour.
Frozen out of his affection is one thing, but when he dies unexpectedly she also finds herself virtually frozen out of his wealth. Now back in the UK, living with the extravagant Comte D’Orsay, she has to turn to writing to keep herself financially afloat and maintained in the luxurious life to which she has become accustomed.
For the remainder of her life she is courted by the great and good of Britain, including former prime ministers, while trying to keep the wolves from the door.
Martin Cohen’s wonderfully entertaining and witty account of the Countess’s life is told by the lady herself, who has returned from the grave as fashionable and attractive as ever to reveal the shocking truth of her time on earth that modesty forbade back in the Regency era.
While doing so, she takes the opportunity to berate her past biographers, likewise reincarnated, for their mistakes and oversights, and this clever conceit results in many memorable razor-sharp ripostes and sarcastic salvos to savour.
Her indignation at the bungling biographers for letting the world forget about her, combined with the explosive mix of romance and wrong-doings, schemes and scandals, tends to put the reader firmly on her side.
It’s fair to say that after reading Bounty of a Stolen Empire, you certainly won’t fail to neglect the Countess again.
Bounty of a Stolen Empire by Martin Cohen is out now, priced £11.99 in paperback and £11.39 in Kindle edition. Visit Amazon UK.