Count Stenbock: A Brief Biography

by R.B. Russell 

W.B.Yeats called Stenbock: "Scholar, connoisseur, drunkard, poet, pervert, most charming of men." Arthur Symons saw him as "bizarre, fantastic, feverish, eccentric, extravagant, morbid and perverse". And a contemporary critic sarcastically supposed his work must be "an elaborate and screaming parody of . . . the youthful decadent, . . the affected preciousness, the sham mysticism and sham aestheticism, the ridiculous medley of Neo-Paganism and Neo-Catholicism . . ." Everyone seems to need a string of epithets to convey the extraordinary character of Count Eric Stenbock. 

In a short life - he died at 36 in 1895 - he so impressed himself upon his contemporaries that the legends they tell of him in memoirs and anecdotes far outstrip the attention given to his writings, the three slim volumes of verse and one book of sombre short stories. Though born near Cheltenham, he was the heir to vast estates in Estonia, owned by his family since the 18th century. He was educated abroad, but went to Oxford for four terms from 1879. His first two poetry collections, Love, Sleep and Dreams (1881?) and Myrtle, Rue and Cypress, (1883), are now impossibly rare. Many of the verses concern his doomed adoration for a Berkshire youth, Charles Bertram Fowler, who died of consumption at the age of 16.

Stenbock's father died when his son and heir was still young, and his mother and new step-father had three sons and three daughters. Shy and good-humoured, Frank Mowatt should have been a good stepfather. But Eric hated him. In 1874 the family moved to Withdeane Hall, near Brighton. It is said that Eric spent part of his childhood in Russia. This foreign education - the wish of his father's family - probably made it difficult for him to feel at home at Withdeane Hall.

In 1885 Stenbock inherited his ancestral domain and seems to have spent most of the next two years there, a period splendidly evoked by Mary Smith, wife of an old college friend when the couple visited him one Christmas: "Count Stenbock has his own rooms furnished in the most aesthetic style, with a lamp burning before a Buddha & an Eros and his other gods disposed in various places. When he was at Oxford, he said, he & one of his friends (who is now insane) used to try a fresh religion every week. . . He has also a number of pet snakes & lizards & toads & salamanders in his room, and - worse still - a collection of Simeon Solomon's morbid & pessimistic pictures of the Rossetti school. In the garden . . . he has a 'zoo' containing three reindeer, a bear and a fox. . . "

The Count's decadent tastes were also clear from his love of exotic and vivid costume, the burning of incense and the taking of opium. But he also took delight in playing games and masquerades with the children of the house - his cousins whom he formed into an exuberant Idiots Club.

He returned to England in, 1887 and soon became acquainted with many of the key figures of the day - Beardsley, Yeats, Symons and Lionel Johnson, who thought his poetry bad, but remembered him with affection.

From 1890 Stenbock's health, always delicate, deteriorated badly, aggravated by his alcoholism - Johnson complained of the "devilish" mixture of drinks the Count urged on him. Stenbock became both physically enfeebled, and fatalistically obsessed with death.

His last collection of poems, ominously entitled The Shadow of Death (1893), contains many hauntingly bittersweet evocations of the poet's past life and his anticipation of its end. Studies of Death: Romantic Tales appeared in 1894, ornamented with a striking frontispiece by its author. The seven stories reveal an original imagination and a spry, urbane style quite removed from the melancholy murmurings of the Count's verse.

 Towards the last the Count was mentally as well as physically ill. At Withdeane Hall he terrified the domestic staff with his persecution complex and his delirium tremens so scared the young Mowatts that they had to be moved to more distant rooms. On his travels he had been escorted, and with him went a dog, a monkey and a life-size doll. He was convinced that the doll was his son and referred to it as 'le Petit comte'. Every day it had to be brought to him, and when it was not there he would ask for news of its health. The Stenbocks believed that a dishonest monk - or perhaps a Jesuit - had extorted large sums of money from him under the pretence of paying for the education of 'le Petit Comte'.

In the Spring of 1895 London was acting out the tragedy of Wilde. On April 26th, Wilde faced the first day of his first trial, Eric died in mother's home, Withdeane Hall. Against such a background (for the Wilde trial had reverberations at all levels of English society) his death was likely to go unremarked. Ross and Adey were of course busy supporting Oscar. From a printed programme that has survived it was very much as if the young Mowatts and their friends were rehearsing a rip-roaring farce in the drawing-room while Eric was agonising on his death-bed. Since their mother was already fatally ill (nursed by her daughter Margaret, she refused to see the rest of the family) they were perhaps only trying to keep up their spirits. He was buried at the Brighton Catholic Cemetery on May 1st (the day Wilde's jury disagreed and was discharged) "in the presence" (said the Brighton Examiner) "of a large number of relatives and friends". Before burial the heart was extracted and sent to Estonia, where it was placed among the Stenbock monuments in the church at Kusal. It was preserved in some fluid in a glass urn in a cupboard built into the wall of the church. At the time of his death, his uncle and heir, far away in Esbia, saw an apparition of his tear-stained face at his study window.

On the day of his death Eric, drunk and furious, had tried to strike someone with a poker and toppled into the grate. Lucy Mowatt did not long survive her son. She died at Withdeane Hall on the 14th October, 1896.

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