New Hampshire’s last two colonial governors had scandalous marriages. Perhaps you know Longfellow’s poem about Martha Hilton Wentworth . She was 21 when she married 63-year old Benning Wentworth in 1760. Benning was the wealthy British governor of New Hampshire and she was his maid. The May-December marriage rocked Portsmouth. A century later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned the story into a best-selling ballad called "Lady Wentworth". It appeared in 1863 in his famous collection "Tales of Wayside Inn" with the equally romanticized ballad about Paul Revere’s famous ride.
But there’s a second "Lady Wentworth". This 232-line poem by Nora Perry is about Frances Deering Atkinson Wentworth. She married John Wentworth of Portsmouth who succeeded Benning in 1767. John was the antipodes of his uncle; he was young, handsome, accessible and wise. He was as well liked in New Hampshire as Benning was disliked, but John was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The American Revolution was kicking into high gear during his reign and he symbolized the tyrannical rule of old King George.
He also was involved in a juicy scandal. John was in love with his kissing cousin Frances. People back then married first cousins all the time, but here’s the twist. Young John went from Portsmouth to England and was gone for years. While he was out of the country Frances married the wealthy Thomas Atkinson, but Thomas grew sickly. He was at death’s door when John returned to Portsmouth and, legend says, rekindled his relationship with Frances.
In Perry’s epic poem, even as Thomas lay dying, the lovers met secretly. Then Thomas died. Just 10 days later, Frances married John Wentworth who became the most powerful man in the colony of New Hampshire. She swapped her mourning dress for a wedding dress and the gossip began.
But just a few years later in 1775, a Portsmouth mob drove the Wentworths out of town. The couple ended up in Halifax where their opulent home is still used by the British governor. Frances was involved in a further scandal there that forms the plot of the historical novel "The Governor’s Lady".
Following is the entire poem. It’s not a great poem, but it’s particularly fascinating in comparison with Longfellow’s ballad about the first Lady Wentworth. -- JDR
"She shall marry me yet," he smiling said —
Out of the sunshine into the shade —
They used to swear, in that old, old time,
Of Hampshire’s Portsmouth, there by the sea,
"She shall marry me yet." And down he strode
And a difficult part it was to play,
But as mother’s blood leaves stronger trace
At all events, as the months wore on
The passionate Wentworth love in her breast,
She stood by his side one autumn day
Seven years after John Wentworth came
From father to son, in Hampshire State.
Yet late as he came, a welcome burned
But amid this lavish neighborly cheer
A sock man’s bed — a good nurse, I should say,
A whisper of silk, and there she stood.
He thought that love and hate both lay
Flames the signal torch from his wakened heart?
But he curbed the Wentworth temper awhile,
His cousinly sympathy to convey.
Than he remembered her seven years since —
Women, we know, have a potent charm
Who had played so falsely these seven long years,
Across the seas in those old, old days?
In that old, sweet time; but the months went by,
Here in Portsmouth town, and the bride
Blows harshly to-night." A gesture here
No letter of yours from over the sea
But a maiden scorned? Day after day
My spirit rose like our swift shore tide —
Quick, passionate hate for the suitor fine,
"Sweetheart!" Back she started in swift afright
This lover belated, who missed his bride
Like a rising river, gains and gains,
And embraces his cousin as a kinsman may,
But long before the spring had come
Which ran through the town like a breath of flame,
Flung out of the casement, or at night
Or at evening, when the candle flares
Is missed at the casement, and that night
The missing candle, the kerchief fine.
A dead man lies in solemn state;
Of the widow’s prospects and one more bold
Bet ere a month had passed of the year,
Of brocaded satin, foreign and rare,
All the Wentworth kin in Hampshire State.
Then up she spoke, this wilfull dame —
To the world with my smiling face,
Cheated and tricked seven weary years,
Scared and shocked the Wentworth stared
Scared and shocked, but never a word
Reigned in the Wentworth mansion there,
The old, old story of signal and sign,
To the evil whispered against the dead,
But never upon my lady’s face,
Never a doubt from year to year,
First published in GALAXY: A amagazine of Entertaining Reading, Vol. XIX, January 1875 - June 1875. Special thanks to historian Richard Winslow for tipping us off to this poem. It was transcribed by Maryellen Burke.
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