Harriet Lane's family was from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest child of Elliott Tole Lane, a merchant, and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. An orphan after the death of her father when she was 11 years old (her mother had died two years earlier), she requested that her favorite uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian. Buchanan, an unmarried Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, indulged his niece and her sister, enrolling them in boarding schools in Charles Town, Virginia (later for two years at the Academy of the Visitation Convent in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. By this time, Buchanan was Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had promised.
In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James's. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty. In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light, almost golden-colored hair.
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