The socialite, property developer and bigamist who got everyone talking in 18th century Europe ‹ Literary Hub

In April 1776, the world holds its breath.

The resolve of George Washington’s band of American revolutionaries was being tested as they prepared for battle to defend New York: would they yield to British rule or embark on independence and unleash the domination, for centuries to come, of what was to become the United States of America?

These watershed days were the last time George III, the British Hanoverian king, could have retained his American empire. Britain’s peace commissioner, Admiral Howe, still hoped that “words rather than bullets” could resolve the crisis when he arrived on Long Island.

Yet in London, the drama was – unbelievably – elsewhere. Among the House of Lords, the judiciary, the press and the literati, all eyes were on a woman in black, accused of bigamy.

The trial saw the Queen, two future kings, Queen Victoria’s father, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, James Boswell, Horace Walpole and most of the country’s bishops, peers and peers in Westminster Hall, either as a jury or as spectator. Half the cabinet was there, the Secretary of War a witness.

The accused woman was called Elizabeth Chudleigh, but when she was talked about in cafes, talked about in the penny papers, told by columnists and sketched in cartoonists, she was more often nicknamed the Duchess-Countess.

Now we see it more clearly: the distracted incompetence of a weary colonial power engaged in the displacement activity of persecuting a wandering, aristocratic woman. But the story of the Duchess-Countess sheds other, more human rays of light on this period of history where the seeds of much of our culture were sown: the struggle of a woman before a guard in a society in the process of being born in the throes of modernity; the rise of journalism, a nascent form of still-active social media, and its occasional willing collaborator, celebrity; the way Elizabeth used soft power and the art of public relations, before either went by those names.

Reconstructing its history is an imprecise undertaking. Even during his lifetime, fiction ate away at truth.

The Georgian patriarchy had law, land, money and the church on its side: alternative forms of influence had to be found for a woman who wanted to travel, build and mingle as if she were a man or a monarch. Duchess, countess, courtesan, socialite, hostess, sailor, property developer, celebrity, vodka distiller, press manipulator, patron, bigamist: Elizabeth Chudleigh was the great anti-heroine of the Georgian era. Her story reads like a dark fairy tale, Cinderella turned hideous, publicly evil with all the force of a Hogarthian twist, with too many princes and broken glass slippers in her wake.

The deputy. Elizabeth Chudleigh, Elizabeth Hervey, Duchess of Kingston, Countess of Bristol – at the time she was tried no one knew what to call her – began life in the public sphere as a bridesmaid to the Princess of Wales at the Georgian court, married a man in secret and denied it, to marry another. She was found guilty of bigamy and then pursued around the world by her second husband’s relations, the newspapers and the ill will of his enemies.

After her humiliation at court, rather than choosing to live out the rest of her days in hermetic retreat or atonement, she embarked on a floating odyssey from Rome to St. Petersburg, befriending popes, princes and tsarinas. She became one of the three most talked about women in Europe, alongside Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great. The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg still has the paintings and the giant but delicate musical chandelier she took there to persuade the court to embrace it, taking advantage of the vibrant Anglomania that gripped Imperial Russia at the time. .

Tracing the story of his childhood at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, passing through rural Devon, the court of London, the grandeur of the Dukeries and, later, France and Russia, one encounters the Hanoverian world in all its elegance and its acidity, but also the tale of a woman restrained against history. In her publicity-hungry, travel-hungry, outrageously under or over-dressed self, Elizabeth Chudleigh was an anarchic woman, out of step with her times.

Given her notoriety, it’s no surprise that many writers have been fascinated by her. The twists and turns of his progress, the whole cautionary tale, survived after his death. Decades later, Thackeray drew inspiration from Elizabeth for his fiction – for the calculating but irresistible Becky Sharp in vanity loungechilly beauty Beatrix Esmond in EsmondBaroness Bernstein, very married, in the suite The Virginiansand the bigamist Blanche Clavering in Pendennis.

by Dickens House words and Virginia Woolf’s essays both contain anecdotes from her life. Coleridge, mourning her own false naivety in a letter to Wordsworth, describes herself as resembling “the Duchess of Kingston, who disguised herself as the character of ‘Eve Before the Fall’ in flesh-colored silk.” She even inspired a prank novel—Me, Libertine—on American radio in the 1950s.*

The purpose of the biography is to understand rather than justify, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Elizabeth was put on trial again after her death.

The accounts of his life, his trial and even his will were published within days of his death. In a fusion of fact and fiction, she was damned by the popular press as a grotesque, sexually heartless, with a thirst for diamonds; objectified like that sexist cliché, the aging femme fatale. In death, as in life, the bile and condemnation continued.

The purpose of the biography is to understand rather than justify, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Elizabeth was judged again after her death by her surprisingly unsympathetic early biographers. She was obviously flawed and complex – by turns brave, reckless, insecure, loving, greedy, resilient, depressed – a woman utterly unwilling to accept female status as an underdog or cede all power, glory and the adventures of life. to men.

My intention is not to exculpate Elizabeth, but to retread her life’s journey, and re-examine her trajectory in the context of her time, and thus take her out of caricature and back into womanhood. Reevaluating a woman who has become this contemporary phenomenon: the maligned, hated and envied celebrity at a time when women were seen through the filter of a misogynistic culture, renowned for its virtue or lack thereof. To restore her as a woman with the burden of tragedy and great loss; with the pressure of secrets; who fell in love, but made a mistake; who showed physical endurance and personal courage in the courts of Europe. A woman who could be confident, generous, forgiving, even though she was a restless, impulsive, impetuous soul, and her top priority was her own survival at all costs.

From his birth in the turbulent early years of Hanover’s rise, in the aftermath of the South Seas Bubble, to his trial as America rebelled and his death in exile in Paris to the sound of fireworks, first stirrings of the French Revolution, his life gives a glimpse of his seismic age. She became one of the first Europeans; one of the first women to travel and settle in various corners of the world by necessity, but also by instinct and desire.

During this period, many of our habits – news, novels, gossip, fashion, coffee, consumption – have taken hold. The war overturned the world order: Russia became a superpower, the Jacobite threat was extinguished, and although America was lost, the battle for the British Empire was increasingly won. In romantic matters, there was one rule for men – including a succession of promiscuous kings and prime ministers – and another for women. As marriage has gone from being a matter of the head to being a matter of the heart, the change has brought a lot of confusion along the way.

Through a contemporary lens, many of the issues surrounding Elizabeth would be well understood: a struggle with mental health, for female empowerment, for civilized divorce laws, the cost of pursuing fame. Annual sales of British newspapers had risen from 2.5 million in 1713 to 12.6 million in 17755, the year before her trial, and as a fashionable woman connected with royalty, accused of a crime, she Couldn’t have been a better subject. But she herself toyed with publications like any mainstream celebrity today, paying numerous publicists, lawyers and publishers to defend her. His story was read in cafes and salons from St. Petersburg to Rome.

Elizabeth used her beauty, wit and connections to advance her own position. She tried to remove obstacles in the path of a woman: lack of income, lack of male relatives, the trap of an unwise marriage. For women of Elizabeth’s kind, born into nobility but not well off, the only respectable salvation, excluding a convent or becoming a governess – and Elizabeth was clearly unsuited to both – was marriage. The women were dollhouse figures, meant to lead small, decorative, confined lives, strolling in a carriage between town and country, the drawing room and the ballroom. Elizabeth Chudleigh shamelessly ignored the role and its constraints.

Reconstructing its history is an imprecise enterprise. Even during his lifetime, fiction ate away at truth. Thousands of words have been written about his trial, but it lacked clarity and fairness; cross-examination was somewhat haphazard, corruption palpable, and witness inconsistencies ignored. However, it exposes the plight of women then, that even someone as privileged and well-connected as Elizabeth was condemned to stay in her unhappy first marriage by law and an unforgiving society.

In the 18th-century oligarchy, lack of social mobility, reliance on inheritance, and the status that came with it trapped those hoping for inheritances in endless legal quests. Those who had no perspective found themselves desperately insecure. Especially the women, who could so easily (like some of Elizabeth’s associates) become destitute. Downward social mobility was easy – the Duchess-Countess was no stranger to the pawnshop. Women of all classes looked to men for support.

If the Kingston affair served to reveal anything, it was the trap into which women of the 18th century were placed. Elizabeth was the manifestation of women’s humiliating and claustrophobic disempowerment and lack of independence.

In this she was like America.

*It became a real novel, Me, Libertine, by imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing (in reality, Theodore Sturgeon), after broadcaster Jean Shepherd’s radio hoax on bestseller lists. His listeners took to bookstores and ordered the nonexistent title, rocketing it to bestseller lists. As a result, the book proper—a bodice-ripping thread on an 18th-century roué, based on Elizabeth’s life—was written.


Excerpt from The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized 18th Century London, by Catherine Ostler. Published by Atria Books. Copyright 2022, Catherine Ostler. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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