The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London by Catherine Ostler

The proverb “marry in haste, repent at leisure” might as well have been invented for Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Late one night in a Hampshire mausoleum in August 1744, when she was 23 and a sparklingly charismatic maid of honor to the Princess of Wales, she married a hot-blooded young blade she’d fallen in love with at the Winchester Races. There was no marriage certificate and the five witnesses were sworn to secrecy, enabling her to carry on in her role of maid of honor, which she would have had to renounce on marriage. Her leisurely repenting of that clandestine nocturnal ceremony would last until her lonely death in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution.

The young man was Augustus Hervey, later the Earl of Bristol. They spent three nights together — or so it was said — and hardly saw each other again because Hervey, “the English Casanova”, had neither the intention nor the money to support her. Elizabeth gave birth on her own, to a baby boy who died aged four months.

Thirty-two years later in a packed Westminster Hall, watched by salivating peers and ogling ladies with enormous hair who had managed to get five-day season tickets for the trial of the century, Elizabeth would be found guilty of bigamy. In 1769 she had married the Duke of Kingston, who died in 1773. The charge against her was brought by the duke’s nephew Evelyn Meadows, who wanted to get his hands on her inheritance.

Although she was not branded with iron, the usual punishment for bigamists, her reputation was in shreds. The American War of Independence was getting going but everyone seemed far more interested in this spectacular domestic scandal and downfall.

Elizabeth Chudleigh’s repenting of her clandestine marital ceremony would last until her lonely death in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution.

When she married her beloved duke, “the handsomest man in England”, who sounds sweet and devoted to her as well as vastly rich, Elizabeth was certain that she was not married to Hervey. She had applied for a “jactitation” (nullification) of that so-called marriage and to her intense relief the ecclesiastical court, unable to find proof that the wedding had taken place, had found in her favor: she was declared free from any matrimonial contract and thus able to marry her duke.

But in 1776 at the trial in Westminster Hall one crabbed old servant, Ann Craddock, the sole living witness of the five who had been present on that August night, turned up like a gnarled old bad fairy to croak out her damning evidence that the wedding had taken place.

Elizabeth had a fit and was carried out screaming. She was quite histrionic but you can understand why.

Georgian England, Revisited

This is a scintillating story superbly told by Catherine Ostler, a journalist and former editor of Tatler. She has a remarkable ability to demonstrate her deep knowledge of the period without being boring or a show-off. She packs every paragraph with eye-opening detail, making you feel as though you’re living in the 18th century, but never veers from the central story of a woman trying to hold herself together in that vicious society while the men did as they pleased.

For example, shortly after that first “wedding” Hervey went about seducing half of Europe, including Italian opera singers and nuns, and at least 30 “ladies of pleasure” in a single night with his friends while on naval duty at Leghorn. The attorney general Edward Thurlow thundered against Elizabeth for “corrupting the purity of domestic life” while he had three illegitimate daughters by the barmaid at Nando’s Coffee House.

What on earth induced Elizabeth to that initial rash act? Ostler suggests that she suffered from borderline personality disorder, one of its symptoms being fear of abandonment. Her father had died when she was five, her only brother when he was 22. It was thanks to a kind MP, William Pulteney, who was grieving for his own young daughter and took the teenaged Elizabeth under his wing, that she was rescued from poverty and obscurity, becoming a maid of honor to Princess Augusta on his recommendation.

The central story is of a woman trying to hold herself together in a vicious society while the men did as they pleased.

Elizabeth would continue to act rashly all her life. For example, much later she bought three vast tracts of land in what is now Estonia and built a house for herself there called Chudleigh with its own vodka distillery. She would in fact name three of her extravagant house purchases Chudleigh: another in Knightsbridge and one in Paris, the latter a proper money-sapping building-site nightmare.

There was “little of the goddess and plenty of the woman” about Elizabeth, as one historian wrote, and Ostler gives us the woman in her full glory.

I kept seeing modern parallels. One moment she was a Liz Hurley figure, wearing an attention-seeking dress so gauzy that it made her look naked and caused George II to fall in love with her at a masquerade in the Haymarket; at another she was a sort of Tiggy Legge-Bourke, helping to run the super-fun-but-focused nursery of the widowed Princess Augusta’s children, organizing birthday parties for the children with pyramids of strawberries, and dancing lessons with Handel playing (real Handel, the man).

Then she was a sort of Gwyneth Paltrow figure, celebrity endorser of a brand — in her case a lotion called Gowland made for her by the royal apothecary John Gowland to clear her blotchy face. “Gowland” would become England’s favored cosmetic, recommended by Anne Elliot’s vain father in Persuasion.

One moment she was a Liz Hurley figure, wearing an attention-seeking dress so gauzy that it caused George II to fall in love with her. Then she was a sort of Gwyneth Paltrow figure, a celebrity endorser of a brand.

Most impressively full-woman of all, Elizabeth was not cowed into oblivion after that national humiliation in front of the ill-wishing crowds in Westminster Hall. Her own country had ganged up against her in what amounted to a show trial. (The outcome was predicted on the tickets, which read: “The Trial of Elizabeth calling herself Duchess Dowager of Kingston.”) Ostler describes the trial as “that Georgian favorite — a sponge pudding of entertainment soaked with morality sauce”.

Far from retreating from the world to lick her wounds, Elizabeth sailed grandly to the Continent four days after the guilty verdict and made her way to St Petersburg via Germany and Austria, where she would befriend and enchant Catherine the Great, giving her gifts that can still be seen in the Hermitage. One of the book’s many extraordinary and touching details is the vignette of a rather homesick Elizabeth in Vienna, overheard teaching her pet parrot to say “old clothes!”, which was one of the street cries of London.

She arrived in St Petersburg in splendor, in a newly commissioned yacht that she christened the Duchess of Kingston. Hung with crimson damask, with its own staterooms, the yacht contained a grand organ and musicians — typical of Elizabeth’s civilized aesthetic priorities. It was badly damaged in a storm while moored at St Petersburg and poor Elizabeth — soon summoned back to England to face yet another lawsuit, this one brought by Hervey, who wanted a divorce — had to travel back overland in snow and mud, her carriage falling into potholes so deep it took 20 horses to drag it out. Hooray — Hervey soon died, so that particular psychological torture was over for her.

Elizabeth’s last years were spent planning her legacy and overseeing the overspend on her mad property purchases. As soon as she died the vultures from the extended family descended, determined to package up her worldly goods for themselves.

Her will, Ostler writes, was “a fanciful work — a mixture of procrastination, social climbing, making amends, name-dropping, wishful thinking and revenge”. That could also be a neat summary of her life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is a critic and the author of five books, including The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England Today