Book Review of The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized 18th Century LondonBy Catherine Ostler
Chudleigh, a former bridesmaid to the Princess of Wales, had by this stage achieved a secure position in society. Although she grew up of modest means, the daughter of the second son of a baronet who died when she was little, she had become a popular bridesmaid, “a unique position between debutante and lady-in-waiting, the first climb a well-honed ladder to an advantageous marriage,” as depicted in the work in “The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London,” by Catherine Ostler.
Chudleigh achieved this through her good looks, enormous charm, and daredevil spirit. For a masquerade at the Haymarket, where King George II was another guest, she dressed as the Greek princess Iphigenia, wearing a sheer, flesh-colored silk dress, appearing, by candlelight, to be dressed only nothing at all. The monarch, far from feeling offended, openly proclaims his admiration for the lady of his son’s wife and orders another masquerade in her honor.
But this audacity, so useful in attracting the royal eye – one thinks of the famous appearance of Kate Middleton in a transparent mini-dress at a charity fashion show when she and Prince William were students at the University of St. Andrews – had a downside. During summer vacation five years prior, Chudleigh fell in love with a hot-blooded but penniless naval officer she met at the races in Winchester: Augustus Hervey, grandson of the Earl of Bristol. On the spur of the moment, they pulled the local vicar out of bed and, in front of a handful of witnesses, exchanged vows. When Hervey returned to sea, Elizabeth kept her impetuous marriage a secret, thus preserving the 200 pounds she earned annually as a bridesmaid, a job only open to bachelors.
In this skillful and highly entertaining biography, Ostler theorizes that the uninhibited Chudleigh was a bit off balance. Having lost a previous love and experiencing the deaths of her father and older brother at an early age, this young woman may have suffered from what today would be called borderline personality disorder. Quoting psychiatrist James Arkell, the author writes that people with this disorder “are often charismatic entertainers, like Elizabeth.” Notably, this same diagnosis was applied posthumously to Diana, Princess of Wales, the child of a painful divorce. While it is intriguing to speculate on modern interpretations of Chudleigh’s behavior, the book’s real strength is the author’s painstaking effort to piece together all the facts in recounting a life that even his contemporaries found extremely implausible.
Living for years in the highest circles of London society, supposedly as a single woman, Chudleigh avoided contact with her husband, who met many other women during his travels abroad. But eventually Hervey, back in Britain, wished to remarry. Chudleigh had then caught the eye of the fabulously wealthy Duke of Kingston. In ecclesiastical courts, she argued that her union with Hervey had never been legal: there were no reliable witnesses to the alleged marriage, it occurred after canonical hours, and no ban was read. . Church solicitors agreed, and with a special license granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chudleigh married Kingston in 1769, on her 48th birthday.
The two could have lived happily ever after had it not been for the Duke’s death four years later, when his family, led by a resentful and disinherited nephew, sought to prove the invalidity of the Duke’s marriage on the grounds that Chudleigh was already the wife. from someone else. The case went to the House of Lords and, for the trial, spectators filled Westminster Hall to the rafters. Among the spectators were Queen Charlotte and five of her children, including future King George IV, then 13, and future King William IV, 10. Britain’s richest ladies. Society gossip and man of letters Horace Walpole dubbed her the Duchess Countess, and the sarcastic moniker caught on because Hervey had now rather unexpectedly inherited the title from his grandfather.
Chudleigh dressed for her trial in black with a black balaclava, in the style of Mary Queen of Scots going to her execution, and testified at length in her own defence. But the only living witness to the events in question, a vengeful maid named Ann Craddock, has given damning evidence. When the guilty verdict was announced, Chudleigh sank “lifeless to the ground”, according to a witness. She regained her composure enough to ask for clemency, and the Lords agreed not to mark her thumb with an “M” (for “malefactor”), the legal punishment for having two spouses simultaneously. Chudleigh, enlisting a look-alike cousin to drive around town in his distinctive car, was able to travel to Dover incognito and escape to the mainland. She kept some of the rents from the Kingston estates and used that money to start over.
The last years of Chudleigh’s life – spent in St. Petersburg, Estonia and Paris – are colorful but less interesting than the account of the trial, which Ostler conducts masterfully. “Bridgerton” fans take note: For sheer incident and drama, Chudleigh’s story rivals any episode of the popular Regency-era Netflix series. And it’s all true.
The woman who scandalized 18th century London
By Catherine Ostler. Earphone books. 432 pages. $30