Catherine Ostler’s non fiction book The Duchess Countess is the strange story of Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721-1788), an 18th century woman who had looks, ambition and opportunity, but who had the bad fortune to bet on the wrong pony. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth’s life repeatedly took bad turns. Our lives are shaped by the times we live in, but in Elizabeth’s case, she was constrained by the standards of her time.
Elizabeth’s father was lieutenant governor of the Royal hospital but his sudden early demise found his widow and his two children, Elizabeth and her brother, Thomas tossed out of their home with scanty means. Thomas and Elizabeth’s uncle, Sir George Chudleigh married an heiress, but when he died, Thomas was set to inherit the baronetcy and “much of the family estate.” It looked as though fortune had turned in their favour, but then Thomas was killed in battle at age 22. Back to no prospects for Elizabeth.
Thanks to the influence of a family friend, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, Elizabeth became a maid-of-honour to Augusta, wife of Frederick heir to George II. This was “the most glamourous position available to a single girl of Elizabeth’s background.” Elizabeth seemed made for the role; she was fashionable, witty, stylish and according to one report, “a vixen.” The problem was that being a maid-of-honour wasn’t an end in itself–it was essentially a stepping stone. Many maids-of-honour married very well, but Elizabeth, although beautiful was penniless. Plus the prince’s household was at odds with King George II’s household and the two were sharply divided into factions. Being a maid-of-honour was expensive. Elizabeth was paid 200 pounds a year, yet details here reveal that some women spent 100 pounds on a single dress. The pressure was on for Elizabeth, who was essentially dependent on her own mental resources, to find a rich husband. At first this seemed to be achieved when Elizabeth met James Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton and they fell in love, Hamilton was a “chaotic figure who liked dogs hunting, women and drink.” They were “secret lovers, perhaps even privately engaged,” but Hamilton sailed off on his Grand Tour without making a declaration.
And it’s here that the story gets weird. Elizabeth and her Aunt Ann retreated to Hampshire where she met Augustus Hervey. They married secretly and a short while later, he, in the navy, sailed off. In the eyes of the world, Elizabeth was a single woman when she returned to court and her scandalous life. She certainly carried on as if she were a single woman. Hervey, in the meantime, had a decent naval career and gained a reputation as a libertine. In time he returned to England and it’s almost as though Hervey and Elizabeth forgot they had ever been married–although some shreds of jealousy remained and Hervey paid some of Elizabeth’s substantial debts.
Years rolled on, and Elizabeth fell in love with Evelyn Pierrepoint, Duke of Kingston, an incredibly wealthy man who did not have the best of health but who adored Elizabeth. Now in middle age, heavily in debt, Elizabeth needed to marry. But wait wasn’t she already married? Hervey, about to become Earl, wanted a divorce, but Elizabeth claimed they were never married in the first place. Only a man could sue for divorce.
Elizabeth did not want a divorce, for several reasons. First, her adultery would have to be proved, which required an action for “crim.con” as it was known in order to be successful; then a private act of parliament would have to be obtained. For Parliament to dissolve the marriage there would therefore have to be a shameful parade of marital history. Allegations of adultery and deceit would be publicly humiliating, and on a practical note, if she accepted that she was married, her property belonged to Hervey, not her. As if that was not enough, it was unclear whether the Duke of Kingston would be willing to marry a divorcee with her reputation in shreds. Even Elizabeth was not that much of a risk taker.
Elizabeth was in the uncomfortable position of juggling scandal, debt, forgery and Time with her desire to marry the Duke. After a grimy court case, Elizabeth, aided by forgery, was declared not married, so she married the Duke. He died leaving Elizabeth all his money. By that time, Hervey was Earl of Bristol, which made Elizabeth, the countess of Bristol. The Duke’s family leveled the charge of bigamy against Elizabeth, and so there was another trial. This is such an odd story, and there’s the sense that had the stars been kinder, Elizabeth’s fate would have been different. Her life was punctuated by the early deaths of her brother and father, a strange betrayal by her aunt, the death of a child by Hervey, marriage to two wealthy men and public opinion cruelly against her. I enjoyed the all the details regarding the cost of her clothing etc, but I never felt as though I got into Elizabeth’s head. The author mentioned a few times that Elizabeth could be borderline personality disorder. I am not a psychiatrist/psychologist but I dismissed that label as we really cannot appreciate the pressures Elizabeth, with a short shelf life, was under to nail a man, permanently.