82 million of us have been captivated by the scandals of the 18th century social set in Netflix’s Bridgerton, yet sometimes, truth can be stranger and altogether more fascinating than fiction, as evidenced in the life of Elizabeth Chudleigh, the bigamous aristocrat who enthralled Georgian high society, and whose adventures are now the subject of a new book by former Tatler editor-in-chief, Catherine Ostler.
The raucous exploits of Daphne Bridgerton, the Duke of Hastings et all pale in comparison to those of the so-called ‘Duchess-Countess’, as she was nicknamed by famous wit and gossip of the time, Horace Walpole.
As Ostler writes for the May issue of Tatler, she was first drawn to the Duchess’s story after reading about her not in Georgian London, but as a British ex-pat whose flamboyance captivated the court of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography Catherine the Great & Potemkin.
‘To me, Elizabeth has become not only a complex object of sympathy and fascination, but also a cypher from which to view Georgian womanhood and society, its press, its poetry, the swish of its skirts and the power of its cruel pens, long before Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown put such things in our collective consciousness,’ she writes.
Chudleigh was a former maid of honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales, and it was while at court that she attracted the attention of Evelyn Pierrepont, 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, who she married in 1769, becoming Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull.
The only problem was, she was already married, having wed Augustus Hervey (later 3rd Earl of Bristol) in secret, some twenty-five years earlier. When Hervey’s elder brother died and he ascended to the Earldom, she became the Duchess-Countess of Walpole’s japes.
When this all came out, the nephew of her second husband tried to bring charges of bigamy against her, in order to cut her out of the will. The ensuing court case captivated English society, and makes for thrilling reading in Ostler’s book, which saw her travelling from Chelsea to St Petersburg and speaking to one of Chudleigh’s nephew’s descendants, the Pierrepont family.
Read the full feature in the April issue, on newsstands tomorrow. The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalised a Nation by Catherine Ostler (Simon & Schuster) is on sale for £25 on 15 April.
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