Today’s blog is a little different. Our biography An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott has now been released worldwide, so we thought it might interest our readers if we wrote a little Q&A style piece for anyone who may be thinking about buying our book, to tell you a little more about it.
What made us decide to write about Grace and her family?
Grace simply landed in our lap, we didn’t go out looking for her. The reality was that we were actually researching someone else who turned out to have a familial connection to her and so up she popped. For someone so well known in her day, there still seemed to be huge gaps in what was known of her life and, ever ones to enjoy a challenge, we set out with the intention of merely filling in these gaps and were astounded by how much new information we eventually uncovered.
Being genealogists, we also looked at her wider family and ancestry, particularly her maternal family who had lain undiscovered until now. The only information which was already known was some scant information about her father, and of course her sister Jacintha who married into the Hesketh family, but that was about it.
Her Journal is there in the public domain for all to read, so why write about it again?
The deeper we dug, the more we realized that research into her life has long been muddied by the misinformed biographical information given in the preface to her own Journal of My Life during the French Revolution, which was published posthumously.
Replete with mistakes and half-remembered anecdotes, it was supplied more than two decades after Grace’s death by her granddaughter and a friend. Despite two former biographies on this fascinating woman, the elements which were actually truthful in her Journal were still disputed. For instance, it mentioned a brother, but no brother had ever been identified before (in fact Grace had two brothers which we are able to introduce to her story!).
We have been able to correct this mishmash of information but, more than that, we located previously unconsulted documents, including family ones, which shed new light on the areas of Grace’s life which had formerly lain in the shadows, enabling us to tell her story more completely, and more accurately, than it has ever been told.
Her Journal as it relates to her experiences during the French Revolution is another area we have attempted to illuminate more fully than it has been before. Glaring errors contained within its pages have discredited what ought to have been a superb first-hand account of that period. Grace is placed in confinement in French prisons awaiting the guillotine with notable personalities, when it can be proved that the people so named were not there at that time. Added to the biographical inaccuracies, it has led to people washing their hands of the whole Journal. We set to with a fine tooth comb, to try to establish fact from fiction (a task not helped by Grace habitually misspelling names, either she had a terrible memory for them or the person who transcribed the pages she had written could not read her handwriting).
Slowly but surely we were able to verify much of it, even down to a plausible account of her acting as a courier for the French queen, Marie Antoinette (rumours have ever swirled that Grace courageously worked as a spy). The errors all come in towards the end of the Journal, put there (we strongly suspect) by the over-enthusiastic publisher who wished to have a more dramatic finale to it. The ending we discovered was perhaps a little more mundane, but it is truthful and perhaps, we hope, gives back some credence to Grace’s Journal as an excellent source for those researching the French Revolution, especially as it is an invaluable first-hand account written by a woman.
Why didn’t we simply write about Grace’s life alone?
That would, of course, have been the easy option and for those who regularly read our blog, we rarely take the easy option! We are both genealogists as well as historians and love nothing more than seeking out new pieces of information about the Georgian period. It may be a slightly contentious decision on our part, but the more we discovered, the more fascinated we became by the people we uncovered, especially her siblings and maternal family, and we hoped that the reader would be too for they each had a story to tell, especially one of her brothers!
Were any of Grace’s relatives famous?
None remain well-known today, although we’d contend that Grace’s eldest brother deserves as much renown as his ‘celebrated’ sister, but some were certainly among the ‘great and the good’ of the day. They made their way around the globe, made the acquaintance of several personalities of the day (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to name but two) and their lives exhibit a snapshot of a strata of Georgian society and offer an invaluable insight into the social history of the period. The fact that they are all but forgotten now does not make their lives any the less interesting and we relished the chance to rescue them from the obscurity they have long languished in.
We also realized that Grace’s actions and decisions became much clearer when viewed in the context of her wider family. For instance, knowing that two of her aunts made their fortunes and gained their social standing by first being mistresses to wealthy and titled men, that one of these aunts was mistress to an earl and ultimately became his countess, what light does this then shed on Grace herself following their path and becoming a courtesan? What counsel did these two worldly-wise women give to their wayward niece? Grace was well-born too, when most courtesans had been plucked from the stage or the London bawdy houses by their ‘keepers’. Only a few, notably Grace, the scandalous Lady Worsley and Gertrude Mahon (aka the Bird of Paradise) were of good birth. But to know that Grace was from a once landed and noble family, you need to understand and be conversant with her ancestry.
Lastly, we believe that charting the lives of her wider family gives a contrast to Grace’s own life. Although she hated her husband, would she have been better, in that day and age, to have survived a few more years of marriage to arrive at a titled and wealthy widowhood whilst still young enough to contemplate a good marriage to a man of her choosing? Grace could have ended her days like her cousin, mistress of both a country pile and a smart London townhouse and entertaining royalty at her dinner table, rather than in her bed.
What have other readers said?
We’re delighted to say that we have received some excellent reviews for our book. You can read more on our Press page.
Where can I buy An Infamous Mistress?