We are delighted to welcome the ‘Georgian Gentleman’, aka Mike Rendell, who like us, writes a blog about all things Georgian. Mike’s book In bed with the Georgians: Sex Scandal & Satire in the 18th Century has just been published by Pen and Sword Books and is available at a discounted price direct from the publisher.
We will now hand you over to Mike to tell you more about the female coterie:
One of the things I enjoyed researching for my book “In Bed with the Georgians – Sex Scandal and Satire” concerned a gathering of ‘fallen women’ known as The New Female Coterie. It was an informal gathering of women who were ostracised by polite society because they had been caught out. In other words they had all committed adultery and suffered public humiliation. The group was headed by Caroline, Countess of Harrington, a woman of great notoriety on account of her insatiable appetite and sexual proclivities. Members would meet for a drink and a gossip at a high-end London brothel run by Sarah Prendergast. This gave members an opportunity to take their pick of any male customers they fancied and to exchange news and views with other ‘fallen women’. So, let’s have a look at some of the other members. One was The Honourable Catherine Newton.
She had figured in a particularly infamous divorce case – a case where the lurid details of her repeated infidelities left little to the imagination. The details were published in 1782 as “The Trial of the Hon. Mrs. Catherine Newton, Wife of John Newton… Upon a Libel and Allegations, Charging her with the Crime of Adultery”.
She was 16 at the time of her marriage to the 58 year-old John Newton, and the trial records show a history of her cavorting nearly-naked with a succession of stable lads, house servants and so on. Servants being servants, there were many willing to testify to the occasions when hands were seen placed on naked thighs, or that inappropriate assistance had been given when Catherine was being helped to mount her horse. Housemaids complained of having to re-make the beds several times each day, and there was much evidence of adjoining rooms not being locked, and of undergarments being found in inappropriate places… A young lad called Master Baggs appeared on the scene and Catherine’s attentions to him were so obvious that even her old goat of a husband noticed. He kicked her out and following her very public divorce she drifted to London and became part of the circle of disgraced ladies who sought support from each other’s company.
Another club member was Penelope Viscountess Ligonier. Like many women born into aristocracy, Penelope was still a teenager when she got married. Lord Edward Ligonier was the lucky guy. At 26 he was ten years older than his bride, and in celebration of the marriage, Lord Ligonier asked the artist Thomas Gainsborough to paint their portraits. The fact that he chose to have his portrait taken alongside his favourite horse shows his priorities!
Edward was an army-man through and through, and whereas he probably knew quite a lot about horses and how to look after them, that was more than could be said about the way he treated his young wife. Still, the couple put up the charade of the typical married aristocrats. They entertained many of their foreign friends at their home, Cobham Park. One of their visitors was Count Vittorio Alfieri, an Italian dramatist.
Attractive, witty and hungry for the love she wasn’t getting from her husband, Penelope embarked on a very public affair with the Count. When the cuckolded husband found out about the adultery he challenged the Italian count to a duel, which took place in Green Park in London in May 1771. Edward, who was a soldier, managed to wound Alfieri but not kill him. He then applied to Parliament for a Private Bill of Divorce, which meant that all the lurid details of his wife’s adultery came out into the open. She may have hoped that the Italian would stand by her and offer marriage, but as he knew full well that she had been sharing her affections with several of the household servants, he declined.
Penelope faced financial ruin and social ostracism, so meeting up with women of her same social class who were in the same predicament as herself was probably a great comfort, as well as providing her with company and an extra income as “guest of honour” at the Prendergast brothel.
There is even a story that at one particular masquerade where everyone wore disguises she inadvertently ended up making love to her former husband. He was not aware of the mistake until he found that she had given him a dose of what was known as the “Neapolitan Complaint.”
What scandalised society was that when Penelope wrote about the affair with her Italian lover she made it clear that she did not regret it for a second, and that everything was a price worth paying for escaping from a loveless marriage. That to the Georgians, was a truly shocking confession.
Another member of the coterie was the beautiful Henrietta, wife of the First Baron Grosvenor.
Despite the fourteen year age difference, she had married the man within a month of their first meeting, presumably unaware of his appetite for gaming and whoring. He is generally thought to have lost some £250,000 on the horses and at the gaming tables – a vast sum of money even for the gambling-mad eighteenth century. More to the point, he was one of the most debauched characters of the time, spending his time with a constant succession of whores. This left Henrietta with the view that what was sauce for the gander was sauce for the goose, and she embarked on an affair with George III’s brother, Henry, Duke of Cumberland.
In the court case which followed, Henrietta had tried to play down the significance of her affair by throwing as much dirt as possible at her husband, producing witness after witness from a variety of brothels across town. It worked in so far as it enthralled the readership of the newspapers which reported every word of the trial, but failed in the sense that her husband was awarded £10,000 in damages – a sum met by King George III, and hence ultimately by the British taxpayer.
The mud-slinging produced strong moral outrage at Henrietta’s conduct (presumably the conduct of her lover and her husband was no worse that was to have been expected). She became the object of innumerable bawdy songs and faced hostility in the press. The legal separation from her husband left Henrietta with a paltry annual allowance of £1200, and it seems that she may well have supplemented her income by ‘a spot of freelance work’ at Sarah Prendergast’s seraglio.
While her husband was alive, and was unable to divorce her because of his own adultery, she remained in social limbo until his death in 1802. Within a month his widow had become married to George Porter, Sixth Baron de Hochepied, and lived quietly and out of the public eye until her death in 1828.
For anyone wanting to know more about the New Female Coterie I thoroughly recommend Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Scandalous Lady W (Lady Worsley’s Whim).