Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Criminal Conversation: Grosvenor v. Cumberland

This is why I love the 18th century–in terms of scandals the period is full of absurdities and titillating anecdotes.  Take, for example, the Duke of Cumberland and his affair with Lady Grosvenor.

In 1770 Cumberland was brought before the Court of the King’s Bench for a “criminal conversation” or rather, a suit wherein a cuckolded husband sues his wife’s lover for monetary damages.  Evidence usually consisted of eyewitness testimony from servants or acquaintances and love letters–positively damning in Cumberland’s case.  He not only seduced a married lady, he behaved below his station, impersonating a squire in order to visit Lady Grosvenor incognito.  After fashioning himself “Squire Morgan”, he proceeded to act like an idiot to fully disguise his improprieties.  Given that he was the king’s brother, this behavior was doubly mortifying when proof of the amorous affair came to light.

The “injured” party, Richard, 1st Earl of Grosvenor

Rumored to be involved in his own affaires de coeur, Lord Grosvenor intercepted the couple’s letters and copied them so he could have the pleasure of reading them in Court. Cumberland and Lady Grosvenor were also unlucky enough to have been caught in flagrante delicto, the details of which were cast into the gleeful public eye.  The shocking transcripts of the trial were the delight of London and prompted an interest in other high society sex scandals, including the Worsley criminal conversation of 1782.

In the case of Grosvenor v. Cumberland, Lord Grosvenor prevailed, his dignity bruised but his pocketbook amply padded for his troubles.  Cumberland ended up paying £10,000, an average sum for debauching a peer’s wife.  As a member of the royal family, he did have the unique benefit of the Lord Chamberlain forbidding the subject from being discussed in any public venue.  One can imagine this only fueled gossip in private withdrawing rooms though.

Modern Criminal Conversations
To my suprise, my lawyer husband advised me that criminal conversation, a.k.a. alienation of affection, still exists today.  In the U.S., it has been abolished in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  What’s left: Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.  I dipped my toe in legal research and found awards up to 1.4 million!  That’s painful for a little bit of bise bise on the side.

In England, the year of 1857 brought an end to formal revenge on rakes with abolishment of the civil action.  Criminal conversations were the most common in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  If you’re interested, the famous case of Worsley v. Bissett is covered in illuminating detail in Hallie Rubenhold’s Lady’s Worsley’s Whim (UK) /Lady in Red (US).  I did a post a while back on the Fleming sisters, Lady Worsley being one of them, with links to the trial transcripts.

The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Review

All week I have sneaked in moments to read Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess and I must say it was worth every minute of lost sleep.  I adored Clegg’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette, and considering that this is a review and not a gush fest, I’m going to try my best to forgo repeating just how much I think every Antoinette fan should read it.

What I loved:

Clegg really made Antoinette’s early life come alive for me.  The voice was so authentic to Antoinette’s spirit I fancied I had in my possession her long-lost diary and was gaining private insight into the misunderstood queen.  For me, this emotional engagement was huge.  Although life at Versailles and Antoinette’s reign, in particular, has always fascinated me, I usually experience dissonance between my disliking the queen and my appreciation for her as an historical character.  Her personality is full of contradictions, which generally keep my attention, but unlike her mother, history has seldom regarded her as intelligent or a master of strategy.  She was instead a leader of fashion, a spendthrift without regard for consequence, and all around girly girl.

Clegg’s novel offers a closer look at the makings of France’s infamous queen.   If you’ve wondered how Maria Antonia, an awkward, uneducated girl who was never supposed to be a queen of France, became the belle of the fashionable world, this secret diary is a marvelous imagining of Antoinette’s inner thoughts while remaining firmly rooted in research.

1769, Joseph Ducreux

As any fan of the genre knows, historical fiction first and foremost needs to be more than a recitation of facts and events.  Clegg happily succeeds in this.  Her simple yet descriptive style transported me from the palaces of Schönbrunn and Hofburg, where Antoinette spent her childhood and adolescence, to her first steps into the glittering court of Versailles.

Today Antoinette seems quintessentially French, but in her time she was thought never fully Austrian or French.  This lacking is what defines her. Austria was home, but also a place of harsh instruction and intense pressure.  On the one hand we have Antoinette’s life of silk gowns, mischief, and loving sisters and on the other, a plague of early deaths coupled with the emotional austerity of her mother, Maria Theresa.  Despite the juxtaposition of the royals’ distinct personalities, a real sense of family resonated throughout novel.  I adored Antoinette’s sisters Amalia and Christina and sympathized with Antoinette’s feeling that she lacked consequence in such a large family.  As she says early on,

“I am not witty like my sister Christina or funny like Elizabeth or interesting like Amalia or clever like our eldest sister Marianna or sweet like Josepha.  I am just me, the youngest and some might say, most insignificant daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa, the most powerful female monarch in the world.”

The Austrian Royal Family

As the ultimate goal of Maria Theresa was to marry off her daughters and concrete Austrian alliances, the novel showed a procession of arranged matches with the sisters wondering who was next and when.  Given the doubt surrounding her future, Antoinette understandably longs for direction.  She wants to please her mother by doing her duty, but suffers under constant demands, which at times seem impossible for her to meet.  She is painfully naive and undisciplined, but also modest, funny, and sweet.

The first picture of Antoinette seen by the Dauphin

Numerous improvements were required to make Antoinette suitable for Versailles.  Sharing in her resistance to (and eventual delight in) those changes was an absolute joy to read.  Clegg deftly tackles the transformation as Antoinette catches a glimpse of herself après a French hairdressing:

“I had always seen myself as the youngest, least pretty and most insignificant of Mama’s girls but now suddenly I believed that I too could be beautiful and important.  I hope I never forget how I felt at that moment: powerful.”

This steady eye on the Antoinette we all know so well makes the novel a page turner.  We know what happens at Versailles and we know the dismal end swept in by the revolution.  What Clegg does is humanize Antoinette, making her the little sister, full of hope and giddy laughter and minor rebellions, with the internal reflection long due France’s most enigmatic queen.

A much recommended read for Marie Antoinette fans but also for anyone interested in what life was really like for princesses in 18th century Europe.

You can find out more about the author Melanie Clegg by visiting her popular art, history and writing blog at

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: 4th Earl of Aberdeen

George Hamilton-Gordon was not only a hottie, he had a big heart.  Upon visiting his Scottish estate of Haddo house in 1805 for the first time since childhood,  he was stunned by the impoverished conditions surrounding his tenants.  His father and grandfather had accrued large debts during their lifetimes and instead of squandering what little money he had, George invested his inheritance in agriculture and husbandry to improve the welfare of those under his protection.   Impressive for a man who ascended to the earldom at age 17.

George also appeared to be a softie in the love department.  At age 21 he married Lady Catherine Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of 1st Marquess of Abercorn.  She died of tuberculosis in 1812, their heir and only son having died two years prior.  Without issue, George did marry his widowed sister-in-law Harriet Douglas in 1815 at the insistence of his father-in-law.  The marriage was a disaster.  George remained in love with his previous wife and had a strong dislike for Harriet saying she was one of the stupidest persons he had ever met.  Ouch!  Harriet hated Haddo house, the Aberdeen ancestral seat, and was unkind to his daughters from his first marriage.  By 1819 they were already living apart.

Marital difficulties aside, George’s life had its satisfactions.  After the death of his parents, he appointed William Pitt the younger as his guardian, a relationship with evolved into a close friendship.  As promissed by Pitt, he gained an English peerage in 1814, allowing him access to the House of Lords (Scottish peers did not have rights to a seat) and a secure, if ultimately rocky, future in politics.  He was also a devoted father, a fellow of the Royal Society, a scholar with interest in archaeology and Greece from his Grand Tours days, and Prime Minister from 1852 to 1855.

For more on today’s handsome devil:

Novel Recommendation: The Secret Diary of a Princess

If you are a Marie Antoinette fan and find yourself wondering what her early years before Versailles would have been like, consider reading Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess.  For one, it’s on sale for kindle through Monday for 99c or 86p in celebration of Bastille Day.  Yay!  Two, it’s written by the fabulous blogger Madame Guillotine

I started reading last night and the voice of young Maria Antonia really shines through–Melanie got it just right.   I’ve read a lot of novels about MA and thought the market was saturated, but Melanie proves there’s still more to offer.  MA’s childhood and adolescence is a fascinating and formative period of the queen’s tragic life and should not be missed.

I’ll post the review late next week!

P.S. If you miss the sale, Melanie’s novel is usually priced at $3–still a steal!

Fashion at Versailles: Vivienne Westwood’s Courtesans

The delightfully subversive Vivienne Westwood will be among the designers showcasing their work at Marie Antoinette’s old stomping ground, the Grand Trianon, for an exhibition put on by Musee Galliera.  “Le XVIII au goût du jour” or “A Taste of the 18th Century” runs through October 9th if you’re lucky enough to be near Versailles.  Other than Westwood’s courtesans, you’ll see Watteau-style robes à la française by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel,  embroidered  motifs typical of the 18th century by Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain,  and Olivier Theyskens’s for Rochas invocation of the ghost of Marie Antoinette in a Hollywood film. 

Dare I entice you more?

Look familiar?  I do believe Mme Pompadour would approve.

Long influenced by 17th and 18th centuries, Westwood is known to reinterpret designs of the period.  She uses her trademark tailoring, inspired by authentic cutting principles, to produce a collision of the historical and modern.  The Boucher corset, featuring a print of the 1743-5 painting, Daphnis and Chloë, is apparently eminently comfortable due to the use of flexible fabric.  My dear Marie Antoinette: who knew?

Westwood is also well known for the Watteau gown from her 1996 Spring & Summer Colllection.

Westwood on her collection Portrait & the Wallace Collection paintings:

Handsome Devils and Their Digs: 5th Viscount Chetwynd

On account of the summer heat, I’m feeling blog malaise and so I thought, what better way to revive myself and all of you than a bit of aristocratic eye candy?  Wigs notwithstanding, there were some striking faces in the bunch, especially if you like serious looking fellows.

Without further ado then, I invite you to unearth your inner gold digger (in the 18th century, this was no crime!).  Kindly allow me to present what might have been your future prospects if you were a) a lady of the ton living in Georgian England or b) a romance novel heroine.

First off, Richard, 5th Viscount of Chetwynd.

By Thomas Gainsborough, 1780s

(c)  Gainsborough’s House.  Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Chetwynd Digs (I’m misleading you here.  I’ll explain below):

The magnificent Ingestre Hall actually passed down to the 2nd Viscount Chetwynd’s daughter, Hon. Catherine Chetwynd, by testementary will which allowed the estate to pass to Catherine and her eldest male son, who  later became the 1st Earl of Talbot and Viscount Ingestre .  During this time, women could inherit if no male heirs remained.  As this was not the case, I’m not exactly certain what happened regarding the estate falling out of succession with the next Viscount Chetwynd.  In all likelihood, the estate was not entailed.

The 2nd Viscount’s sons having predeceased him, the title of Viscount Chetwynd passed to his brother, William, who was the heir-at-law.  Richard, our handsome devil of the day, was the great- grandson of William and was born at Heywood Park, Staffordshire.  Given that I couldn’t find any pictures of Heywood, Ingestre Hall is what you get to associate Chetwynd with for now.  I’ll aim for full-on accurancy next post.  Promise.

What else might you like to know about the Chetwynds?

  • They hail from Bearhaven, County Kerry, Ireland
  • The viscountcy was created by King George I in 1717
  • The family motto is Probitas Verus Honos: Probity is true honor
  • 6th Viscount Chetwynd, Richard’s son, was known as “Oroonoko Chetwynd” due to his dark complexion.  Oroonoko was the enslaved African prince in Aprha Behn’s 1688 novel of the same name.

On Entailment

Entailing property ensured the ancestral seat of any given aristocratic title  remained in the family, thereby retaining the rank, both in wealth and history, due to the peerage.  A number of problems existed when daughters inherited.  Firstly, in the case of several daughters, the estate would be broken up into equal portions.  When only one daughter was present to inherit, the estate would pass to her husband’s male descendants and out of the original patriarchal line.  Where primogeniture ruled, however, the estate was guaranteed to remain whole because entailed property could not be sold or deeded outside the succeeding male line.  This is exactly the dilemma of the Bennet family in Pride & Prejudice with Mr. Collins.  See Land, Law, and Love from the Jane Austen Society of North America for a more comprehensive  explanation of entailment.

Paper Your Walls, London Style

Finally, a patterned wallpaper I could spend hours looking at.  Based on a map from the 1700s, Thibaut Design offers both wallpaper and fabric making it perfect for the full scale 18th century Anglophile or the occassional admirer of antique cartography.  Plus, the colors are so pared down as to almost be neutrals.  I particularly like tobacco which looks like aged sack cloth and would make a cute pillow.  Aqua and Linen are nice too.