The Scandalous Life of Elizabeth Chudleigh
Chudleigh, Elizabeth (c. 1720-1788)
An Authentic Detail of Particulars relative to the Late Duchess of Kingston.
London: Printed for G. Kearsley, at Johnson’s Head, No. 46, Fleet-Street, 1788
Octavo: 21 x 13 cm. pp. [ii], ii, 178, . Collation: [A]2, B-Z4, A1. With an added engraved frontispiece of the Duchess, with breasts exposed "as she appeared at the Venetian Ambassador
THE TRUE FIRST EDITION, printed in the year of the Duchess’ death. Bound with a copy of the 1789 ed. of the “Memoirs” of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1743-1805).
Bound in contemporary polished blonde calf with a gilded spine. A fine copy, the binding a little rubbed and with the faintest cracking to the leather of the upper hinge. The contents are in nearly pristine condition with broad margins. The engraved frontispiece memorializes the Duchess’ scandalous appearance at a masquerade ball at Somerset House in May 1749, where she appeared, topless, as Iphigenia ready to be sacrificed: “She wore a smile, some foliage rather low round her middle, and a covering of the flimsiest flesh-coloured gauze. Princess Augusta reacted to this audacious impression of nakedness by throwing her veil over Elizabeth. The infatuated George II asked if he could place his hand on her bare breasts; with great presence of mind, she offered to put it on a still softer place and guided it to the royal forehead. Far from taking offence, the king gave her a 35 guinea watch and made her mother a housekeeper at Windsor.”(ODNB)
Duchess of Kingston, granddaughter of the poet Mary Chudleigh (1656-1710), from whom “she seemed to have inherited no notable literary tastes or talents”(Rizzo) Elizabeth was notorious for her sexual escapades, daring, and profligacy. She studiously cultivated this image, referring to herself (in the third person) thus: “She was both wasteful and penurious; the most enormous sums were expended to gratify her love of display, at the same time that she refused to incur some trifling necessary expense in her household…. The lady was exacting, vain, and violent almost to fury… raised to the highest rank a subject could attain, [she] became only the more arrogant and capricious.”(Memoirs)
As Betty Rizzo has demonstrated, Chudleigh modeled her behavior on some of the most scandalous women in the novels of the eighteenth-century.
“Elizabeth Chudleigh’s devastatingly triumphant and destructive career is probably best understood as inspired by the careers of the imperious court vixens in the pages of Delariviere Manley so it is not surprising that her initial courtship and subsequent abuse of her companions follow the pattern of the Duchess of Cleveland’s in ‘The Adventure of Rivella.’ The duchess was demonstrably Chudleigh’s model. For Chudleigh, as for her close contemporaries Elizabeth Montagu and Frances Greville, there were both older Restoration models and newer models of sensibility to choose from and to combine, and Chudleigh’s choice was absolute. She was neither a brilliant intelligence nor a reader but she had clearly very early got the ‘New Atlantis’ (1709) by heart. The models in the works of Manley of powerful, profligate, passionate, and willful women impelled the girl, already beautiful, irresistibly charming, passionate, and willful into both profligacy and power. For Chudleigh the Restoration court ideology about women still worked when at twenty (in about 1740) she arrived at the court of the Prince of Wales. When in 1776 at fifty-six she was tried for bigamy, her assumptions had become outré, her self-conducted defense failed, and she escaped burning in the hand only because her despised husband had succeeded to an earldom. She had to flee England forever.
“To attempt to exculpate Chudleigh would be fruitless, for she often deliberately behaved like a monster. Her generosity, frequently noted by herself and her beneficiaries, was directed not toward worthy, needy objects but toward those who best flattered and served her. Her passage through the world did not render it a better place.”(Betty Rizzo, Companions Without Vows, ch. 4, Elizabeth Chudleigh and her maids of honor, p. 61 ff.)
The scandal that led to her flight from England in 1777 was many years in the making. In 1744 Chudleigh secretly married Augustus John Hervey. This secrecy allowed her to remain at court. In 1749, after the birth and death of their infant son, and in the face of Elizabeth’s unfaithfulness, Hervey “severed all relations with her”. When Hervey seemed to be on the cusp of gaining his ailing brother’s earldom, Elizabeth confessed her marriage to the dowager of Wales and had her marriage officially recorded. In 1768, Hervey sought a divorce in order to marry another. This resulted in a court case in which the marriage was ruled not to have taken place.
In 1769 she married the Duke of Kingston. When he died in 1773, his will stipulated that Elizabeth must remain a widow in order to receive the duke’s income and estates. Evelyn Meadows, the duke’s heir, disputed the will and had Elizabeth tried for bigamy. Elizabeth’s trial took place three years later; she was found guilty and, in order to avoid being branded as a bigamist, she fled to the Continent, where she spent her final years, during which her exploits continued. She fled first to Russia, as the guest of Catherine the Great, purchased an estate, and set up a vodka distillery. She died in Paris in August 1788.