Book of the week: The Duchess Countess

Catherine Ostler’s ‘scintillating’ biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh

The Duchess Countess book
The Duchess Countess by Catherine Ostler

Elizabeth Chudleigh is best known today for being convicted of bigamy at an “explosive trial” in 1776, said Marcus Field in the London Evening Standard. Yet as Catherine Ostler’s impeccably researched biography reveals, her life was “jaw-dropping” right the way through. Born in 1721, she was the daughter of a minor aristocrat who died when she was five. Aged 22, she secured an entrée into high society when she was appointed maid of honour to the Princess of Wales. Beautiful, ambitious and witty in equal measure, Elizabeth once wore a flesh-coloured chemise to a masked ball that so entranced George II that he asked to feel her breast through her costume. Taking the king’s hand, she said she would put it in a “far softer place” – and guided it to his bald head. “It’s all terrifically entertaining: if you liked Bridgerton, you’ll love this.”

In 1744, Elizabeth “fell in love, or at least in lust”, with a rakish Naval captain named Augustus Hervey, known as “the English Casanova”, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. The pair contracted a secret marriage, which enabled Elizabeth to carry on being a maid of honour (the role depended on her being a spinster). But with Hervey away for long stretches at sea, Elizabeth grew restless, and soon acquired a new admirer: the fabulously wealthy Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. She then “embarked on a colossal cover-up” of her marriage to Hervey, and persuaded an ecclesiastical court to declare her single. This, she thought, cleared the way for her to marry the duke. When he died in 1773, she “inherited the income from his estates, worth perhaps £8m a year today”.

But the duke’s nephew, keen to secure the inheritance himself, sued for bigamy, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. In a packed Westminster Hall, “salivating peers and ogling ladies with enormous hair” watched the “trial of the century” unfold. A “crabbed old servant” turned up, and testified that Hervey had indeed married Elizabeth (whom newspapers referred to as the “Duchess Countess”, since Hervey had since become the Earl of Bristol). After the guilty verdict, Elizabeth slipped out of the country, her reputation “in shreds”. She spent the rest of her life in exile in Europe, where she befriended Catherine the Great, ran a vodka distillery in what is now Estonia, and built various palatial houses, all of which she named “Chudleigh”. One historian observed that she had “little of the goddess and plenty of the woman” about her. This “scintillating” biography “gives us the woman in her full glory”.

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Simon & Schuster 480pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

The Duchess Countess

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