The Most Famous Woman You Never Heard Of

According to the author of this fascinating biography, the three most talked-about women in the 18th century were Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Who was she?  A luxury-loving, experience-hungry Englishwoman who was dubbed the “Duchess-Countess” because of having married a duke and an earl.  Rising “from obscure West Country gentry” and though her finances were sometimes uncertain, she eventually moved in the highest circles of London society, was a royal maid of honor–and a bigamist. 

Though her impulsive and rocky first marriage was mostly a marriage in name only, it was never legally ended when she married one of England’s richest men, The Duke of Kingston.  She eventually stood trial for bigamy, complicated by complex legal maneuvering over what she inherited from her second husband.  Where there’s a will, there’s a fray. . . .

Chudleigh’s bigamy trial when she was in her fifties was an international sensation and in England it even overshadowed the growing war with the colonies.  As described in vivid detail, it had all the ceremony and magnetism of a coronation, given how rare it was for a peeress to be on trial in Parliament.  One newspaper reported “Imagination can hardy picture a more solemn, august, and at the same time brilliant appearance, than the court in Westminster Hall.” That trial wasn’t the end of her legal troubles, and readers will be fascinated by them as well as by her taking root in Russia of all places–for a while anyway.

The book offers dazzling and sometimes bizarre insight into a world of stupefying luxury: weird do’s and don’t for those who served royalty, mammoth dinners for a cast of thousands, lavish country and city homes decorated at an unbelievable cost, clothes and jewels worth millions.  It was all part of a highly rarefied lifestyle as decorous on the surface as a minuet, but treacherous if one made a misstep.

In 18th century England, Elizabeth Chudleigh almost always managed to dance that real and figurative dance with envious grace, style, and panache.  She wasn’t just beautiful and decorative: she was smart, educated, multilingual, charming, a wonderful conversationalist, intensely charismatic.  And as famous and controversial as any Kardashian today.

It’s too bad nobody recorded her conversation the way Boswell preserved Samuel Johnson’s bon mots and observations to make them a part of history.  We hear her letters crying for help at various points but don’t get to hear her at her most relaxed and impressive.

She was a woman of great appetites, loved commissioning new homes, loved doing a Grand Tour in Europe when that was still a man’s prerogative.  She was way ahead of her time in making sure she had good publicity–or trying to.  And of course the brightness of her star earned her plenty of detractors and even enemies.  Some of the best moments in this book are the sour comments about her in letters and diaries–you almost feel you’re reading trolls on a Twitter feed.  Their criticism is often sexist but sometimes legitimate as she was impetuous, impulsive and her plans sometimes led to “drama and debacle.”

At one point when she fled England for Rome, where the pope was a supporter, “as far as the locals were concerned, the voluptuous, peculiar, emotional Elizabeth was…a one-woman carnival.” Her travels here and there across Europe, especially when she was ill, are sometimes beyond belief and the author milks them for every juicy detail.  

The book is so filled with so much richness, however, that at times you might feel overwhelmed by names, banquets, vendettas, scandals, legal actions, and above all titles of nobility. It also seems a stretch for the author to keep speculating about whether Chudleigh suffered from borderline personality.

Duchess and Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh lived amazingly large, had amazing adventures, misadventures, famous friends and allies–and famous detractors.  She was a figure of admiration and emulation, and the focus of a unique trial.  This bountiful biography is the perfect material for a miniseries–not least for the grotesque Dickensian frenzy that erupted when Chudleigh died in Paris right before the French Revolution.

Lev Raphael’s first love as an English major was literature of the 18th century.  He is the author of twenty-seven books in many genres and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University where his  literary papers were purchased by Special Archives at MSU’s library.

Jason Bourne in 1815 Paris

You can judge a book by its cover when it’s a C.S. Harris Regency mystery.  The gorgeous covers are elegant, mysterious, evocative and haunting. And that’s the kind of historical mystery Harris writes, fielding a hero I dubbed the “Regency Jason Bourne” a few years ago.

He’s Sebastian St. Cyr, a Byronic English nobleman with some dark family secrets, a brilliant wife, and a powerful Machiavellian father-in-law with whom he’s often been at loggerheads.  A distant cousin of George III who wields tremendous power, this father-in-law is a “ruthless, eerily omniscient man with an enviable network of spies, informants and assassins.” 

But St. Cyr is more than a match for him or any opponent: He’s strong, clever, a gifted sleuth, blessed with supernaturally acute hearing and eyesight, and dangerous when threatened or crossed. 

Remember the scene in The Bourne Identity where Bourne is sleeping on a park bench in Switzerland and suddenly disarms and knocks out two policeman who want to see his papers?  That’s the kind of surprisingly quick, efficient act St. Cyr can perform as easily as tying his cravat.  He may look like a toff but he’s a bruiser when he needs to be.

Our hero is now in Paris searching for the mother who abandoned the family years ago, and that search of course leads to what seems like endless darkness before there’s light.  His journey starts with a shocking and heartbreaking discovery in the first few pages.   Harris is deft at writing opening chapters that grab you without feeling gimmicky and the opening chapter of When Blood Lies may be the strongest and most startling she’s ever written. 

It’s 1815 and France is “a witches’ brew of rumors and swirling threats of conspiracy” after over two decades of “death and heartache, terror and disaster, resentment and fury” due to revolution, war, and roiling regime change.

St. Cyr soon learns that his mother has been deeply enmeshed in France’s current turmoil in ways he cannot guess.  His investigation will require speaking to  a wide cross section of Parisian humanity including royalty, an executioner, the police, an inn keeper and many more.  This diversity is part of what makes the series so fascinating; Harris’s canvas is always large and colorful.

Looming over every interaction and conversation, it seems, is the shadow of Napoleon, seemingly trapped on Elba.  Ditto the echoing cries of mobs lusting for bloody spectacle when thousands of men, women, and children were guillotined during The Terror.

I can’t think of many crime writers who can so perfectly create a scene by appealing to all your senses the way Harris does.  Her fiendish plots, her deeply drawn characters and their tangled relationships are just plain thrilling.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres and was the crime fiction review for the Detroit Free Press for a decade.  He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com