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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 January 2010

The New Female Coterie


When I’m writing, I find I can’t really read fiction. It sucks me in too far and disrupts my process. But I also find that I really need to take small breaks to sack out on the couch and read. So I turn to my staggering ToBeRead pile of non-fiction. I’m a packrat when it comes to books. I can’t pass over anything that looks like it might be good, and I can’t get rid of anything I haven’t read. I like my heroines a bit outside the box: wicked widows, fallen women, etc. So when I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce, I gladly plunked down my money.


It’s the tale of Seymour Dorothy Fleming, a great heiress (supposedly she had something in the neighborhood of seventy-thousand pounds). She married well, though not spectacularly. Her husband was a cad, and it is clear by his actions that he had very little interest, sexually, in his wife (though he delighted in displaying her to his friends, even going to far as to boost one of them up to peek at her bathing!). Little wonder that Lady Worsley was soon having affair after affair, and that she eventually eloped with one of them.


But it wasn’t Lady Worsley’s tale that dumbfounded me as I read the book, it was the chapter about her new friends after her husband won a separation (her husband refused to divorce her, as keeping her under his thumb, and cut off from rehabilitating herself suited his thirst for revenge). There were a group of fallen ladies (wives and daughters of nobility) that lived a very interesting life somewhere between that of the Ton and the courtesan. The group was led by the Countess of Harrington, who maintained some shred of respectability only because her equally profligate husband wasn’t hypocrite enough to divorce her for following his example . . . the group also included Lady Grosvenor, Lady Ligonier, Lady Margaret Adams, Lady Derby, Lady Ann Cork, the Honorable Catherine Newton, and eventually Lady Worsley.


They met weekly at the exclusive brothel of Mrs. Sarah Pendergast to sup and discuss everything from news to politics to sex (apparently the leading fashionable ladies of the day had blackballed Lady Harrington from their Ladies’ Coterie which met weekly at Almack’s to socialize and dine, and this was her revenge; I must say, I think the countess’s group sounds like it would have been the more interesting and lively). These women, though reduced to living largely off their lovers, were still not quite considered courtesans or mistresses. Their pedigrees guaranteed them something more, though they’d ruined their reputations. My favorite is Lady Ligonier, about whom Rubenhold reports:


"What linked Lady Linogier with her once respectably married sisters was a complete absence of remorse for her conduct. Twenty years after the conclusion of her affair with Alfieri she described the shape her life had taken in a candid letter to him. She expressed her gratitude to the Count for delivering her from the constraints of ‘a world in which I was never formed to exist’ and that she ‘never regretted’ abandoning ‘for a single instant’. Throughout their affair she claimed to have been entirely sensible of her actions and to have foreseen the consequences of them: ‘I thank Providence for having placed me in a more fortunate situation,’ she wrote with hindsight . . . Although a life outside the boundaries of polite society held numerous disadvantages, the sentiments expressed by Lady Ligonier also attest to its merits. As ladies Worsley and Grosvenor experienced, the loss of reputation closed many doors, while also opening others through which fulfillment might be found."


I’ve been told by more than one person that women simply didn’t behave as my heroines do, that they didn’t think that way, sleep around that way, that these kind of women simply didn’t exist. I’m happy to find yet more examples of real women who most certainly did think and love and live very much as the heroines of my imagination insist upon doing . . .

10 Comments:

Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Throughout history there have been women who simply refused to conform to the roles in which society felt compelled to cast them. Anyone who doesn't believe that is either extremely naive or cruising down the river of denial.

And in many cases the houses that these women kept became havens for some of the brightest and most talented minds of their day.

I am continually fascinated by the types of women that make these moves, the price they pay, and ultimately their thoughts on whether or not it was worth it.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Stephanie J said...

This book sounds fascinating! Particularly the bit about Lady Linogier. It's the women that push the boundaries that interest me. This exact type of thing was actually the model for an earlier iteration of my WIP. I hope to bring back the concept and I might look into this book before doing so.

6:41 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn dennis said...

So what was the difference between this group of ladies and those who had quiet, discreet affairs? Closed doors and lack of open acknowledgement of their lovers. Many respectable ladies had affairs without seriously tainting their social standing. It seems to me the deciding factor was silent-you-can- do- it-you-are descreet consent of their husband. Am I right here?

8:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

This book sounds so fascinating, Kalen! Thanks for the great post. I too like to write and read heroines who push the boundaries. The more I read about real historical women, the more convinced I am that you can make just about any sort of behavior work in a novel, provided you set in in the historical context--explain why the character breaks the rules and deal with the consequences she'd have faced in society. And going to Kathrynn's comment, yes, I think with this as with so much, appearance was all. Women could get away with love affairs, but they couldn't get caught (the Marquise de Merteuil has a wonderful speak in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" about how Valmont can flaunt his love affairs while she has to turn discretion into an art).

11:07 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Yes, the key difference is how the husband took it. For example, Lady Worsley had numerous affairs leading up to her elopement. Her husband seems to have liked to watch from the details of the crim con trial (at which some of her most powerful past lovers testified in her favor, leading to her husband being awarded a single shilling in damages, when he’d sued for twenty thousand pounds). He was only pushed into taking action when she eloped with her current lover, who happened to be their neighbor and one of his best friends. She’d pushed, hoping for a divorce (she doesn’t seem to have quite understood that her dowry wouldn’t become hers if they divorced), and he shoved back, denying her a full divorcee, living her in limbo. I really disliked him, and was happy to see that when he died she got her money, married a younger man, and seems to have lived out her final years quite happily.

If the husband turned a blind eye, society pretty much did the same (though Lady Harrington’s case shows that not everyone was willing to do so).

So the big difference between the discreet women who stayed married and these women is that these women were living on the fringes due to the scandals they’d caused either by being divorced outright (though at least if you were divorced, you could remarry) or by being legally separated and cut off from everything put a pittance of pen money. Whatever the fifth Duchess of Devonshire went through, she never ended among the demi-reps.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous RfP said...

What a fabulous group. From your description alone, I wish I'd been privy to their conversations. I'll have to read the book.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Is there any significance to Lady Worsley's first name? It's really unusual. And I must ask: are you going to write a historical based on these extraordinary women?

5:35 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'll have to check and see if the book has anything to say about her name. I honestly don't remember . . .

I'm incorporating the club into the novel I'm working on now. My courtesan heroine needed a bastion of female support to play off of the hero’s friends and this little tidbit of reality fell into my lap at just perfect time. I just went back and added them in and I couldn’t be happier. I hate having a character who lives in a vacuum, but I hadn’t really worked out who my heroine’s friends would be. I’m having a blast using these real life figures (plus they allow me to point out that REAL women actually DID do the kinds of things my characters do, LOL!).

2:13 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Is there any significance to Lady Worsley's first name? It's really unusual.

Ok, it's like the tradition in the American South of giving the eldest daughter the mother's maiden name as her first name (I went to college with women named things like Burton, Hollingsworth and Stewart). Lady Worsley's mother was the granddaughter of the Duke of Somerset. The Somerset surname is Seymour.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Jeannette Ng said...

This sounds utterly awesome. If you do indeed write unrepentantly slutty heroines (and I in no way use that word in a derogatory manner), I shall love you for a long, long time. The Chronicler shall read with long interest.

I maintain that romance novels hold a much higher standard of heroine virginity than historical reality ever did. But this is perhaps not the place to air these thoughts.

4:26 PM  

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