History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 September 2006

Scandalous Heroines: Too True for Fiction?

I am not an expert in anything historical. Oh, I know a lot of useless things, and I try to get the clothing details right, but nobody comes to me with their questions. They may want to reconsider though, at least on a few select topics. My research shelf includes Courtesans by Katie Hickman, A History of Orgies by Burgo Partridge, and The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees. You now have an idea of where my interests lie. Ahem.

I love writing scandalous women. I’ve written a ruined heroine who sets out to take a lover, and a heroine who masquerades as a ghost haunting – of course – the hero’s bedroom. My current heroine has a little gambling problem and that’s the least of her issues. But in doing research into, say, gambling, I keep coming across the most delicious stories about real nineteenth-century women. The situations they find themselves in. . . If I wrote a stories like these, I’d be laughed off the review blogs.

How often have you historical writers heard, "A woman in that time would NEVER have done that"? Or "Nobody would every have gotten away with this." The old adage is true: truth is stranger than fiction, and I just had to share a few of the tidbits I’ve turned up in my research. So here are some story ideas. Read them. Take them in. Then be sure to tone them down in your own books, or no one will ever take you seriously.

The 7th Earl of Stamford, George Harry Grey, inherited his title in 1845 at the impressionable age of eighteen. His first wife, Bessy, was the daughter of his servant at Cambridge. Yes, the countess was the daughter of a manservant. His second wife – oh, it gets better! – was Kitty Cocks. (I did not make that up. Again, it doesn’t have the ring of truth.) There are many stories about Kitty Cocks, but none paint her as anything but disreputable. Before marrying, this Countess of Stamford was either the daughter of his gamekeeper, a "performer" at Cremorne Gardens, or a bareback circus equestrienne. Take your pick, but I’d go for circus rider if I were you.

(Oh, speaking of riders, apparently London livery stables of the time would hire beautiful young women to ride their horses in Hyde Park as a form of advertisement. They were affectionately known as "pretty horsebreakers" and rode during the fashionable hours among the fashionable set. These girls must have caught many a nobleman’s eye. . .)

Back to the Earl of Stamford! Despite his enjoyment of the ladies, he died without an heir and the title went to a cousin in South Africa. My original source said he was a "missionary bishop", but a later source said he’d been sent to Africa because of his unruly behavior. The trip failed to magically turn him into an obedient son. He had three children with his African housekeeper and married her before inheriting the earldom and moving his family to England. THIS Countess of Stamford was the daughter of a slave! Oh, God, that would make a great book! (Btw, regarding research: English sources listed her as Martha Solomon, and I couldn’t find much else. Then I ran across a document written in Africaans that named her Martha Solomon(s) and BOOM!, tons more information.) And, needless to say, her son was declared illegitimate and did NOT inherit the title.

Then there’s Isabelle Eberhardt who explored North Africa at the turn of the century dressed as a Muslim man. And Harriet Mellon, a celebrated actress who married a duke and became Duchess of St. Albans. (Did I mention that she was twenty-five years his senior?!) And there are the many, many courtesans who eventually married one of their titled protectors. It DID happen! Too many good stories to choose from, and most of these are from the judgmental Victorian era. I can’t even imagine what went on in the Regency period. Actually, why aren’t I writing Regency? I may have to reexamine that.

Please share your own favorite scandalous, romantic women of history. Or ask me questions about mine. I’d love to have the excuse to blow off my writing and delve deeper into these stories that are too good to be used in fiction! Better yet, have any of you received letters saying "That just would not have happened"?


Blogger Unknown said...

Oooo, Vicki! Great first post. Like you I love scandalous leading ladies (my debut book stars a woman who takes lovers for only a single night and a hero who won’t put up with that *GRIN*).

The famous Victorian Courtesan Skittles was one of those "pretty horsebreakers" you wrote about. She was amazing. That waist!

I love Hester Stanhope, who famously queened it over the Bedouins. Not to mention the notoriously convoluted family tree of the Devonshires (live in paramours who later become the wife/duchess, children from various liaisons being raised together, nieces marrying their aunts lovers and raising the children from the affair, the whole Caro Lamb debacle with Byron).

I find these kind of people far more interesting (and more real) than their squeaky-clean brethren.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I don't mind a squeaky clean heroine as long as she descends into some sort of wickedness during the book. *g*

And Skittles was totally hot!

9:15 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Who was it who called the various illegimate Devonshire offspring, rather vaguely referred to as cousins or adoptees, as "children of the mist"? I love that phrase.

I love the Hickman book too, and when I opened it to the first post-it flag stuck in it, I found this 1787 love letter from Charles James Fox (brilliant Whig MP and briefly Prime Minister), to his mistress, the famous courtesan Elizabeth Armistead:

I have known many men and many women and for many of them I have great friendship & esteem, but I never did know and never shall man or woman who deserved to be loved like Liz, & I am so convinced of this that having you for my Wife appears to me a full compensation for every disappointment.

Many of his letters have this sweet caressing way of saying "Liz," as though repeating her name were an act of love in itself.

Of course she wasn't his "Wife" at that time, but they did marry eventually, in secret. It's one of the happiest of the courtesan stories that I know, even if very few (or perhaps none) of the women of Fox's circle ever received her.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I forgot about Mrs. Armistead. She's a fascinating 18th century character.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Monica McCarty said...

Love this post, Vicki! Great research tidbits! I am completely with you on the self-styled arbiters of "truth" in fiction who take a rigid line on what could have happened in Regency society. Give me a break. Just because something wasn't common or was looked down upon, doesn't mean it didn't occasionally happen--and more importantly, doesn't mean it can't make the basis for a wonderful work of fiction.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thanks for that letter, Pam! There are so many great letters in that book. That was beautiful.

And I couldn't agree with you more, Monica. For example, being wealthy and connected back then had the same benefits that it does today. You could get away with a whole lot more than your society-climbing counterparts. I noticed that it seemed like a lot more dukes married their mistresses than anyone else. (Barons, for instance.)

Being a scandalous duke and duchess. . . Hell, you may not get invited to all the parties, but it's not like you'd be financially ruined and run out of town because the society matrons didn't approve of you.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, Monica! Great to see you over here (now that the comment section is working properly *blush*).

I think so much of what a lot of people think is correct historically is really coloured by Victorian-tinted glasses, if you know what I mean. Candice Hern has made some great points about Georgette Heyer’s Victorian sensibility influencing her Regency world-building, and that world in turn very much influencing what many readers (and some writers) now picture as the “true” version of the era.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Regarding Children of the Mist. . . The Cholmondeley family was another of those. At one point during the Regency, Lady Cholmondeley was raising three misty children in her own household.

One was Harriet Cholmondeley, the bastard (and clearly acknowledged!) daughter of her husband.

The second was Georgiana Elliott. She was the daughter of Grace Elliott, Cholmondeley's long-time mistress, but it's not clear whether the little girl was his or was sired by the Prince of Wales.

The third girl was Susan Priscilla Bertie, the acknowledged natural daughter of the Duke of Ancaster.

What a household. Now THAT would make a great book. A bastard daughter raised in the home of her legitimate siblings?

Thank you to Jo Manning for that delicious info in her book My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Time of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan The story gets even better! When Georgiana married (the son of a duke, I might add), the announcement names her as the Honorable Miss Seymour. But she was in no way entitled to use the term "Honorable" as she wasn't legitimate! As Ms. Manning says, "If, though, the Earl of Cholmondeley wished to have Georgiana addressed in a particular fashion, who was to stop him?"

I think that about sums it up!

(And thank you to Pam for recommending this book. Everyone buy it!)

12:12 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

(Lord Sin keeps looking at me, btw. Should I be nervous? I think his eyes are following me as I blog. And he's naked in case no one noticed.)

2:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well he is LORD SIN, dirty boy. Of course he's looking . . .

I forgot one of my favorite details about the Devonshire household: The duke (whose annual income is estimated to have been 100K pounds) gave his legitimate daughters (Harry-O and Little G) dowries of 10K pounds each. He gave his illegitimate daughter by Elizabeth Foster, Caroline St. Jules, a 30K pound dowry.

Needless to say all three daughters married well (compare this to Miss Darcy in P&P who has a dowry of 30K pounds, when her brother—and presumably her father—had an income of 10K pounds a year; Makes the duke seem kind of stingy, doesn’t it?).

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hooray! I'm so tired of hearing people say, "People in the Regency (or Victorian, or whenever) period would never have behaved like that," when history shows that clearly they did.

I love the book "Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons" that looks at life in Covent Garden in the 18th and early 19th century.


8:06 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ok, I've ordered three books in the last three days. Between our blog and Risky Regencies I'm going to go broke! Thanks so much for stopping by Saralee and temping my inner bibliophile.

8:10 AM  
Blogger lacey kaye said...

OMG, I just found my new favorite blog. I MUST link you from my site.

This post had incredible timing. Those who know about my virtual shafting the other day know I LOVE stories that explore what rarely happened BUT.DID. THANK YOU!

8:48 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Lacey. So glad to see you over here! I'm missed your "virtual shafting", but you're always welcome to gripe over here about people telling you something isn't period when it is!

11:00 AM  
Blogger Candice Hern said...

Hi hoydens! This should be a fun blog! Consider it bookmarked.

I did a bit of a country house tour in May, and it seemed there was at least one scandalous story at every house. I took notes! Lots of story ideas.

One of my favorites was at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. The owner in the late 18th century was Sir Henry Harpur, 7th Bt. He took one of the house maids as a mistress, and a few years later scandalized society by marrying her. So, you're right, Victoria. Such things DID happen.

1:15 AM  
Blogger Angie said...

My favorite historical bad girl is Belle da Costa Greene. She was an educated black women who passed as white and became J. Pierpont Morgan's librarian--privy to his purse and his personal life. Come to think of it...my next heroine is based on her. *G*

6:34 PM  
Blogger Katie said...

There is a book 'The black countess' abt the countess of stamford.Lady Elizabeth Dido was another woman born to a slave mother and a member of the aristocracy,it was because of her that slavery was abolished.


Camilla,another paaser and very brave woman was the stunning Anita Hemmings - she faked her way in and became the first african american to graduate from Vassar,a jealous roomate outed her - centuries later though her descendanrs had no idea they were black!

10:15 PM  

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