Grace Elliott

13 September 2009

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Grace Dalrymple Elliott was probably one of the most fascinating women of her era. Her paintings certainly don’t depict a great beauty by any means but she was clearly possessed of great seductiveness and charisma as she managed to become mistress to a plethora of very influential men.

Grace was not born to a high society position and was in fact the daughter of a lawyer in Edinburgh. She was born in 1754 and her parents split up when she was young and as a result she was sent away to a convent in France to be educated, where (rather like Rose de Beauharnais in Penthémont and Anne Boleyn even earlier on) she observed the style and manners of the aristocratic French ladies that surrounded her and strived to emulate them with dazzling effects. Like Rose and Anne Boleyn, she was one of those very elegant, sophisticated women who manage to convince everyone around them that they are amazing beauties when in fact the reality probably fell very short.

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The lovely, willowy Grace returned to Edinburgh in 1771 and was immediately hailed as a great beauty. To no one’s surprise she didn’t waste much time before getting married to an immensely wealthy but rather elderly doctor, John Elliott and it didn’t take long before the young Mrs Elliott was setting the town alight with rumours about her wanton ways and secret lovers. This culminated with her scandalous departure from Edinburgh in 1774 in the company of Lord Valentia, her latest paramour.

After a lengthy and shocking divorce trial, Grace was finally freed from her marriage and given £12,000 in damages, which was an enormous amount for the time. Her reputation was in tatters however as divorced women were regarded as outside decent society and her own family, disgusted by her behaviour had her kidnapped and immured in a French convent until the dashing Lord Cholmondeley managed to rescue her and bring her back to London.

Grace was officially ‘kept’ by Lord Cholmondeley but had many other lovers in England, including the Prince of Wales in 1782. She gave birth to a daughter Georgina Frederica Augusta Elliott later that year and declared her to be the Prince’s child, even having her baptised as such. It is not known who fathered Georgina but the Prince of Wales, Lord Cholmondeley, George Selwyn and Charles Wyndham all took an interest in the girl and could all conceivably have been her father. Lord Cholmondeley however raised the girl as his own and seems the most likely candidate.

Grace’s best known affair, with Philippe Duc d’Orléans began in 1784 and she eventually moved to Paris to be nearer to him, where she remained throughout the revolution despite great personal danger to herself when she made no secret of her allegiance to the royal family, even undertaking secret missions on their behalf.

Or so she would have us believe. Grace’s story is known to us as a result of her highly coloured and dramatic Journal of my life during the French Revolution, which is probably not entirely true. In fact it is probably mostly a fabrication. I don’t think I care though – Grace’s writing is superlative and it is a cracking story.

One of the best known tales about Grace is her story about hiding the Marquis de Champcenetz underneath the pillows of her bed while a mob of blood thirsty Jacobins searched her bedroom, even stabbing her mattress in their zeal to find hiding aristocratic fugitives. It is not known if Grace’s account of what happened is precisely true but it is a good tale.

As a result of her relationship with the Duc d’Orléans and her well known royalist sympathies, Grace was imprisoned from December 1793 until October 1794. She claims to have shared a cell with the doomed Madame du Barry, but that is probably not true. It is also said that she was kept with Rose de Beauharnais and was with her when she learned of Robespierre’s fall, this too is uncertain.

I have a marvellous book about Grace: My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliot by Jo Manning, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in the life of women during the French Revolution. It closely follows Grace’s own account of her life and is an extremely entertaining read with very enlightening text boxes about the manners and social history of the period and also a wealth of wonderful pictures.

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