Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Infamous Mistress

As we continue to learn about women in the French Revoluntion, the following is a guest post by authors Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. Please let them know in comments how much you enjoy their story. Might I even suggest you buy their book (of course, that is after you have purchased Female Adventurers: the women who helped colonized Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived through a fascinating era in history. She gained her infamy due to her reputation as a high-class eighteenth-century courtesan, and to this day enjoys continued notoriety through her Journal which recounts her adventures and bravery during the French Revolutionary years. But behind this almost larger-than-life persona lay the real woman, a daughter, mother, sister and friend.

Born c.1754, probably in Edinburgh, Grace grew up in a strongly matriarchal family after her parents separated when she was just a child. After her mother’s early death, Grace was sent to a convent school in Lille before returning to live with her father in London. It was here that she met the man she was to marry when only 17-years of age, John Eliot a society doctor who was much older than Grace and reputedly much shorter than her too (Grace was a tall, willowy beauty). One son was born to the couple, who died young, and the marriage crumbled. Eliot accused Grace of adultery; she had been followed to a London bagnio where she had entertained the reprobate – but young and handsome – Viscount Valentia. A Criminal Conversation case and divorce swiftly followed.

Cast adrift, Grace embarked upon her career as a courtesan, hoping to gain her security via this route as two of her aunts had done before her. For many years the athletic Earl of Cholmondeley was Grace’s protector before she left for France and the arms of the duc d’Orléans. But then the young Prince of Wales expressed a wish to meet Mrs Elliott and she returned to England to make her fortune as a royal mistress. The romance between Prinny and Grace only lasted a few short months, but it was long enough for Grace to secure her future by becoming pregnant with the prince’s child. The child proved to be a daughter, named Georgiana Augusta Frederica.
Grace left Georgiana in the care of Cholmondeley and returned to France and the duc d’Orléans. It was in this way that she was trapped in Paris during the Reign of Terror, her connection to the Bourbon dynasty placing her in grave danger. Arrested and questioned, she lived in fear of the guillotine but repeatedly risked her neck by acts of bravery to help her friends. She later committed her experiences to paper and they were published many years after Grace’s death in her Journal of My Life during the French Revolution. Undoubtedly heavily edited by Grace’s prim Victorian granddaughter, and embellished by an over-enthusiastic editor, the core of the Journal is Grace’s own words. It remains one of only a few first-hand accounts written by a woman.
Grace’s later years, when she returned to England at the dawn of the nineteenth-century, were spent on the fringes of high-society; her friends ranged from the equally celebrated and scandalous Lady Worsley to a woman who had once been a scullery maid but who became Grace’s closest confidante. Returning to France for her twilight years, Grace died at Ville d’Avray near Paris in 1823. 

N.B. Grace chose to spell her surname differently from her husband, perhaps to distance herself from him.

Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, genealogists and historians, are co-authors of An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Their second book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, details the second marriage and family of Grace’s son-in-law, ancestors of the British royal family.
They blog at All Things Georgian and can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Image credits:
Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Portrait of George IV when Prince of Wales by Richard Cosway, c.1780-82. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Georgiana Augusta Frederica Elliott by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1784. Metropolitan Museum of Art


  1. Thank you for introducing me to another intriguing woman from the French Revolutionary era. I am fascinated with this period of history and will add your book to my reading list.

    1. Thank you. Will have the next post about Women of the French Revolution up shortly.