16 September 2016

Guest Post: Disappearing Down Rabbit Holes - An Infamous Mistress


Available from Pen & Sword Books
and on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales' child, notorious courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London and Paris

We were delighted when Tony approached us and asked if we would like to write a guest blog about researching and writing our latest book, so here we go with our story.

About a decade ago now, we met via an online genealogy forum, exchanged email addresses, then phone numbers and so began our friendship. As we lived at opposite ends of the country meeting face-to-face in real life was not going to be easy, but we spent many hours on the phone discussing the folk we were both researching and, increasingly, shooting off on tangents (we have always been easily distracted by an interesting story).

Our whole adventure into penning not one but two historical biographies for Pen and Sword Books (with more in the pipeline) came about from an innocent enough question that Jo asked Sarah during a telephone conversation which sent us down something of a research ‘rabbit hole’.

“Have you ever heard about the ancestor of the queen who married a gypsy girl?” Goodness only knows now what in our conversation prompted that question, but we were instantly hooked. So, putting aside our joint research into long-dead family members, we instead turned to a particular line of the British royal family’s ancestry.

Yes, one of Elizabeth II’s ancestors had indeed married, as his first wife, a girl with gypsy blood running through her veins. No-one seemed to have looked at the story in depth before, so we decided to take up the challenge.

The Victorian gentleman who had married the gypsy girl, and who shocked his family in the process, was the Reverend Charles Cavendish Bentinck, nephew to the Duke of Portland. The Reverend Cavendish Bentinck’s father, Lord Charles Bentinck, also had a story to tell. He had eloped with Charles’ mother, a married woman, in 1815 just a few weeks after the Battle of Waterloo. To make matters worse, the lady in question was the niece of the Duke of Wellington. Needless to say, a scandal ensued.

But then we managed to side-track ourselves once again. Lord Charles Bentinck’s first wife had been the daughter of an infamous eighteenth-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, and her father was reputedly the Prince of Wales himself, later King George IV. We couldn't help ourselves and off we disappeared down yet another rabbit hole.

And with that, Grace Dalrymple Elliott took over. She led a fascinating life which quickly captivated us. Married young, she was divorced before she was legally an adult and embarked upon a career as a high-class courtesan, the mistress of an earl, a French duke and a British prince. During the years of the French Revolution Grace remained in Paris, exhibiting a great deal of bravery and operating as a form of spy, later recording her experiences of those years (which were published posthumously). However, much about her life remained unknown.

We approach our research as genealogists first and foremost which pays dividends. It was how we managed, for the first time, to uncover Grace’s fascinating maternal relatives (and Grace, we found, can only be truly understood when placed in the context of her family). The discoveries continued; family wills and other documents which had lain undisturbed tumbled out of dusty archive offices into our hands, shedding new light on Grace, her family and the two generations of the Cavendish Bentinck family we were interested in.

We dread to think about how many emails have passed between us over the years. It’s how we work, constantly batting ideas and information back and forth and questioning everything. The best emails were always those titled with a very excited ‘READ ME NOW!!!’ when one of us had just stumbled across some amazing titbit. All our research has been done personally by ourselves. We work well together and the fact that we lived so far apart was not a problem; geographically we were well placed to cover archives all over the country between us, and so much is online these days that it was possible to do an awful lot from the comfort of our own homes.

We now had a wealth of information and were bursting to share it with the world. There was no other option but to set to and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Neither of us had written anything before that had been widely published and we found that we wrote in vastly different styles. We settled into our writing routine. Between us we produce a detailed timeline with all our research included and then one of us writes and the other edits and critiques as we go along, a system which seems to work very well for us. To work as co-authors also makes the whole experience, which can be a bit of a solitary one, much more fun.

We started a history blog - All Things Georgian - as a way of getting ourselves into the wider marketplace and were contacted by someone commissioning authors for Pen and Sword Books; ‘did we have anything we’d like to consider submitting to them?’ Did we! Almost before we knew it, we were fully fledged authors.

Chronologically, Grace’s story had to come first, and so An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott was published in the UK in January 2016. A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History is due to hit the bookshelves at the end of November 2016, documenting the drama surrounding the elopement of Lord Charles Bentinck with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece and continuing the family saga into the next generation to detail the life, and loves, of his son, the Reverend Charles Cavendish Bentinck. The book ends by showing how very different Britain’s royal family would look today, were it not for a young gypsy girl and her tragic life.

So many wonderful things have happened to us along the road we have travelled to publication, not least getting to know the highly respected author and historian Hallie Rubenhold with whom we share an interest in Grace Dalrymple Elliott (we met for only the second time in real life in London when we arranged to meet Hallie for a coffee and a chat). Although now living in the same county, old habits die hard and we work as we always have. We continue to bat emails back and forth to one another as we write and research, and spend far too long on the phone!

Sarah Murden and Joanne Major 

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About the Authors

Sarah and Joanne are genealogists and historians who live in Lincolnshire, England and spend the majority of their lives immersed in both the Georgian and Victorian Eras. They describe themselves as 'history detectives' and aim for all posts on their with our blog to have at least one piece of information that is not already in the public domain. You can find Sarah on Twitter
@sarahmurden and Joanne @joannemajor3.

A Right Royal Scandal is due to be published in November 2016 and is available to pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and Amazon US and all good bookshops. It.recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.

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