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Elizabeth Chudleigh, What a Bitch

Friday, September 18, 2020 - 21:00

OK, maybe that isn't the nicest tag line for this chapter in Rizzo's book, but Elizabeth Chudleigh wasn't a very nice person. And yet, as I summed up this chapter, I couldn't help but dwell on how very gendered our impressions of people's behavior can be. Someone who is strong-willed, knows what they want and goes after it in clever and single-minded ways, knows how--and when--to be charming, and when they don't have to bother with it. These are all things that can either be admirable or hateful depending on our relation to the person and our expectations for their behavior. Chudleigh treated the women who were her companions abominably. She was a user, and couldn't bear not to be the star of every show. But neither did she bother to play the accommodating and submissive mistress to the various noblemen she cut a swath through. When she found one she wanted to marry, she strategized like a general and accomplished her goal. And somehow she escaped serious consequences for any of her transgressions. It's hard not to have at least a crumb of admiration. Just never rely on someone like her for anything you seriously need.

And if you ever need a colorful antagonist for your heroine, you could do worse than Elizabeth Chudleigh! Who knows, the right romance plot might even redeem her. But I doubt it.

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Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 4: Elizabeth Chudleigh and her Maids of Honor

Elizabeth Chudleigh’s life and career read like a fictional character--perhaps Manley’s Duchess of Cleveland in The Adventures of Rivella. Manley’s characters were powerful, profligate, and passionate. Chudleigh took as her model the Restoration image of the courtly woman, though her own career started around 1740. But the allowances made for larger-than-life figures in that previous era were no longer made when Chudleigh was tried for bigamy in her 50s and escaped penalty only through rank and exile.

She wrote a memoir in her 80s that reveals a startling lack of reflection and insight, but matches the characters in Manley’s fiction--nearly a century earlier--very closely. She spent lavishly on display while-being miserly behind the scenes. Her moods were mercurial and exaggerated, following every whim. Manley had been writing a satire on women of her day. But Chudleigh was out of step with changing ideals of behavior. While Rizzo’s portrait is severe, she notes that Chudleigh’s contemporaries were even harder on her.

Elizabeth Chudleigh was born into a respectable gentry family of moderate means. Both her parents were impulsive and pugnacious in temperament, setting a model for her own behavior. Elizabeth was beautiful, charming, and ambitious. She was witty, though not particularly intelligent. And she was used to having her own way. She gained a reputation for being brave in defense of her own interests--traveling with pistols at hand to protect the jewels she was never without.

At age 20 she became a maid of honor in the household of the Prince of Wales (the son of George II and father of the future George III). Having been taken on as a protégé by the Earl of Bath, one thing she learned was how to arrange favors for people without any expense to herself, which helped build her sphere of influence.

She had no loyalties except to herself and openly proclaimed that she changed her friends as she changed her dress. Chudleigh climbed the ladder of influence at court despite a secret marriage (disclaimed after the death of their son).

She had the knack of making powerful nobleman fall in love with her, including King George II who evidently was charmed by her performance in a court mask in a costume so revealing it was considered scandalous. She was mistress to a succession of powerful men and used the opportunities to live lavishly and enrich herself. She traveled extensively in Europe, leaving her ducal lover of the time to stew at home in order to leverage a marriage proposal from him.

This required the expedient of getting an annulment of her discarded marriage. While the marriage lasted, no one seriously challenged the fiction. But her greed to be named heir to the duke’s fortune was the last straw for the duke’s sister (and mother of the heir to his title). After the Duke‘s death, Chudleigh was indicted for bigamy. The charge was upheld, but conveniently Chudleigh’s discarded first husband had just become an Earl. That meant Chudleigh still had the necessary rank to avoid physical punishment for bigamy (branding).

She took her fortune into exile on the continent  where her charm and never fulfilled promises to make various people her heir gained her welcome at various courts until her eventual death in Russia.

But how does all this relate to the topic of companions?

Chudleigh maintained three to six companions at any given time that she referred to as her “maids of honor” in reference to her time in that position for the Princess of Wales. She was not part of fashionable society--her circles tended more toward the Duke’s associates, and women who owed her favors, or hoped for them. For companionship she surrounded herself with young beautiful accomplished women…but fell into a rage if they were paid attention in place of her. Chudleigh attracted them with promises of making connections for good marriages or help securing pensions, but never actually carried through.

Rizzo suggests that her jealous behavior towards her companions implied they might have been her lovers on occasion as well, but the footnote for this offers no direct evidence.  Chudleigh would definitely have been aware of lesbian activity around the court, and two of her intimate friends in her youth (back when she still had actual friends) were said to frequent a lesbian bordello.

[Note: What’s this, you say? A lesbian bordello? Well, clearly I need to track down this reference. The citation is from E.J. Burford in Wits, Wenches, and Wantons (London: Robert Hale, 1986) which, per Rizzo, “notes that eighteenth-century lesbian bordellos existed at Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street and Frances Bradshaw’s in Bow Street and that Harrington and Ashe [Chudleigh’s friends] were patrons, but he gives no sources.” Well, I’ll see for myself because I just ordered it.]

In addition to accompanying her to social events, Chudleigh’s companions were expected to attend when she went visiting (and to wait in the carriage while she did so). They kept her company at meals, sat with her while she napped, suffered her temper if she lost at cards, served as ushers at her entertainments, and during one. Period when she was denying the duke her bed, had them sit up in shifts through the night while she slept.

Brief biographies are offered of some of Chudleigh’s companions: an impoverished cousin (she often chose relatives), a woman who had worked her way up through the servants’ hierarchy (an atypical case of not sticking to one’s own class), and one woman, ostensibly a foundling left on Chudleigh’s doorstep, but rumored to be her own daughter, raised by Chudleigh’s mother, than taken on as an attendant. After a somewhat confused episode in Chudleigh’s absence, when the Duke was either made to take the girl (presumably his daughter as well) as mistress, or may even have done so, the girl was so badly treated by the jealous Chudleigh that she appears to have committed suicide.

Two companions are particularly noteworthy. Miss Bate was with Chudleigh for an extended period and was a mainstay during the lead-up to her marriage to the Duke. She was included in travels to Europe. Miss Bate was half-sister to two of Chudleigh’s male friends and Chudleigh arranged that a pension that had been paid to Miss Bate’s mother was transferred to Miss Bate (saving Chudleigh from having to cover her expenses). Miss Bate might well have continued attending her in her exile after the Duke’s death except that the Duke had left her a small annuity in his will, which enraged Chudleigh so much she cast her off. Whereupon Miss Bate married a clergyman in Bath and lived as happily as may be expected.

Miss Penrose, a rather younger woman than Miss Bate, was also with Chudleigh through her marriage and the death of the Duke. She accompanied Chudleigh into exile on the continent. She was a clergyman’s daughter and a distant relative of Chudleigh and was probably the model for the “virtuous companion” character in Foote’s play “A Trip to Calais.” But Penrose evidently kept Chudleigh’s goodwill to the end. The evidence of this is the legacies Chudleigh left various members of the Penrose family, though they were mostly worthless or had already been sold or lost before the will was executed.

Rizzo points out that the behavior that seems so outrageous in Chudleigh can be seen as unremarkable or only mildly exaggerated male behaviors. She broke the rules of feminine behavior of the time, claimed male prerogatives, performed male-coded actions, and exploited the women around her with the same callous disregard that men were wont to. Except for the matter of a lack of female solidarity, she might be viewed as a feminist icon.

She had no close friends among fashionable women but was never actually ostracized. She was received at court and her entertainments were well attended. But to those dependent on her provision and good will, she was a tyrant who would allow no rival or equals.

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historical