Grace Dalrymple Elliott

I had long wanted to post on this extremely interesting figure, who makes a cameo appearance in my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution. Then a discussion began at Ellen’s Eighteenth Century Worlds on the topic of Grace Elliott and her Journal of my life during the French Revolution. Ellen kindly summarized the discussions  at Reveries under the sign of Austen.

Grace Elliott Gainsborough Met

Grace Elliott by Gainsborough at the Met

Lady Elliott is often remembered both as the author of the Journal, and as the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and King George IV. She even registered her daughter at birth as the Prince’s illegitimate child. The latter did not dare deny officially his paternity, though he was not utterly convinced (neither was public opinion, for that matter).

Grace later moved to France in the 1780s as the mistress of the Duc d’Orléans, future Philippe Egalité, who later voted for the execution of his cousin Louis XVI. Thus she was a direct witness to many major events of the Revolution. She was already quite familiar with the country, as she had been educated there in a convent school.

Ellen mentions a biography of Grace Elliott by Jo Manning, titled My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal Courtesan. I haven’t read it, but I did read Lady Elliott’s Journal. The context of its writing is interesting: Lady Elliott was recounting (with substantial embellishments and omissions, as we will discuss later) her adventures in revolutionary France to the English royal family in 1801. Then she wrote down those narratives upon the request of King George III, who must have found them interesting and entertaining. Which they no doubt are. They were apparently not meant for publication. The style of the Journal is consistent with a quickly jotted down verbal narrative, without much writerly self-editing.

Grace tailored the story of her life to fit her audience. Some things in the Journal are obvious lies (such as Marie-Antoinette trusting and befriending her, the mistress and confidante of her arch-enemy the Duc d’Orléans) though some do ring true (her arrests, for instance). Some of the prison scenes were not lived by Grace herself, but were transposed from the experiences of two of her friends. So this is a hybrid between a memoir and fiction.

I suspect Lady Elliott’s politics during the Revolution were in fact much closer to those of the Duc d’Orléans, which is to say radical, than she cared to admit to her royal listeners across the Channel a decade later. She was also careful to leave out the fact that she was a British spy, though one can guess at it from the Journal, for instance when her correspondence with Fox is discovered and leads to her arrest and subsequent release.

The text of Grace’s Journal was further “arranged” by her granddaughter when it was ultimately published in England in 1859. As early as 1861 it was translated in French, with multiple following French editions. Fresh from our group reading of the Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh, I suspect a Victorian bowdlerization of the life and writings of a Georgian ancestor.

Grace Elliott’s life during the French Revolution was also the topic of a remarkable film, released in the US under the title The Lady and the Duke, by the recently deceased and deeply regretted French director Eric Rohmer. This film shows Grace as far more than a royal courtesan, which is as it should be, though in my opinion it takes her Journal too much at face value. It remains one of the best renditions of the French Revolution on screen, and deserves its own post at a later time.

Grace Elliott Gainsborough Frick

Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Gainsborough at the Frick

Note: Both portraits reproduced here are by Thomas Gainborough, both were painted around 1778, and both are now in New York City, the full-length one at the Met, the one just above at the Frick Collection.

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11 Comments to “Grace Dalrymple Elliott”

  1. Raymond Louis Llompart says:

    Dear Catherine:
    What a JOY to find your Website (blog?)——specifically because of my “association” with Mrs. Elliott.
    It goes like this:
    Having arrived in NYCity in 1987, and with a great passion for painting, the Metropoltan Museum became sort of a second home.
    It was there that I one day discovered Mrs. Elliott. Having always been TRANSFIXED by soignee women, due to a grandmother who ADORED style and everything aristocratic, the portrait of Mrs. Elliott came to represent many of the illusions I had carried in my heart since childhood.
    It became a small obsession to examine and dream of who this woman might have been. HOURS were spent scrutinizing the face (a pity, since it was the least approachable being so large a portrait!), which I believe is a triumph for Mr. Gainsborough in its combination of majesty and a certain quiet sorrow in her expression. (The Frick portrait does not compare, in my opinion).
    Friends were brought and repeatedly “introduced” to Mrs. Elliott (ha!), not necessarily gaining the rich emotional life I had developed for the character.
    One wonderful “tip” was that at the time the plaque accompanying the description mentioned the memoir (something that was later removed), and of course, everywhere I went there were no copies—until I arrived at the main library on Fifth Avenue which, hooray, had an old. OLD copy of it. Of course, it could only be read THERE, and being a slow reader I reurned perhaps three times to finish this fascinating tale by this exceptional woman.
    The years went by and from 1997 on I started checking ocassionally for a trace of her on the Net—–until today.
    Having “moved on” I had not checked for years and now even Wikipedia has an entry.
    I am grateful to you, and thanks for the “tip” on Rohmer—–I am rushing to, well, to Amazon to buy it. As well, I shall read your cameo on your book as well as the other book.
    Isn’t it amazing how a painting can come alive within us and inspire us to….. well, some might say the silliest of ways.
    I believe in my case it is one more way to keep the memory of my Mama alive—-she becomes Mrs. Elliott in my dreams.

    Thank you!

  2. Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I’m sure you had fun writing this article. Books usually have a set print run, and if booksellers fail to sell the number of copies in this print run, the book tends not to be reprinted.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    So, Lucy, you have the Journal and this bio to read, plus the film to watch…

    Penny, yes, the film is worth straightening out your Blockbuster account (or opening an account somewhere else) to rent.

    Helena, the Journal is not reliable as an autobiography of Grace. Same thing as with the JEAL Memoir: it is a pity the censorship took place, but it remains an irreplaceable account.

  4. Helena says:

    I have the Journal upstairs with my revolutionary books. It does make fascinating reading so it’s a pity it can’t be relied upon! I hadn’t heard of the film or the biography so thank you.

  5. Helena says:

    I have the Journal upstairs with my revolutionary books. It does make fascinating reading so it’s a pity it can’t be relied upon! I hadn’t heard of the film or the biography so thank you.

  6. Penny says:

    Thank You for this post. Now I have another portrait for my apt(which always seems to have room for more)So she was also a spy and Eric Rohmer directed a good movie on the French Revolution. well as soon as I straighten out the misunderstanding with my blockbuster account I am renting it.
    thank you for bringing her to our attention.

  7. lucy says:

    This is so interesting Catherine. I’d absolutely love to read more about this. Thanks for this post:)

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth, I mean to read it. I also added the link to an online version of the Journal.

  9. Catherine, Jo Manning’s biography of Grace is wonderful. And wonderfully illustrated with photos and sidebars. She even has an interview with the actress who played Grace in the film The Lady and the Duke.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    I do relish the visual aspect of things, Ellen. And thanks again for your post.

    About The Lady and the Duke, it is amazing how Rohmer managed to show so much of the Revolution (I am thinking in particular of the epic scene at the Tuileries) on what would be considered a shoestring budget by Hollywood standards. I look forward to comparing notes with you about the film!

  11. Ellen Moody says:

    What beautiful renditions of the Gainsborough portraits, Catherine. If I provided lots of content about her life, you have done her justice in this eye-catching images. Thank you for directing people to my blog. As I wrote on WWTTA this morning, I’d like to hellp stop people treating this woman as a “scandalous woman!” she was a decent intelligent human being who was given no opportunity for a permanent real niche for herself. Both children taken from her (note).

    I mean to watch Rohmer again. My husband is downloading the movie and I’ll add a short movie review to my blog when I’ve finished watching it.

    Ellen

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