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.
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.
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.