The scandalous duchess who inspired one of English literature’s greatest works

Catherine Ostler
·7-min read
Olivia Cooke As Becky Sharp in ITV’s Vanity Fair, the novel inspired by the life of the ‘Duchess Countess’, Elizabeth Chudleigh
Olivia Cooke As Becky Sharp in ITV’s Vanity Fair, the novel inspired by the life of the ‘Duchess Countess’, Elizabeth Chudleigh

“Miss Sharp put her pale face out of the window and actually flung the book back into the garden.” Here is Thackeray’s finest creation, Becky Sharp, in the first chapter of Vanity Fair – throwing Dr Johnson’s dictionary away as she leaves school. Rules, definitions, the limits of the patriarchal system are not for her. An adventuress who rampages through London society and across Europe, ambition in one hand, brandy bottle in the other, Becky is complicated, “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” (as Caroline Lamb described Byron) and yet, mesmerising. Her kind friend Amelia Sedley should be the heroine, but it is Becky who steals the attention of novelist and reader alike.

It is Thackeray’s genius that he creates such a darkly enchanting protagonist; but there is no escaping the similarities of his heroines to Elizabeth Chudleigh, the fellow charismatic adventuress whose biography I have written. As a journalist as well as an author, Thackeray was, he admitted, inspired mostly by real life. He mentioned Chudleigh – pure Becky-style – in his non-fiction work The Four Georges, in his description of Bath social life in the time of George II: “Miss Chudleigh came there, slipping away from one husband, and on the look-out for another.”

Elizabeth Chudleigh was born in 1721 into a precariously-financed branch of the Devon gentry, but through wit, looks and family connections became maid-of-honour to Augusta, Princess of Wales. After one let-down, she married a young naval officer, the Hon. Augustus Hervey, in a clandestine ceremony during a summer romance in 1744; soon she fell out with him, and having agreed to keep the first marriage secret (a maid of honour’s role – and therefore salary – depended on her single status), she married the “handsomest man in England”, Evelyn Pierrepont, the Duke of Kingston. Which would have been dandy had his relatives not, after his death in 1773, decided to pursue her through the courts to reclaim his money, leading to a conviction for bigamy in 1776. Diarist Horace Walpole and others called Elizabeth the “Duchess-Countess” because she was the Duchess of Kingston and (after Hervey’s brother died childless) the Countess of Bristol at the same time.

Chudleigh’s sensational life and strained circumstances suited the novel Thackeray published a century later. Her father – and brother – had died young, leaving her unguided in marriage; she was sharp, bright, and like Becky, a fluent French speaker, but there was no money; her first marriage was an impulsive, clandestine union to an impecunious military man who she wanted to replace with a grandee. In Elizabeth’s case, it was Captain Hervey, then the Duke of Kingston, while Becky Sharp’s secret marriage is to an army officer, younger son Rawdon Crawley, whom she would then have happily exchanged for the Marquis of Steyne. Thackeray even made Becky “little”: small, waif-like, her allure in the eyes and in her wit – just like Elizabeth.

The similarities don’t end there. One of Elizabeth’s most memorable appearances was in a sensationally revealing costume as Iphigenia, about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, at a masquerade ball in 1749. (The outfit had such an effect on King George II that he gave her mother a job as housekeeper of Windsor Castle.) The engraving of the gossamer-dressed Elizabeth was still being reprinted decades later. Becky’s theatrical streak, meanwhile, sees her acting out the word “Agamemnon” in a game of Charades, playing Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra, “like an apparition – her arms are bare and white”. Becky too is admired, as Clytemnestra, by the King (then George IV) who, as was the case with his real-life great-grandfather, insists on being introduced to her.

Charismatic adventuress Elizabeth Chudleigh - Hulton Archive
Charismatic adventuress Elizabeth Chudleigh - Hulton Archive

Like Elizabeth, Thackeray’s Becky gives parties for the “best” people – the guestlists printed in the next day’s papers – and it is never clear who is footing the bill. She is presented in her finery at court – in both cases, their odd lappets (flapping trails of lace) baffle the press. Disloyal servants make off with Becky’s dresses and belongings, just as Elizabeth’s did after her death. And Becky, like Elizabeth, becomes a continental exile, a wanderer, her former disgrace pursuing her across Europe. Elizabeth attempted to settle in Bavaria; Becky settles in “Pumpernickel” (Weimar).

In fact, two other Thackeray heroines owe even more of their stories to Elizabeth. The History of Henry Esmond (1852) is set a century before Vanity Fair, in the time of Queen Anne (Elizabeth Chudleigh lived in between the two). This time, the novelist made the object of Esmond’s affections, Beatrix, a maid-of-honour at court, just as Elizabeth’s first “break” was as maid of honour to the Princess of Wales. The echoes here were noted by Sabine Baring-Gould in the Cornhill Magazine in 1887 (the magazine Thackeray had edited himself): “it can hardly be doubted,” he wrote, that Elizabeth Chudleigh was Thackeray’s original for Trix, and the novelist must have read the anonymous account of the Duchess-Countess's trial that appeared the year she died.

Trix reappears in The Virginians (1859) as Baroness Bernstein, a widow who, like the older Elizabeth, is courted by nephews because of her wealth. It was Elizabeth’s eldest nephew by marriage who saw to it that she was prosecuted for bigamy, in the vain hope it would help him regain his uncle’s inheritance.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, in the BBC’s Bleak House. Charles Dickens was also influenced by Elizabeth Chudleigh for his aristocrat hiding a scandal - BBC/Mike Hogan
Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, in the BBC’s Bleak House. Charles Dickens was also influenced by Elizabeth Chudleigh for his aristocrat hiding a scandal - BBC/Mike Hogan

Thackeray even introduced Elizabeth herself in The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844). His character Lyndon was part-based on James Semple – a real military rogue who came into Elizabeth’s orbit, passed himself off as a Scottish lord and befriended Potemkin. Lyndon goes to a party thrown by Elizabeth’s friend, Mrs Cornelys, who threw subscription balls in Soho, where he sees “all the high and low demireps of the town… from the Duchess of Kingston… [to] Kitty Fisher.” Lyndon seduces the widowed Countess of Lyndon who moves around – as Elizabeth did in later life – with a retinue of maidservants, small animals and jewels.

So bizarre were the twists of the Duchess-Countess’s story that a number of other Victorian novelists were inspired by it too. In Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), for example, there is female bigamy and marriage register made years after the event (just as Elizabeth procured hers after a lapse of 15 years, when she briefly considered bribing her first husband with their marriage secret); as Elizabeth did when she briefly considered bribing her first husband with their marriage secret. And in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852), there is Lady Dedlock, a beautiful aristocrat tormented by her mysterious past and her inheritance battles.

However, it is in Becky Sharp’s indomitable spirit that we see literature’s greatest debt to Elizabeth Chudleigh. The Duchess-Countess wasn’t heartless or unmaternal or wicked like Becky; but like her, she did create a fashionable self-image in the face of an insecure existence. John Carey wrote of Becky in society that she was “Condemned by its morals, but makes its moral seem inadequate.”

Above all, we must remember that in his Chudleigh-type roguish upstart, Thackeray could see the underlying battle for survival – with all its required courage, resourcefulness, and energy – and empathise, perhaps, where most of Georgian society could not.

The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalised a Nation by Catherine Ostler is published by Simon & Schuster at £25. To order your copy, visit Telegraph Books or call 0844 871 1514