Ostler is very good at conjuring up the 18th century “in all its elegance and acidity”. Yet though Chudleigh “was the greatest anti-heroine of the Georgian era”, whose life allegedly inspired Thackeray to create Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, what struck me is how, because of her diamonds, real estate, menagerie of dogs and monkeys and her fancy possessions, the person she actually resembled is Elizabeth Taylor. Even the clothes she went in for, fashioned from flesh-coloured silk, which were deemed “an overt display of her sexuality”, sound exactly like Taylor’s costumes in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Ostler concludes by describing Elizabeth as a “proto-feminist”, a powerful woman who took “revenge on England’s patriarchy”. She certainly makes her case well. The story romps along with great style and gusto, and her research is impeccable - although some scholars might balk at her decision to seek a modern diagnosis for Elizabeth’s often extreme behaviour (a psychiatrist suggests borderline personality disorder).
This invocation of mental health issues and the battle against patriarchy is a very current take. Less charitable readers might prefer Horace Walpole’s original assessment. “I was weary of her folly and vanity long ago,” he wrote after Elizabeth’s death, “and now look on her only as a big bubble that is burst.”
The case, and what led up to it, is at the heart of Catherine Ostler’s well written and researched book. There are many, many characters — a cast list of almost 100 — and occasionally the thrust of the story is lost in detail. Having said that, it is a gripping tale. Elizabeth’s career in the public eye had begun when, at 22, she became a maid of honour to Princess Augusta, the wife of the heir to the British throne. It was a post that carried with it the title ‘the Hon.’, a salary and the chance of an advantageous marriage.
This is a scintillating story superbly told by Catherine Ostler, a journalist and former editor of Tatler. She has a remarkable ability to demonstrate her deep knowledge of the period without being boring or a show-off. She packs every paragraph with eye-opening detail, making you feel as though you’re living in the 18th century, but never veers from the central story of a woman trying to hold herself together in that vicious society while the men did as they pleased.
Ostler’s book is such a rollicking read that it would be a shame to give away the outcome of the trial or the end of the story. She tells Elizabeth’s story with admirable style and gusto, and clearly finds her heroine irresistible, describing her as a “free and equal European,a citizen of the world”. That seems a bit much to me. Much as I enjoyed this book, I found Elizabeth and her friends entitled, arrogant, spoilt and stupid. Despite their diamond necklaces and country estates, they also seem to have been remarkably miserable.