There are few more glamorous 18th-century figures than Elizabeth Chudleigh. ‘Duchess, countess, courtier, socialite, hostess, mariner, property developer, celebrity, vodka distiller, press manipulator, arts patron, bigamist . . . brave, reckless, insecure, loving, greedy, resilient, depressive’ is how her biographer, the former Tatler editor Catherine Ostler, describes her. And in June 2021 Ostler came to Intelligence Squared to relate the story of how this army officer’s daughter took on the courts of law and a good chunk of the British aristocracy in order to become her own woman.
When Elizabeth went on trial at Westminster Hall for bigamy in April 1776, the story drew more attention in society than the American War of Independence. And no wonder: already a famous beauty and notorious for making an almost naked appearance at a masquerade ball, she had secretly married the heir to an earldom, and then enjoyed a second marriage to a Duke. Although found guilty, Elizabeth refused to submit to public humiliation and back out of the limelight. Instead, she embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe and was welcomed by the Pope and Catherine the Great among others.
For his 1847-48 novel Vanity Fair William Thackeray drew on Elizabeth as inspiration for his calculating, alluring Becky Sharp. But Ostler will show that Elizabeth’s behaviour, often depicted as attention-seeking and manipulative – like Becky’s – hid the more complex tale of a woman’s fight to overcome personal tragedy and loss.
Ostler was in conversation with historian Andrew Roberts, author of the forthcoming George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, to discuss the story of one of history’s most intriguing, but least understood heroines.
‘A scintillating story superbly told… [Ostler] packs every paragraph with eye-opening detail’ – The Times
‘A rollicking read… [Ostler] tells Elizabeth’s story with admirable style and gusto’ – The Sunday Times
Speakers subject to change.