The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized Eighteenth-Century London

Atria. Nov. 2021. 480p. ISBN 9781982179731. $30. HIST
That Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston (1721–88), had an eventful life is undeniable in this biography by former Tatler editor in chief Ostler. A descendant of minor English gentry with no inherited land or title, Chudleigh was a member of Britain’s 18th-century Georgian court and a confidante (or, at least, acquaintance) of popes, German and French aristocrats, and Catherine the Great of Russia. She secretly married at a young age, then remarried without the benefit of divorce, and scandal and controversy followed her for much of her life, Ostler writes. While Chudleigh’s story has the makings of a very good period-piece dramedy, it is less successful as a deeply researched historical biography. In addition to recounting Chudleigh’s many escapades, Ostler attempts to find the origin of the duchess’s behavior and motivations; she superficially links them to an unhappy childhood, an ill-defined personality disorder, celebrity, and early feminism in a patriarchal misogynist society. Readers will need a great deal of tolerance to wade through the book’s anecdotes of the rich behaving badly, details of various lines of kinship and succession in European major and minor nobility, and listings of menus, fashions, jewels, and attendees at lavish balls and parties.
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