The bridesmaids were always magnetic. And the best known of the 18th century was Elizabeth Chudleigh, subject of my book The Duchess Countess. She was written off first because of her beauty, then her love life, then her (lack of) clothes on the Georgian equivalent of the red carpet – and, most frantically, during her bigamy trial in 1776 , which was packed with journalists. (among thousands of others) who were for her, against her, and in between, all assessing her demeanor, outfits, mannerisms, and morals.
A sin Bridgerton, the publicity can be negative or positive: references to Elizabeth’s clandestine marriage embolden those who want to pursue her, but her fame inspires Catherine the Great to befriend her. Queen Charlotte’s dedication to gossip in the series had its concrete example during Elizabeth’s trial. Although just two weeks away from the birth of her 11th child, the Queen attended the first day with her children, alongside the rest of the ton wearing so many diamonds that Dr Johnson’s biographer James Boswell was surprised by the sunlight bouncing off the jewelry.
In the second series of BridgertonLady Whistledown (or, as we all know now, the loveable Penelope Featherington) starts to wonder if gossip is enough when her woker friend Eloise Bridgerton starts mentioning Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A demand for women’s rights. Steele himself could both observe the details of society and be a social pioneer, believing, like him, in the education of women and the abolition of slavery. “All women in particular”, William Thackeray wrote in the following century, “are bound to be grateful to Steele, for he was the first of our writers who seemed truly to admire and respect them.” Indeed, at Thackeray The story of Henry Esmond, Steele kindly appears as “Dick the Scholar” alongside an Elizabeth Chudleigh-inspired bridesmaid; ‘What charm The Tatler East!’ says a character. (Elizabeth herself was a fan of Addison – especially her play Cato.)
As John Gay explained: “Bickerstaff ventured to tell the town that they were a pack of fatheads, fools, and conceited coquettes; but in a way that even pleased them, and made them more than half inclined to believe that he told the truth […] and [he] discovered the true method to make him lovable and lovable to all mankind […] his writings have set all our minds and men of letters on a new way of thinking, of which they had little or no notion before”. Journalism, including the influential Lady Whistledown, owes a debt to Bickerstaff.
This article originally appeared in the April issue, on newsstands March 3
Catherine Ostler is the author of The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Scandalized a Nation (Simon & Schuster, £25, UK paperback March 17, £10.99; Atria Books USA, $30)