At the masquerade celebrating the end of the War of Austrian Succession no one could take their eyes off the beautiful Elizabeth Chudleigh. She had come, she said, as ‘Iphigenia, ready for the sacrifice’, and it was what she was wearing — or to all appearances not wearing — that caused a sensation that lasted for months. In the candlelight, her clinging costume of flesh-coloured silk made her appear completely naked; ‘a perfect review of the unadorned mother of mankind’, said one account.
The furore caused by this episode was only eclipsed when, 27 years later, Elizabeth, now the widowed Duchess of Kingston, was put on trial for bigamy. The case had to be twice postponed in order to increase the number of seats for the would-be audience; and the American War of Independence then taking place was quite forgotten as the beau monde struggled to obtain tickets for the hearing.
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. But while staying in Hampshire with a widowed cousin, chaperoned by her aunt Ann Hamner, Elizabeth met the 20-year-old Augustus Hervey, an impecunious young naval officer but already a practised seducer who was also the grandson of the Earl of Bristol.