Who's Who in Late Georgian England
At the end of the 1780s the future George IV is a handsome twenty-somthing, “the first gentleman of Europe”. Jane Austen is a tween, perhaps already working on her juvenilia. Nelson is newly married and living landlocked on half-pay. The man who will someday become the Duke of Wellington is a teenaged aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Brummell, the future king of fashion, is just a little boy. Byron is a newborn (hard to imagine, isn’t it; Don Juan in nappies).
Here are just a few of the faces you’ll encounter on the much longer list on my site (for the purposes of the list I’ve chosen the year 1788):
Prince of Wales, Age 26
George Augustus Frederick seems to have taken strongly after his unmourned grandfather (Frederick, Prince of Wales). While most people remember him as an obese buffoon with a penchant for equally hefty—and often much older—women, at this point he is a tall, strapping young man. He is emotional, sensitive, and a great patron of the arts. Only a few years previously he has contracted a secret, illegal, marriage to the great love of his life, Maria Anne Fitzherbert.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Age 34
She was the daughter of the first Earl Spencer, and a distant cousin of the Whig grandee, Charles James Fox. She was one of the great beauties of her day, and she gathered about her a large circle of notables from the political, literary, and art worlds. Her influence as a social leader extended even to Almack’s, where she was one of the early patronesses.
Emma Hart, Age 23
The future Lady Hamilton is mostly remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson, but at the time of this telling Emma is in Naples, living with Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples, as his mistress . . . the most shocking part of which is that she was sent there as something of a present by her former lover, Sir William’s nephew!
Henry Angelo, Age 28
Angelo’s father came from Italy in 1755. Angelo Senior was a fencing and riding instructor who made a name for himself by besting well known English and Irish fencers. He promptly opened his own salle, Angelo's School of Arms. He was the fencing master to the young princes, and in 1763 published an illustrated guide to fencing, L'Ecole d'Armes. Henry was a fencing master like his father, and he took over the Angelo salle in 1785. It was a fashionable meeting place, and often held exhibitions by visiting foreign champions (such as St. George and d'Eon).
Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Age 43
Joseph de Bologne was a true Renaissance man. He was the illegitimate, half-African son of a French planter, who raised him as a gentleman in Paris, and left him the incredible sum of fifty thousand pounds. Joseph was not only a champion fencer (who visited England in this capacity as a guest of the Prince of Wales), but a world-class violinist and composer, and Marie Antoinette’s personal music instructor! Henry Angelo said of St. George, "No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength … his attacks were a perpetual series of hits and his parade was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him".
Chevaliere d’Eon, Age 78
Let us start with the facts: D'Eon was a Frenchman who lived the first half of his life as a man and the second half as a woman. He was a spy, a diplomat, and a captain of dragoons. He claimed that he disguised himself as a woman and became a maid of honor to the Empress of Russia. There was rife speculation that he was, in fact, a woman. After some very complicated goings on in the 1760s he was left exiled in London. He ignored this fact, returned to France, and demanded that the French government recognize him as a woman. The French King and court agreed, so long as d'Eon dressed like a woman. In 1785 he returned to England, where he lived the rest of his life (continuing to cross dress until his dying day). In 1787, he bested the much younger Chevalier Saint-Georges in an exhibition match. When he died, doctors examined his corpse and found it to be anatomically male.
Mary “Perditia” Robinson, Age 31
In1779 her performance as Perdita in Garrick’s Florizel and Perdita (his adaptation of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale) she captured the attention of the Prince of Wales. Her previously published book of poems had already brought her the patronage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. When her affair with the prince ended in 1781, she blackmailed the Crown into granting her an annuity. In 1783 she suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralyzed. By the late 1780s, she is a distinguished poetess, "the English Sappho."
Sarah Siddons, Age 33
Sarah was the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century. Her entire family were actors, and she grew up in her father's traveling company. In 1775, as a member of David Garrick's company, she made her disastrous debut at Drury Lane. Her contract was not renewed and she did not return to the London stage until 1782, when she appeared in the title role of Garrick's Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage. This time she was a hit. By the 1780s she was the undisputed queen of the stage.
John Philip Kemble, Age 31
Tall, imposing, and attractive, Kemble was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the late Georgian era. He made is first appearance at Drury Lane in 1783, along with his more famous sister, Sarah Siddons. He was appointed manager at Drury Lane in 1788.
Frances Burney, Age 36
She published her first novel Evelina anonymously in 1778. It was a huge success, bringing her to the notice of influential friends ranging from Dr. Johnson to the Duchess of Devonshire. A second novel, Cecilia, followed in 1782. In 1786 she accepted a post as one of Queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting. Though she had a warm relationship with the queen, she was not happy at court, as her duties deprived her of time to write (note that nothing was published during her years at court).
Grace Elliott, Age 34
In 1771 Grace Dalrymple made her debut in Edinburgh. She was an acknowledged beauty and married a rich physician. She fled her marriage in 1774, eventually receiving a divorce and a settlement of £12,000 in damages. It was only then that her real adventures began! Her brother kidnapped her and had her confined to a French convent. She was rescued by Lord Cholmondeley, and spent several years thereafter as his mistress. It was during this period that she became known as “Dally the Tall”. The Prince of Wales introduced her to the French Duke of Orleans in 1784 and by 1786 she had settled in Paris . . .
Do you enjoy stumbling across real people in novels? I love it when they appear for a quick guest appearance, so long as the character presented seems authentic and genuine. I think it adds verisimilitude to the work and grounds the novel in a way that things like clothing and food and carriages simply don’t equal.