The New Female Coterie
When I’m writing, I find I can’t really read fiction. It sucks me in too far and disrupts my process. But I also find that I really need to take small breaks to sack out on the couch and read. So I turn to my staggering ToBeRead pile of non-fiction. I’m a packrat when it comes to books. I can’t pass over anything that looks like it might be good, and I can’t get rid of anything I haven’t read. I like my heroines a bit outside the box: wicked widows, fallen women, etc. So when I stumbled across Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce, I gladly plunked down my money.
It’s the tale of Seymour Dorothy Fleming, a great heiress (supposedly she had something in the neighborhood of seventy-thousand pounds). She married well, though not spectacularly. Her husband was a cad, and it is clear by his actions that he had very little interest, sexually, in his wife (though he delighted in displaying her to his friends, even going to far as to boost one of them up to peek at her bathing!). Little wonder that Lady Worsley was soon having affair after affair, and that she eventually eloped with one of them.
But it wasn’t Lady Worsley’s tale that dumbfounded me as I read the book, it was the chapter about her new friends after her husband won a separation (her husband refused to divorce her, as keeping her under his thumb, and cut off from rehabilitating herself suited his thirst for revenge). There were a group of fallen ladies (wives and daughters of nobility) that lived a very interesting life somewhere between that of the Ton and the courtesan. The group was led by the Countess of Harrington, who maintained some shred of respectability only because her equally profligate husband wasn’t hypocrite enough to divorce her for following his example . . . the group also included Lady Grosvenor, Lady Ligonier, Lady Margaret Adams, Lady Derby, Lady Ann Cork, the Honorable Catherine Newton, and eventually Lady Worsley.
They met weekly at the exclusive brothel of Mrs. Sarah Pendergast to sup and discuss everything from news to politics to sex (apparently the leading fashionable ladies of the day had blackballed Lady Harrington from their Ladies’ Coterie which met weekly at Almack’s to socialize and dine, and this was her revenge; I must say, I think the countess’s group sounds like it would have been the more interesting and lively). These women, though reduced to living largely off their lovers, were still not quite considered courtesans or mistresses. Their pedigrees guaranteed them something more, though they’d ruined their reputations. My favorite is Lady Ligonier, about whom Rubenhold reports:
"What linked Lady Linogier with her once respectably married sisters was a complete absence of remorse for her conduct. Twenty years after the conclusion of her affair with Alfieri she described the shape her life had taken in a candid letter to him. She expressed her gratitude to the Count for delivering her from the constraints of ‘a world in which I was never formed to exist’ and that she ‘never regretted’ abandoning ‘for a single instant’. Throughout their affair she claimed to have been entirely sensible of her actions and to have foreseen the consequences of them: ‘I thank
I’ve been told by more than one person that women simply didn’t behave as my heroines do, that they didn’t think that way, sleep around that way, that these kind of women simply didn’t exist. I’m happy to find yet more examples of real women who most certainly did think and love and live very much as the heroines of my imagination insist upon doing . . .