24 March 2016
Joanne Major and Sarah Murden explore the Scottish roots of 18th-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott.
Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner in France during the French Revolution (she left one of the few first-hand accounts written by a woman of those years) and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales’ child, the notorious eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life. Behind the scandalous persona lay the real woman however, one who had been born in Edinburgh around 1754.
Her father, Hugh Dalrymple, endured a failed career in the British army – he retired with a Lieutenancy and instead turned to the same profession as his father before him, the law. Hugh’s time in the army had left one permanent reminder in the shape of his wife Grissel Brown, daughter of Colonel Robert Brown of Gooch’s Marines who was a scion of the Browns of Blackburn, an estate which lay near to Cockburnspath in the Merse of the Scottish Borders.
The Laird’s of Blackburn in Berwickshire are all but forgotten today but once they were a prominent family, bearing their own heraldic arms. The estate passed out of their hands in the early 1700s and, despite attempts to reclaim it, the Browns were destined to remain landless.
Had Colonel Brown not died in 1742 upon his return from the Caribbean during the War of Jenkins’ Ear things might have been different, but the wheel of fortune had turned for the family and they had to manage as best they could. Colonel Brown’s widow, Janet, settled in a flat in Edinburgh on the south side of the Canongate, opposite to the church.
Hugh and Grissel Dalrymple had four children and Grace was the youngest, born as her parents’ marriage began to crumble. While travelling the Dumfries circuit as an advocate of the law, Hugh had been caught dallying with a ‘lady of fortune’ and he subsequently set forth for London where he became known as a man of letters, writing plays, poems and corresponding with the newspapers under the pseudonym of Modestus. It seems likely that Grissel gathered up her children and retired to the Canongate, living there with her mother and a widowed sister, Helen Dundas.
Young Grace therefore grew up in a modest Edinburgh setting and in a very matriarchal environment (the women of her family were a formidable presence!) until her mother’s death in 1767. (Grissel lays buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.)
Grace, tall, willowy and beautiful, subsequently married a London society doctor originally hailing from Peebles who was much older than his young bride (and much shorter than her too). The marriage was a disaster and within a few short years had ended in divorce.
To counter her mother’s marital woes, young Grace also had the examples of two of her Brown aunts to shape her views on the world. Janet and Robinaiana Brown both turned their backs on Scotland and journeyed to England where they became the mistresses of titled men – Robinaiana was first the mistress and then the wife of Charles Mordaunt, 4th Earl of Peterborough.
Small wonder then that Grace was to embark upon a career as a courtesan when her own marriage failed – she was from a family of strong Scotswomen who, by and large, shaped their own destinies by whatever means possible.
A NEW LIFE OVERSEAS
Perhaps it was because they felt they had no permanent roots after losing Blackburn that the Brown family and their descendants travelled far and wide, seeking their fame and fortune? Grace intrepidly stayed in France during the dangerous revolutionary years, possibly even working as a spy for the British, but she was not alone. Her close relatives ventured as far afield as America, India and Africa. And to fully understand Grace we found she had to be viewed in the context of her Scottish family who, no matter where they travelled, never forgot their Caledonian heritage.
About the authors
Joanne Major and Sarah Murden are the co-authors of the biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott and her family. Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of her life ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace’s family history which traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders and follows them around the globe, offering a broad insight into the social history of the Georgian era, comprising the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life at that time
Brought together through their shared passion for history and genealogy, having met online via a genealogy forum. At the time of writing, living many hundreds of miles apart from each other, lengthy telephone conversations to discuss 'long dead folk' became very much the norm to them, and it was during one of these telephone conversations that they stumbled, accidentally, into the path of this eighteenth-century courtesan. For more information about all things Georgian and to find out more snippets about Grace, visit their blog.