Odd Union

David Cannadine

  • Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 415 pp, £18.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 670 84159 5

The task of rescuing women from the chauvinistic condescension of male posterity has thus far been unevenly undertaken and incompletely accomplished. Writers and actresses, suffragettes and nuns, servants and prostitutes, have fared relatively well. But upper-class women – Clio’s own sisters, cousins and aunts – have received much less attention. Studies of aristocratic ladies are few and far between; feminist biographies of queens and princesses are in conspicuously short supply; and royal mistresses have rarely been emancipated from the boudoired and bodiced banalities of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. Yet from the Restoration in 1660 until the early 20th century, the only English monarch who was both male and monogamous was probably King George III. Put the other way, this means that from Nell Gwyn to Mrs Keppel (and beyond), the courtesan was an integral part of royal history. But while much is known about such women as the Duchess of Portsmouth, Elizabeth Villiers, Henrietta Howard and the Countess of Warwick, no serious attempt has yet been made to write that alternative version of royal history which their lives and loves collectively constitute.

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