- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005


By Jo Manning

Simon & Schuster, $25.95, 432 pages


This book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about an 18th- century courtesan, and then some. It rambles from tidbits to tedium with family chronologies sandwiched between accounts of the life and times of courtesans whom Ms. Manning refuses to brand as whores, perhaps because a going rate for a street woman was ninepence (about a dime) and those climbing in and out of the beds of peers could command close to a million dollars a year in today’s money.

Her “Lady Scandalous,” Grace Dalrymple, is an example of the more refined species, a Scotswoman with a complexion “clear as the clouds of a May morning,” according to Ms. Manning who writes in the florid language of the romance novelist she is when she isn’t offering up chunks of research. At 17, the lovely Dalrymple married a dull doctor more than twice her age, and after a sordid divorce, galloped through a series of lovers ranging from rogues to peers of the realm — often one and the same — including the Prince of Wales, who may or may not have fathered her child.

Ms. Manning makes an interesting sociological point when she suggests that the fact that Grace was not an aristocrat handicapped her longterm success as a courtesan. As the author analyzes the situation, “Although aristocratic women could be tramps before as well as during marriage, young women from a lower stratum of society could not afford to fool around.” In other words, the farther up the social ladder you were, the more of a tramp you could be.

Ms. Manning is at her most interesting when she delineates the life?style of the courtesan whom she compares without compassion to the whore, although it could be argued that it was no more than a matter of common denominator. She draws a rather brutal parallel between the Regency cads and modern “love rats” like James Hewitt, who demonstrated the terrible taste in men of the late Princess Diana by a postmortem betrayal in a book that nobody could contradict.

Recalling that scandal riddled the history of Diana Spencer’s family, Ms. Manning offers a gratuitous slap. “How puzzling that she (Princess Diana) seemed to be so clueless as to why Prince Charles was marrying her. She had her family’s history to guide and warn her.”

The author chronicles the misery of street whores by comparison with their upper class sisters in a grim glossary including the “posture moll” skilled in flagellation, the “half-timers” who were married women who walked the streets occasionally for household money, and also reveals that “nunneries” meant brothels. Grace Dalrymple, she emphasizes, was not a prostitute but a “sophisticated, cultured woman who selected her lovers at the pinnacle of society.” Nevertheless, the courtesan’s day — “after a long night of partying, she would rise at noon in her love nest, and drink her morning chocolate, have her hair dressed, and eagerly read the latest on-dits in the Morning Chronicle” — was supported by her wealthy married lover for only as long as he or his successors chose.

It was, as biographer I.M. Davis put it, “the world of high harlotry” as opposed to the world of street harlotry where the women were less glamorous, less fortunate and less lucky. Courtesans provided sexual favors in return for generous compensation which could probably be said of any high class 21st-century callgirl, reinforcing the French theory that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

According to Ms. Manning, those at the “high end” of the courtesan “sisterhood” were remunerated at what was for those times a princely rate in today’s dollar terms, ranging from $405,000 to $810,000 a year while they were in their prime. The author assesses the situation accurately when she concludes, “Love, lust, beauty faded: money retained its values.”

What made Grace Dalrymple different was that she lived in an era when her beauty bought her everything, and took her to the inevitable point when the demise of assorted lovers sent her plunging into genteel poverty and a dismal demise. Yet she played a part in history by writing a memoir about her presence and participation in the bloody years of the French Revolution, when she narrowly escaped execution as a British royalist. There was most likely far more to Grace Dalrymple than she was ever permitted to demonstrate and perhaps that was the real difference between the women who walked the streets and those who climbed in and out of the beds of the rich.

Yet perhaps Grace had the last laugh. She became the topic of a recent movie “The Lady and the Duke” about her romance with the Duc de Chartres, the wealthiest man in France, who ultimately fell victim to the revolutionaries. Moreover, Gainsborough’s paintings of Dalrymple still hang not only in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but also in other prominent galleries. It is unfortunate that the book leaves the reader still curious about a woman as resilient and intelligent as she was beautiful in an age when only her beauty mattered. Even in her biography, the real Grace Dalrymple never seems to stand up.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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