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The Extraordinary Life of a Georgian Courtesan (Paperback)

Grace Dalrymple Elliott, her family, and friends

P&S History > British History > Georgian History P&S History > Social History Women of History

By Joanne Major, Sarah Murden
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 264
Illustrations: 32 black and white
ISBN: 9781526796417
Published: 13th October 2020



Star Review and Publicity

• 'Courtesan. Spy. Survivor. A gripping and meticulously researched account of the swashbuckling life of one of history's most overlooked heroines' - Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Scandalous Lady W

• As featured in BBC History Magazine
• Authors’ blog post as featured in Washington Post article: settling a tied Virginia House race by drawing a name? Not that weird by history's standards
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Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner in France during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales’ child, notorious eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London and Paris.

Strikingly tall and beautiful, later lampooned as ‘Dally the Tall’ in newspaper gossip columns, she left her Scottish roots and convent education behind, to re-invent herself in a ‘marriage à-la-mode’, but before she was even legally an adult she was cast off and forced to survive on just her beauty and wits.

The authors of this engaging and, at times, scandalous book intersperse the story of Grace’s tumultuous life with anecdotes of her fascinating family, from those who knew Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and who helped to abolish slavery, to those who were, like Grace, mistresses of great men.

Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace’s family history that traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders, to their move south to London. It follows them to France, America, India, Africa and elsewhere, 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.

This is the remarkable and detailed story of Grace set, for the first time, in the context of her wider family and told more completely than ever before.

The Extraordinary Life of a Georgian Courtesan is incredibly detailed and impeccably researched, I highly recommend this fantastic biography. I hope this book will someday be made into a drama or film; it would make for great viewing!

Read the full review here

Lifelong History Lover

"Make for an interesting and exciting read".

Family and Community Historical Research Society Newsletter, Volume 22, November 2021

This tale of scandal and intrigue will not only appeal to history buffs, but to those who enjoy a ripping yarn. As well as being an in-depth social and family history, An Infamous Mistress is simply a great story.

★ ★ ★ ★

Scottish Field (online), 18th June 2019

As featured by

Lincolnshire Echo, 11th October 2018

As featured in

Boston Target/East Lindsey Target, 10th October 2018

This amazingly researched book will be re-read by me over and over again… I also much enjoyed the book because of its breadth, bringing in other families and friends.


As featured in

On Yorkshire Magazine

The authors have provided a carefully researched and gripping biography of a larger than life character from the 18th Century. The absorbing text is accompanied by a selection of interesting images in a photo-plate section, reproducing portraits from the period – Entertaining, Recommended.

Read the complete review here.


Guest blog featured on

Stew Ross Discovers

Grace Dalrymple Elliott was a celebrated 18th century courtesan, a celebrity of her age, whose well-heeled lovers included the future George IV and the French Duc d’Orléans. Her life was copy for the newspapers of the day: she was a fashion icon and beauty, hanging out at the best parties on the arms of well-connected men. As a divorced woman, however, her own considerable family connections counted for little. She had to rely on her beauty and wits in a world where the odds were very much stacked against her. But Grace was a survivor, as this biography makes clear. Not only did she survive the destruction of her reputation and the vagaries of aristocratic affections. She also survived the French Revolution and Terror, harbouring fugitives and risking her life.

Grace’s story is fascinating and in many ways timeless: even today, celebrity women are often more harshly judged than men in matters of the heart, and the way in which Grace managed to invent (and re-invent) herself makes for a gripping tale. The problem is that the version Grace gave of her own story is not all that reliable. Her memoirs were published several decades after her death and were notoriously inaccurate, although the authors have done a sterling job of picking apart myth from reality. There is a fair amount of speculation, and Grace is almost never quoted in her own words, but this is probably inevitable given the paucity of the sources. In some ways the whole book is a sort of detective story, in which the authors chase Grace through little-known archives on both sides of the Channel, picking apart wills and seeking elucidation about Grace’s character and experiences by tracing her siblings and her cousins. This last family history element makes up probably more than a third of the book. Grace’s family connections continue to appear at various points throughout the book, jumping back and forth in time, and this occasionally made it difficult to track exactly what was going on or keep a timeline of events. Keeping abreast of these rather dense passages was, however, rewarding, and Grace’s story was skilfully intertwined with that of lesser-known members of her family. All loose ends were tied up at the finish.

The book is very well-written and accessible, and the sources have evidently been deeply mined. The result is a valuable insight into a little-known branch of a Scottish aristocratic family, connected (more or less loosely) by the central personality of Grace. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the social history of British women in the age of the French Revolution.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Reiter, author of The Late Lord

This is a fascinating book. The research that Jo and Sarah put into the book and Grace's life is incredible. Other than Grace's memoirs as an eyewitness to the French Revolution and "news" accounts from London's gossip rags, there isn't a whole lot of information to go on when documenting Grace's life. The authors have done a wonderful job of piecing it all together. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Amazon.com- reviewed by Stew Ross

Guest blog featured on

Female Adventurers

I'm a regular reader of authors Joanne Major and Sarah Murden's blog All Things Georgian, so knew this book would be thoroughly researched and interesting.

In fact, the book is crammed with genealogical detail about Grace and her family, such that it will appeal to historians as much as those interested in a good scandal tale. It has an excellent plate section to illustrate the story well.

Amazon Review, reviewed by Sara

5.0 out of 5 stars A well-researched and thoroughly entertaining book!

I don’t often find biographies on women of this era and when I do, I make it a point to check them out. This one has earned a permanent place in my library and is a great research tool for anyone interested in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It’s a well-researched, thoroughly entertaining book about the life of a woman you won’t find in your history books. The life of Grace Dalrymple Elliott reads like a Georgian era adventure story, but it’s all true. She was a notorious courtesan in her day, a divorced wife, a prisoner during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of a child she had with the Prince of Wales. Joanne Major and Sarah Murden provide amazing details to bring her story to life and to give us a rich look at the history of the time. Grace's story proves that history isn’t boring. I highly recommend An Infamous Mistress for all you history fans out there.

Amazon Customer Review

Guest blog featured on

Tony Riches Blogspot

Guest blog featured on

Amazing Women in History

Mentioned in Hallie Rubenhold's article on Grace Dalrymple Elliott

BBC History Magazine, October 2016

As featured on

The History Vault

As featured on

The World of Royalty

As featured in

Scots Magazine

As featured in

Borders Family History magazine, June 2016

When an author of the calibre of Hallie Rubenhold (author of ‘The Scandalous lady W’) praises a book, as she does this one, it is a good indication of its quality.

Grace Dalrymple Elliot was a spy, a mistress, a prisoner during the French Revolution, and was reputed to be the mother of the Prince of Wales’ child. It’s fair to say that, living in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century London and Paris, she had an extraordinary life.

Moreover, she was a born survivor and as you read the book it is easy to admire her. The book not only acts as fine biography of her subject but gives a great insight into the social history of the Georgian era.

The authors have not only done great research but have written with great empathy on their subject and her world.

This book would form a great basis for a documentary on Grace, and it is a beautifully bound and illustrated book.

Destructive Music - Steve Earles

Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner in France during the French Revolution: the colourful life of a notorious 18th-century courtesan who left her Scottish roots and convent education behind to reinvent herself as a "marriage a la mode".

The Bookseller

A life filled with romance, heartbreak, adventure, horror and just about everything in between, the existence of infamous courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliot is one that's slipped through the annals of history. A teenage bride, Grace was divorced by the age of 20, her reputation in tatters after an illicit love affair. Destined to a life in disgrace, the renowned beauty was left to fend for herself, using only her charms and looks to survive. What ensued was a reputation as a mistress to some of the most influential men of their time.

What initially feels a little slow to start proves to be a blessing in disguise; Major and Murden's exhaustive history of Grace's descendants serves the reader well later in the book, as Grace's situations interweave with her past.

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves And Family Of The Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliot provides and unprecedented insight into the life and times of one of the most notorious courtesans of the later-18th century. The authors present a generous amount of source material, from contemporary newspapers, letters and memoirs, listed at the end of the novel.

Given the soap operatic life of Grace, what could have easily strayed into dramatised, tawdry narrative manages to maintain a relatively scholarly, yet accessible tone, which toes the line between tacky and tasteful.

An Infamous Mistress is a fascinating read, yet it's more than that. If anything, it's a shining example of research done well, presented coherently on the perfect subject: a powerful courtesan that time forgot.

History of Royals magazine, May 2016

Prior to the serialisation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen series, I'd be willing to bet that not that many people had heard of Elizabeth Woodville - OK, it might just have been me, but that situation was soon put right with the TV series and a wonderful series of books from Amberley. This time it's Pen and Sword that brings to our attention the remarkable story of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, with a superb character study and biography by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. English history at its very best.

Books Monthly, May 2016 - Paul Norman

As featured in

Celebrate Scotland: Expert History Article

As featured in

Essence Magazine - March 2016 (page 55)

Guest blog featured on

Sue Wilkes Blogspot - February 2016

Guest blog featured on

Laurie Benson's Cozy Drawing Room - February 2016

… the authors have uncovered a huge amount of new information about Elliott and her kin that enriches our understanding.

For those who are drawn to the period – the social picture is given in vivid detail, drawing on numerous archival sources – and desire a fuller sense of the milieux in which Elliott lived, this will be an invaluable trove of information.

Lincolnshire Life - April 2016

Guest blog featured on

A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life - March 2016

Guest blog featured on

Geri Walton's blog - May 2016

Guest blog featured on

Geri Walton's blog - February 2016

This major new biography explores the life, loves and family of this celebrated personality who ended up as a prisoner of war during the French Revolution. Set for the first time in the context of Grace's wider family, this is a compelling tale of scandal and intrigue.

Scots Heritage Magazine - May 2016

As featured in

EDP Norfolk - May 2016

Guest blog featured on


I picked this book up quite by chance, and I’m very glad I did. The book is a wonderful attempt to tell the life (and what a life!) of a most interesting woman, Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Grace was born in about 1754, and died in 1823. In her lifetime she crammed in more adventure, love, tragedy and living than many people before or since. She was the daughter of a reputable family with a respectable background, but her marriage failed miserably, leaving her with a tattered reputation, and she seems to have decided to live up to that reputation as a ‘demi-rep’ from then on. She moved in the most illustrious of circles, despite her status as a courtesan, and her daughter is reputed to be the child of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Clearly, Grace was a woman who had bearing, intelligence, wit and presence, as well as beauty and great charisma. She was very tall and striking looking, and it’s easy to see from her portraits (there are a number of illustrated plates in the book) that she was clearly a woman who faced life
head-on. She was the mistress and friend of Louis, Duke of Orleans, and the friend of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and she wrote her own record of her time trapped and imprisoned in France during the Terror.

Grace was not the only member of her family to live a life crammed with adventure and the other members of her family are also explored in original source documents and records by the authors. The whole adds up to a book which allows the reader to not only understand to a great extent how and why Grace Dalrymple Elliott was the woman that she was, and how and why she lived the life that she did, but the broader family and even broader societal context and times in which she lived. The book covers not only the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, but also the lives, as much as can be known of them, of her family, in the previous generation, her generation, and the generation following. Through a time of great change and even revolution in the world, Grace’s family by birth and marriage, and her contacts, lovers, colleagues and friends, appear in virtually every important moment from the eighteenth through to the nineteenth century. The result is a book which is full of drama, intrigue, fascinating detail and great daring.

This book is a labour of real love on the part of the authors, which shines through in the detail and wonderful narrative. I found it a book which was best absorbed by being read in chapters, with time allowed to absorb each section, as the amount of information provided throughout is quite boggling. The authors have clearly researched deeply and widely, and yet there never seems to be a piece of information in the book which feels superfluous. The narrative is the unfolding of the lives of many members of a family, and while Grace may be the most ‘infamous’ member of the family known to us today, all the others written of are completely fascinating to read about. A wonderful book, and one which offers a real ‘life and times’ memorial to a most intriguing and interesting woman, and her family.

Amazon Review

As featured in

EB Living Magazine, May, June, July 2016

'This tale of scandal and intrigue will not only appeal to history buffs, but to those who enjoy a ripping yarn. As well as being an in-depth social and family history, An Infamous Mistress is simply a great story.'

Scottish Field

As featured in

Wiltshire View Magazine

As featured in

Hampshire View Magazine

The authors of this engaging and, at times, scandalous book intersperse the story of Grace's tumultuous life with anecdotes of her fascinating family, from those who knew Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and who helped abolish slavery, to those who were, like Grace, mistresses of great men. Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace's family history that traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders, to their move south to London. It follows them to France, America, India, Africa and elsewhere, offering a broad insight into the social history of the Georgian era, comprising of the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life at that time. This is the remarkable and detailed story of Grace set, for the first time, in the context of her wider family and told more completely than ever before.

Jessica - Go Fug Yourself

As featured in

Lincolnshire Echo

As featured in

Scunthorpe Telegraph

This book is packed with thorough research. Unlike most biographies it is extremely well written - most just seem to be a stream of barely related facts without context because the writer cannot bear to throw away hard-won material... they refer to many gossipy newspaper articles which use no names and in some cases no nick-names but, when pieced together with the other material they have are definitely about their subject(s). In every case they offer a convincing explanation of the link... the book is an inspiration to family historians as well as a fascinating insight into the sexual and social mores of the period. Highly recommended.

Amazon Customer Review

This is the most complete biography of a figure who is largely forgotten in histories of the late 18th century. Women’s voices, of course, are seldom quoted in conventional histories, and courtesans, although famous in their day, have had even few advocates. Harriette Wilson, who bedded the Duke of Wellington and myriad others, famously wrote her memoirs, offering to leave out names for a consideration (it was a sort of friendly blackmail) but there were not many others.

Grace Dalrymple Elliott was not like Harriette or indeed Emma Lyons (later Hamilton), both of whom were from humble backgrounds. She was well born and well connected (her father was an Edinburgh advocate who abandoned his family when Grace was a child). Tall (her nickname as Dally the Tall) and stunningly beautiful, she had natural charm and intelligence.

Of course, as a female, Grace's options in life, even as a member of the gentry, were limited. She married young (aged 17) and, worse, married the wrong person (a rich and much older society doctor) and then had an ill-judged affair and was promptly divorced when scarcely legally an adult. As a divorced woman she was a social outcast and there was only really one way to go: liaisons with Lord Cholmondeley, the Prince of Wales and the duc d’Orléans followed. She bore a child who was widely accepted to be the Prince’s daughter.

In order to receive a maintenance allowance from the Prince, Grace was forced to live abroad. She had been educated in France and spoke the language well so off to Paris she went, but before long she was struggling to survive amidst the Revolution and subsequent Terror. This is where her story becomes truly remarkable.

Grace later wrote her reminiscences of this time, when she smuggled friends and acquaintances out of the city and lived by her wits on few resources. Arrested and imprisoned several times, she used her skills of persuasiveness to convince the authorities of her loyalty. There are some hairy moments, including the time her house is thoroughly searched by men with bayonets who stuck them in all the mattresses. Grace remained in her bed, feigning modesty, all the while protecting a fugitive hiding behind her.

The authors Joanne Major and Sarah Murden have uncovered new sources for Grace’s life as well as unravelled her hugely complicated family tree. They are genealogists and it shows in their meticulous detective work amongst the vital documents. For instance, they have tracked who was present at baptisms and marriages, using this information to document who was in touch with whom in a vast network of friends and family. The detail is astonishing.

Major and Murden, who write a much-loved blog All Things Georgian, have given themselves a wide remit, including the stories of various members of Grace’s family, amongst them her brother Henry Hew Dalrymple, a republican sympathiser and supporter of abolition who was a driving force behind a little-known inept plan to colonise Bolama (now in Guinea-Bissau).

The tone of the writing is friendly and informal, pulling the reader along and pointing up the humanity of the subjects. The authors are to be applauded for their achievement.

Amazon Customer Review, Nomester

This lively account of the life and times of the notorious 18th-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, has an appealing family history slant...

... The authors, Joanne Major and Sarah Murden, are historians and genealogists who have engagingly interspersed Grace's biography for the first time with evidence of her equally fascinating family history... In doing so, the duo provide wonderful insight into the Georgian era as well as influences that helped to shape Grace's remarkably eventful life, repeatedly touched by scandal but ultimately ending happily. Including family trees, copious end notes and a bibliography, this is also an education in how family historians can build a genealogical story around a figure from history, whether 'infamous' or not.

Family Tree - February 2016

About Joanne Major

Joanne Major, author and historian, is fascinated by the eighteenth century and in exploring the hitherto undiscovered women’s history of the period. She holds a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Lincoln and is returning to study for an MA. Joanne lives in Lincolnshire, with her family and dogs, spending most days with one foot in the present and one in the past.

About Sarah Murden

Sarah Murden, FRHistS, is an 18th century historian and genealogist from Nottinghamshire, who focusses mainly, but not exclusively, on the lives of women of the period. As well as co-authoring several books, Sarah hosts the extremely popular website – All Things Georgian, which looks at all aspects of the Georgia era. The website contains over 700 articles, everything from fashion to murder to royalty, in fact anything that piques her curiosity.
Visit https://soundcloud.com/englishheritage/episode-78-the-story-of-dido-belle-at-kenwood to listen to Sarah Murden talking on the English Heritage podcast about Dido Elizabeth Belle. 

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