Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Fictitious Young Lady of Fashion in the 1700's

By Rosanne E. Lortz

In the year 1926 a manuscript titled The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765 was published. The book purported to be a recently unearthed diary which had been written by the witty, effervescent, and not entirely wise Cleone Knox, a young lady who had traveled around eighteenth century Europe meeting notable figures like King Louis XV and the philosopher Voltaire. The diary was a publishing success, well-received by twentieth century literary critics. The diary also happened to be a fraud.

A Gainsborough portrait of a fashionable lady
from the same era as Cleone Knox

Cynthia Crossen of The Wall Street Journal writes that:
Critics declared the diary authentic partly because it contained obsolete expressions and spelling and lots of capital letters. "Her diary must take its place beside that of Mr. Pepys," one critic wrote. Another opined, "No modern girl will ever write a diary like this. Cleone Knox breathes the very spirit of the witty, robust, patriotic, wicked, hard-drinking, hard-swearing 18th century."
It was only after the diary went through several printings both in America and England that the real author of the eighteenth century memoirs fessed up. The book had been written by Magdalen King-Hall, a nineteen-year-old with a lively imagination and a penchant for jokes. "If I had realized that so many distinguished persons would take it seriously,” said King-Hall, “I would have spent more time and pains on it."

Cleone’s visit with Voltaire is an especially memorable episode, mostly because of how irreverent it is. "The great man received us in a chintz dressing gown,” she wrote—or rather, King-Hall wrote. “To tell the truth, he reminded me of nothing so much as a chattering old magpie. We listened, silent, with the Respect which is due to Genius, however Wearisome it may be.

But it is the opening entry in the diary which is my favorite, the entry which sets the tone for the rest, and the entry in which King-Hall introduces her eighteenth-century protagonist.
March 3rd  
This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indescreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say good night to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at the late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but half way up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t, Lord knows what would have happened, for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it, Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at the moment and saw him lying Prostrate on the ground! 
No need to describe the scene that followed. My Father it seems thinks me guilty of Indescretion and Immodesty, though why I don’t know, for I was sound asleep the whole time and never heard so much as an Oath (and I dare swear there were plenty flying round!). My father said some mighty unkind things to me this morning and I wept loudly for more than Half an Hour. 
Men are such Silly Fools. 
Although the book turned out to be more fictitious than factual, it still managed to enthrall twentieth century readers who were as “terribly catched” by the clever Cleone as she was by the “indescreet” Mr. Ancaster. In The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion, we experience the winsomeness of a young woman who may not really have lived, but still manages to fill the pages of history as one of the eighteenth century’s most memorable heroines—historical fiction at its best.

Magdalen King-Hall went on to become a historical novelist in a more forthright fashion, writing historicals set during the Crusades, and also in sixteenth, seventeenth, and—yes—eighteenth century England. Her novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, the story of a lady and a highwayman, was made into a film the same year it was published, receiving the title The Wicked Lady (1945) and starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.



Crossen, Cynthia. “This Column Is Real, But Not All Authors Stick to the Truth.” The Wall Street Journal (April 7, 2008).

Knox, Cleone. The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the year 1764-1765. Edited by Alexander Blacker Kerr. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1926.


  1. Ms. King-Hall sounds like she would have been a very entertaining person to have coffee with! Is this fake diary still in print? The excerpts you share remind me a bit of Jane Austen's lighter fare like Northanger Abbey, which I enjoyed.

    1. I don't think it is in print, but you can find used copies fairly easily on-line. I have a 1926 printing of it that is quite well worn. :-)

  2. Very interesting, Rosanne! I admit, I love fake diaries. Many have been entertained by them, and many more fooled. Diary of a Surgeon; 1751-1752, Surgeon's Mate and Man Midwife are three diaries purportedly written by John Knyveton, but have been exposed as fakes, written much later. Now look, you've inspired me to work on a blog post about the Knyveton Diaries...

  3. Hi Rosanne

    I recently biught a cooy of the book and found this article printed off and tucked inside with some other handwritten notes. The book is inscribed by hand 'To that illustrious seaman, Admiral of the Fleet, The Earl Beatty GCB OM, GEVD, DSD, DCL, LLD This book is oresented by his Lordship's humbled and devoted servant Miss Cleone Knox. Year of our Lord, one thousand, nine hundred and twenty six."

    It was only when I turned the page and saw the author and then exclaimed that it was impossible unless there were two Cleone's!

    I've now read your informatuve article. One of the other notes in the book states that Cleone (Magdalen) was Earl Beatty's neice but can find no information regarding this. Do you know much more about the book? Have I stumbled upon something interesting? I think it is.

    1. What a fun find! Unfortunately, I don't know much more than my article states about "Cleone." Let me know if you track down any further information on her.


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