Tuesday, October 27, 2020


By Lauren Gilbert

Anyone intending to visit an archive or library to conduct research this year has found their plans cancelled thanks to COVID-19. Between travel restrictions and facility closures, access has been suddenly and severely limited. However, all is not completely lost.

When looking for information about people or events in the past, it is astonishing how much material there can be. Many primary sources may now be available on-line, if only temporarily. Various biographies and numerous histories can be found, sometimes written by contemporary authors, more often by authors of subsequent generations. Many of the readily available sources are written by men, although there are currently a number of excellent female historians now writing.

If one is curious about contemporary female perspectives on past events or historical personages, finding materials can be a bit challenging. A female perspective is invaluable, especially when one is looking for information about women in the past. At present, my research is focused on the late Georgian/Regency era in the United Kingdom, and I have found a variety of materials available to me via archives and on-line searches. However, some of the most fascinating were not produced by the individuals themselves, but by their contemporaries. Published memoirs, diaries and collections of letters can be found. Mrs. Harriet Arbuthnot, Lady Frances Shelley, the Comtesse de Boigne and the Duchesse de Dino, all moved in the highest circles, politically and socially, and interacted with the movers and shakers of their day. The diaries and memoirs of these four women give feminine perspectives of the times and places, and frequently make observations about the people and events of their time that give a wider view. In addition to being informative, they have the advantage of being entertaining and easily available, either on-line or by purchase.


Harriet Arbuthnot by Thomas Lawrence-public domain

Harriet Arbuthnot was born on September 10, 1793 to the Hon. Henry Fane and his wife, the former Ann Batson. Mr. Fane was a connection of John Fane, 9th Earl of Westmorland, making her a relation of Sarah Sophia, Countess of Jersey, and member of Parliament. The couple had 14 children, of whom Harriet was second to the youngest. Her father died when she was 9 years old. Her mother received a generous inheritance in 1810, which eased matters for the family.

Harriet Fane married the Right Honourable Charles Arbuthnot on January 31, 1814. She was 20 years old to his 46. He had been and continued to be an active member of Parliament and had held numerous government appointments, including Ambassador Extraordinary to the Ottoman Empire between 1804 and 1807. He was a widower with children when they married. Her family was not pleased with the engagement, due to Charles’ age and to financial considerations. The amount her mother and brother Vere Fane (who worked for Child’s Bank, owned by Lady Jersey) were prepared to settle on Harriet did not please Charles, but the matter was eventually resolved, and the marriage celebrated. Through her marriage to Charles, Harriet became a part of the political and diplomatic world, which was a source of fascination to her.

Harriet formed a close friendship with Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh (later Lord Londonderry) which lasted until his death by suicide until 1822. Subsequently, she formed a lasting friendship with the Duke of Wellington, who was also a friend of her husband’s. Although there were suggestions that she was Wellington’s mistress, most sources conclude that she was not his mistress, but a dear and intimate friend who acted as his hostess when needed.

Harriet was only 41 when she died August 2, 1834 of cholera, leaving both her husband and the duke disconsolate. Interestingly, Charles Arbuthnot took up residence with the Duke of Wellington until Arbuthnot’s own death in 1850.

Her journal was edited by Francis Bamford and the 7th Duke of Wellington-supposedly published in their entirety with adjustments for style and readability. Her views were conservative and aligned with the Tory party. In her journal, her primary focus was political. (Although she did have some choice remarks to make about unfaithful wives and various ladies of her acquaintance.) Her journals cover the periods 1820 to 1825 (volume 1) and 1826 to 1832 (volume 2). Volume 2 contains multiple appendices containing various letters and an index to both volumes.


Lady Shelley, from a miniature by G. Sanders, 
in the possession of Spencer Shelley Esq.

Lady Frances Shelley was born June 16, 1787 to Thomas Hinckley and Jacintha Dalrymple Hesketh. (Jacintha was a widow with 6 children when she married Thomas, and was the sister of Grace Dalrymple Elliot, a famous courtesan, whom Frances met once.) Frances was the only child of this marriage. Her mother died when she was about 15 years old. She then went to live with her half-brother Sir Thomas Hesketh. She was presented at court in 1805, and became acquainted with Lord and Lady Sefton.

Frances met Sir John Shelley through the Seftons. He was also a particularly close friend of Lord George Villiers (later Earl of Jersey, married to Lady Sarah Sophia Fane, mentioned previously). He was 15 years older than Frances, known as a gambler and a womanizer, and a member of the highest society. He had served in Parliament from 1804 to 1806, so had political acquaintances. Numerous ladies had set their sights on him, including Lady Jersey’s sister. Frances’ brother and family objected to the match. Time and the good offices of Lord and Lady Sefton won out and Frances married Lord Shelley on June 4th, 1807. She was shy and younger than the women in whose society she found herself, and it took time for her to adjust. They had 5 children. Sir John inherited an estate in East Essex, which assisted their financial situation.

Frances met Wellington at Peace Celebrations in 1814. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the Shelleys journeyed to Paris where they became part of Wellington’s circle. She became a close friend of Wellington’s, and a close friend of Harriet Arbuthnot. Sir John Shelley returned to Parliament and served 1816-1831. Frances and the Duke of Wellington socialized and corresponded regularly. Both Wellington and Lord Shelley died in 1852. Frances continued her diary until she made her final entry at age 83. She intended to write an autobiography but did not.

Frances died on the Isle of Wight February 24, 1873.

Her grandson Richard Edgcumbe, who admitted to natural sympathies, and possible mistakes as he attempted to be impartial, edited her diary. She discussed her youth; she was much younger than her husband, and not comfortable with women who had flirted with him in the past. Throughout, she was not above tart comments about many of the women of her acquaintance. The diary contains personal as well as political observations. It was published in 2 volumes. Volume 1 covers 1787-1817, and volume 2 1818-her Last Words at age 83 (1870). There is an end note by the editor in which he concludes with her death. Each volume has an index.


Portrait of the Comtesse de Boigne by J. Isabey-Creative Commons

The Comtesse de Boigne was born Adelaide Charlotte Louise Eleonore d’Osmond on February 10, 1781, the daughter of the 4th Marquis d’Osmond (whose lineage extended back to the 10th century) and his wife Eleonore Dillon, the daughter of an Irishman. Her mother was lady-in-waiting to Princess Marie Adelaide and baby Adelaide was born and raised in Versailles. After the French Revolution broke out, the family relocated in 1790 to first Italy, then England.

While living in England, she and her family met General Benoit de Boigne, a wealthy man 30 years older than she, in 1797. They were married on June 11, 1798. While the marriage improved her family’s financial status, it appears to have been unhappy from the beginning. He had made his fortune in India, and he apparently neglected to mention that he had a native wife and children there. In 1802, he bought a chateau in his native town of Chambery, Savoy. The couple had no children, and separated permanently in 1804. Madame de Boigne returned to France in 1804, living with her parents in Paris. After the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, she and her family rose to prominence. Her father became ambassador to Turin, and subsequently to England. She accompanied her family. She became a close friend of Marie-Amelie, wife of Louis-Philippe.

Her father’s assignment allowed her to return to England in the spring of 1816, following her parents. Once back in France, the Comtesse de Boigne established a salon in Paris that became a popular meeting place for politicians and society elite, particularly between 1830-1848. She started writing her memoirs in 1835, although they were not published until 1907. She also wrote 2 novels. Comtesse de Boigne died May 10, 1866 in Paris.

Her memoirs contain her personal recollections of people and events. She seemed as interested in the people as the politics. Volume 2 in particular includes her observations on going back to London after 12 years, comparing her memories to current conditions, as well as her observations on personalities, including the Prince Regent and the leaders of society, and on social customs. I have a set of her primary memoirs in English in 3 volumes: Volume 1 (1781-1814), volume 2 (1815-1819) and volume 3 (1820-1830). Each volume has an index. When available, the complete set in French includes volume 4 which contains fragments from 1830-1839 and volume 5 that includes fragments from 1832-1848 with some unpublished correspondence.


Dorothea von Biron, Princess of Courland, Duchess of Dino, Talleyrand, and Sagan, was born August 21, 1793 to Anne Charlotte Dorothea von Medem, Duchess of Courland and her husband Duke Peter von Biron. (The duke had been married previously and already had three daughters.) The duke acknowledged Dorothea as his daughter. However, it is suggested that her father actually may have been Aleksander Batowski , a Polish statesman. She was the Duke’s fourth and last daughter. She was known as Dorothea de Courland or Dorothea de Dino.

In 1809, Dorothea married Edmond de Talleyrand-Perigord, a French cavalry officer who was the nephew of statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, in Frankfurt. The elder Talleyrand had promoted the match. The couple had two sons, Napoleon-Louis and Alexandre. In 1817, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord was made a prince and duke by Louis XVII of France. He turned over the duchy of Dino to Edmond, making Dorothea the Duchesse de Dino. The couple legally separated in 1818. They were unsuccessfully reconciled in 1820, finally separating in 1821.

Dorothea’s beauty and charm won the affection of the elder Talleyrand even though he was 39 years older. Accompanying him as his niece, Dorothea was present at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815. From 1815 on, Dorothea acted as his hostess at his home in Paris. Her husband, Edmond, died in Italy in 1822. Dorothea had other liaisons (and other children), but remained with Prince Talleyrand he died in 1838. She held Prince Talleyrand’s papers and personal archives, and is supposed to have been involved in the posthumous publication of his Memoirs. Subsequently she spent time living in Paris and finally in Sagan in Germany. Her relationship with Prince Talleyrand was the subject of much speculation. She was his niece by marriage, and gossip also identified her as his mistress. She was aware of this, and acknowledged the rumours in her memoirs. There seems little doubt that she was, in fact, his mistress even though both had other lovers.

The Duchesse de Dino died September 18, 1862 after a long illness.

Her memoirs were edited by her granddaughter, Princesse Radziwill. The Duchesse had told the princess that she was leaving her the materials with instructions and advice, and the princess completed the project with assistance from the late Duchesse’s executor. The memoirs are fascinating reading, consisting of diary entries with annotations and quotes from letters (or even whole letters). They are a fascinating blend of personal and political observations, with references to letters from other people. Her diary addresses events and people in England as well as France.

The memoirs were published in multiple volumes in French. The volumes contain appendices and biographical indices (which provide only brief paragraphs with biographical data). I have a reprint set comprised of volume 1 (1831-1835), volume 2 (1836-1840) and volume 3 (1841-1850), available in English, and pertinent to the periods I am studying. Other editions with volumes covering up to 1862 are available in French. (The numbers of volumes in the complete set seems to vary depending on in which language and edition they were published.) Volume 1 contains her diaries and memoirs of her time in London (starting in 1831). She became friends with Lady Cowper (later Lady Palmerston) and with Princess Lieven, and maintained her friendship and correspondence with both ladies for years.

While these memoirs and diaries do not replace original sources, such as wills, complete correspondence, and so forth, they provide valuable insight to this entire period, and particularly feminine points of view of the people, events and politics of the era. While there are inevitable biases and fact checking is (as always) needed, I found all of these sources to be eminently readable and helpful. In these difficult times when access to original source materials is so restricted, they are invaluable sources of information.


Ziegler, Philip. THE DUCHESS OF DINO A life of Dorothea of Courland, mistress to Talleyrand. New York: The John Day Company, 1963.

Castlesandcoffeehouses.com “Talleyrand’s Chateau de Valencay. » Author not shown. Posted July 16, 2018. HERE

Chateaudelucy.com “The de Boigne Family » by Antoine de Galbert (no post date).

Guizot.com “Duchess of Dino.” No author or post date provided. HERE

Heritagealive.co.uk “The Iron Duke’s Lady” by HeritageAlive!, posted August 2 (year not shown). HERE

History.blog.gov.uk “Harriet Arbuthnot and the ‘vortex of politics’” by Dr. Stephen Lee, posted January 12, 2015. HERE

marie-antoinette.forumactif.org “Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne » by Mme. de Sabran, posted Saturday, April 9, 2016. HERE

thebeaumonde.com “The Journal of Mrs. Arbuthnot” by Cheryl Bolen, first published in The Quizzing Glass, December 2010, posted online with author’s permission January 23, 2012. HERE

VersaillesCentury.com “Born at Versailles: The Author Mme De Boigne” by David Gemeinhardt, posted February 12, 2017. HERE


Lady Shelley: scanned frontispiece from my personal copy of THE DIARY OF FRANCES LADY SHELLEY 1787-1817.

Others from Wikimedia Commons.


An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented a number of programs. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is still available. Recently released, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her second novel. A long-time contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is researching material for a non-fiction work. Please visit her website for more information HERE .

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