Friday, August 29, 2008

Tart of the Week: Jane, Duchess of Gordon

Jane was the Tory version of Georgiana and her fiercest rival. Indeed the two women were foils, Jane being an outspoken Scot with a competitive nature loved being a Tory hostess just as much as Georgiana enjoyed being a Whig one. But upon closer examination of this tart we find that the two women had a lot in common and if they weren't so similar they may have been the best of friends.

Jane Maxwell was the daughter of a typical poor, drunken baronet. While her father sold off his lands to pay his debt her mother educated her and her sisters in Edinburgh. When she was 14 Jane accidentally jammed a finger from her right hand in a carriage wheel and when it moved away it took her finger with it. From then on she usually wore gloves with a false wooden finger. By the time she was 16 she was so beautiful songs were being written in her honor. She had fallen in love with a young soldier but he went off to fight and was presumed dead so when the dashing 24 year old Duke of Gordon asked for her hand she said yes. It was on her honeymoon with the Duke that Jane received a letter from her lost love asking for her hand in marriage. She fainted upon reading it.

Their marriage quickly proved to be a loveless one. Jane's first son was born around the same time as a mistress gave birth to her husband's bastard. They were both named George, “My George and the Duke’s George.” The Duke continued to have affairs and Jane, never to be outdone, had some of her own, notably Henry Dundas, William Pitt's best friend. She threw lavish parties, never hid her Scottish brogue, and was known to proudly wear her tartan despite them being outlawed. Rock on, Jane. King George was said to have been a big fan of hers, which is probably why she got away with sporting the tartan.

As for politics, well, Jane fought dirty. During the 1780 election she even kidnapped a man and locked him in her cellar to secure the seat for a friend of hers. She hated the success and popularity of the parties Georgiana threw in celebration of the Whigs and attempted to create the Tory versions. Pitt, seeing the influence Georgiana had on the popularity of candidates, happily allowed Jane to throw parties in his honour in hopes of the same success. During the regency crisis she came close to usurping Georgiana as the prime social hostess and even looked like she would replace her as queen of the ton. Jane smugly invited Georgiana and Harriet to the House of Commons to listen to speeches after a Whig defeat and relished in their curt refusal. She had won this round. But unfortunately for her, no one can outdo the Duchess of Devonshire.

Despite the unhappiness of her marriage, Jane loved her status as a duchess and became infamous for seeking the best marriages for her children. Of her five daughters she was able to marry three to dukes. She even took one of her daughters to Paris to try and secure her a marriage with Empress Josephine's son. She may have been a gold-digger for her children but she loved them dearly. Her letters about missing her eldest son, George are heart-wrenching. It is George who is painted with her in her portrait by Romney in the Scottish National Gallery.

After being separated from her husband for years the couple finally divorced in 1805. She spent the remainder of her lonely years fighting with him over receiving the full annuities he promised her. She died in London in 1812 and her body was laid to rest in her beloved Scotland.


  1. In that second picture she looks a lot like Princess Di to me. Anyone else agree?
    THanks for the history lesson!

    1. I thought the same thing and I just checked - she's the paternal fourth great grandmother of Diana! Amazing how centuries later they can look almost exactly alike!

  2. Aw about her honeymoon! How terrible to find out your true love was still alive...

    Interesting woman....thanks for writing it up. Out of curiosity, how long do you plan to keep up this blog? Is it a project or something indefinite? I only ask because I enjoy reading it so much :)

  3. Aw thank you so much, I am really glad you enjoy it! I want to keep this blog up as long as Lauren and I can keep gossiping.
    We began the project after realizing that we spend a lot of time gossiping about the 18th century to the chagrin of our friends and old men at the bar who wouldn't mind their own f-ing business! We used the blogs a way to document everything. Luckily the internet is full of gossip-mongers like ourselves, so we've had a great time doing this and don't plan on stopping any time soon!

  4. Duchess of Gordon! <3333 Ha, I love her, especially since she apparently decided to nickname the Prime Minister "Pett".

  5. I first discovered the Duchess of Gordon through Ciji Ware's Island of Swans. Apparently the love of her life was Simon Fraser. Really interesting book. Glad that you brought her up!

  6. I find the Tart of the Week feature to be so much fun I'm tempted to do something like it on my blog. Keep up the great work!

  7. Oh thank you! I wasn't sure if was a popular feature or not so I am glad you like it!

  8. The love of her life was Thomas Fraiser, not Simon, of the famous Black Watch. Her life is simply fascinating to learn as is the D of D. This is a great blog keep it up!!!!

  9. Thank you very much! I agree, her life is simply fascinating. I hope someone comes out with a complete biography on her soon because I haven't been able to find one.

  10. Well, this comment is entirely late, but I so did enjoy reading about her and her competition with Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. It would have been a complete triumph (in my opinion) if one of them had had a happy marriage. Unfortunate that both of them should struggle with that unhappiness in their lives.

  11. Just requested "The Sylph" on Kindle. I found this post after reading Island of Swans also. So when can I get your book on kindle? Great idea for a blog.

  12. Thank you!

    The book is available on Kindle, here is the link