It's easy to assume that youth, beauty, and a noble title would be sufficient to ensure social success in Georgian London. But as the following quote proves, that was only a start to becoming accepted as a member of the Beau Monde. Following the rules of fashion and knowing what was "done" was equally important.
When young Mary Theresa Fox-Strangways (née O'Grady), 2nd Countess of Ilchester, arrived in London with her husband in 1777, she was seemingly well-poised to make an entrance into society. She was attractive, titled, and well-connected through her husband's family and friends. The earl and his wife had recently acquired a grand house and a fashionable address in Grosvenor Square. But according to this letter by Lady Sarah Lennox - herself a daughter of the Duke of Richmond - Lady Ilchester made a grievous error by attending the Opera without powdering her hair white in the fashionable manner.
"I thought she had too much sense not to make a proper figure if she undertook to make any at all;...[W]hat I heard was a little circumstance that made me see more than ever the absurdity of prejudice among fine people and on the other hand the necessity of attending a little to it if one lives among them; I hear she appeared at the Opera without powder dressed in a poking, queer way...and caused great speculation to know who that queer but pretty little vulgar woman could be that Lady Sefton brought with her. [N]ow to be sure it requires nothing but a short examination to find out that the Genteel Lady Sefton is in nature a most compleat Vulgar; to my certain knowledge her gentility never went further than her dress, and that the pretty Vulgar Little Woman has more true real gentility about her than most people I know...but such is the World that a little Powder and Gauze properly disposed secures a proper respect and the neglect of it gives a mauvais ton [unfortunate tone] which is sometimes a little troublesome to overcome; but I fancy a good House and good suppers will soon recover the faux pas of going to the Opera sans powder."
Perhaps Lady Ilchester didn't enjoy the challenge of becoming a noted hostess giving "good suppers", or the financial cost of life in London proved too much, or Lord and Lady Ilchester decided the demands of such a life simply weren't for them; in any event, the fine house in Grosvenor Square was sold two years later, and the pair spent most of their time in the country. Perhaps the portrait, left, of Lady Ilchester with her two daughters in 1779 shows the lady preferred a happy family life to worrying about being a "little vulgar woman" in London.
Above: Mary Theresa, 2nd Countess of Ilchester, and her daughters, mezzotint by George H. Every (1868) after a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779). National Portrait Gallery.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.