The most improbable of all improbable marriages?
The year: 1827
The hero: William Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk, 9th Duke of St. Albans
The heroine: Harriot Mellon, the daughter of strolling players (though some sources say her father was a chimney sweep) and a celebrated actress in London.
Their happily ever after: Harriot was swept off her feet by an extremely rich banker, Thomas Coutts, who married her in 1815. After his death in 1822, she took helped run his bank and became extremely rich. She was, by all accounts, very poised, and a kind and generous hostess, even when some members of society cut her. She caught the duke’s eye soon afterwards, and when he was courting her, Sir Walter Scott (who seemed to have been somewhat of a matchmaker for this couple) said:
‘If the Duke marries her, he insures an immense fortune: and if she marries him, she has the front rank. If he marries a woman older than himself by twenty years, she marries a man younger in wit by twenty degrees. I do not think he will dilapidate her fortune: he seems good and gentle. I do not think she will abuse his softness of disposition-shall I say? or of heart.’ (1)
Harriot married the duke in 1827, and she became the Duchess of St. Albans. He was 23 years younger than she was!
Another improbable romance that works my muse into a tizzy!
The year: 1792
The hero: Sir Henry Crewe, 7th Baronet
The heroine: Ann (or “Nanette” or “Nanny”) Hawkins, lady’s maid (Hey, she shares a last name with the House of Trent!)
Their happily ever after: Sir Henry was one of the richest landowners in Derbyshire, but he was also a rather shy and eccentric man who earned the nickname “the reclusive baronet.” (Aside: I love writing about eccentric nobles–if you’ve read any of my books, that’s probably obvious!) He took Nanette Hawkins as his mistress in his 20s (she was 2-3 years younger than him), and lived openly “in sin” with her, fathering two children. He married her a couple of years later. Nanette bore Sir Henry nine children, and their oldest surviving son became the 8th Baronet on his father’s death in a carriage accident in 1819.
Evidently, Nanette was very beautiful, and Sir Henry didn’t want anyone but himself to lay eyes on her exquisite beauty. The legend says that he built a tunnel from their house (Calke Abbey) through the garden in order to hide her away.
For more about Sir Henry and Nanette:
The National Trust
These are the kinds of stories that get my imagination going and inspire my fiction writing! (And here’s a teeny tiny spoiler about the House of Trent series–a Gypsy link is discovered in Sam’s story, book 3, The Scoundrel’s Seduction…)
The year: 1855
The hero: George, the Seventh Earl of Stamford. Stamford had already been married once–when he was a student at Cambridge, he married the daughter of his servant.
The heroine: Kitty Cocks, a circus performer with Gypsy blood
Their happily ever after: When they returned to Stamford’s seat in Cheshire, the people cut the new countess and treated her horrifically, so the earl moved his wife away from the mockery and scorn. The couple lived in exile in Staffordshire. Stamford left his estates to his wife when he died (in an accident) in 1883.
The year: 1880
The hero: Harry, the Eighth Earl of Stamford. In his 20’s, the earl was sent to live in South Africa to cure his drinking and gambling problems.
The heroine: Martha Soloman, the daughter of a slave
Their happily ever after: Martha was the nurse of Harry’s children. Their relationship began when Harry’s wife died, and they had two children before they married in 1880. They remained together for the rest of Harry’s life and when Harry inherited the earldom, they chose to remain in South Africa. Their son, who was born before their marriage, did not inherit the earldom per the laws of the United Kingdom (he was born before the marriage so technically wasn’t considered legitimate), and when Harry died, the earldom was passed to a cousin.
As promised in my blog about Improbable (or Impossible?) Historical Relationships, I’m going to talk about royalty marrying into common blood in history. In the next few posts, I’ll talk about others who married people of a “lower station,” and how/if things are changing in modern times.
There has been much talk about Prince William and Catherine Middleton, who is the great-granddaughter of a coal miner and the daughter of a pilot and flight attendant (who now run a successful party-planning business). But this princes-marrying-commoners thing–is it purely a modern construct? Or did it happen in history as well?
It’s true that the British monarchy has married into other royal families for much of its most recent history. Even Prince Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer was somewhat scandalous, because though she was the daughter of an earl, it was the first time since James II that a future king would marry an English-born wife.
But royals marrying commoners has happened in history, certainly, in several different countries. Here are some of the unions I found from England:
-Several of Henry VIII’s wives were commoners (although descended from noble families).
-Edward IV married commoner Elizabeth Woodville (this relationship is beautifully rendered in The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman–one of my favorite historical fiction novels!).
-James II married commoner Anne Hyde.
-Queen Catherine of Valois (Henry V’s wife) married Owen Tudor, a commoner–and the ultimate father of the Tudor line of monarchs
-Edward VIII married American divorcee Wallis Simpson in the 1930s (but he had to abdicate the throne in order to do so)
-John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, married Katherine Swynford after she was his long-term mistress & bore him four children (This love affair is portrayed brilliantly in Anya Seton’s novel Katherine–I definitely recommend!)
Do any of these ring a bell for you? Can you think of any other royals (English or otherwise) who married commoners?
I’ve heard a lot of critical murmurings about historical romances (The Duchess Hunt included) that dismiss the theme of dukes (and other lords and ladies) marrying far below their station. While many readers seem to adore the Cinderella trope, to some readers, it is unrealistic to the point of being annoying. Even ridiculous.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot (mostly at about 3 am in the morning!). To me Cinderella romances hold a strong appeal (both as a reader and a writer). But, truly, is it unrealistic for a duke to marry the gardener’s daughter? Is it impossible?
I’m the first to admit that in my writing I add a very healthy dose of fantasy to my history. I have a deep-rooted mad love for the fairy-tale fantasy—I have ever since I was a little girl (Have I told you how many times I was a princess for Halloween? My mom was so tired of my endless crowns and pink dresses!).
I also love the themes and conflicts of people marrying people who are different than they are…whether it’s a difference in race, religion, or class. I love exploring what can happen when two such people meet and fall in love and the struggles they face in their search for a happily ever after. I think one of the reasons I love these themes is because I myself married someone of a different race, class, and religion. It is a fascinating conflict to me, because it is so very personal to me.
Obviously, this is also a huge theme and conflict in The Duchess Hunt. The Duke of Trent is looking for the woman who will be his duchess. It doesn’t even cross his mind that Sarah, the gardener’s daughter, might be a candidate for such a position. Why? Because even though the duke is a man of high moral standards who always strives to do what’s right, he’s also a man of his time. In the Duke of Trent’s world, men don’t marry servants. It’s not even within the realm of possibility. It’s not something he’d even consider. Ever.
Through the course of the book, however, the duke changes. He learns that not only is Sarah a potential candidate for his duchess, but a candidate who far exceeds the qualities of any of the candidates society deems worthy of him. This is the duke’s character arc—how he changes in the course of the book. He starts off the book, very subtly, as a classist, someone who—very subtly—considers himself superior to people in Sarah’s position. He is never cruel to Sarah. He never openly demeans her and always respects her. But since birth, it has been ingrained in him that people of her ilk are not worthy of lifelong relationships with people of his. They are not worthy of marriage to someone like him. That ingrained classist in him is slowly desiccated as he learns how perfect for him Sarah is. And when the light bulb goes off, completely burning away the rest of his prejudice, then we get to see a duke who has finally risen above the inherent classism of the society he was born into. A duke who actually deserves Sarah.
Improbable? Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, most people—most dukes—of the time were far too prejudiced and entrenched in their classist society to even consider a person like Sarah as a lifelong partner. But I’m okay with that. I write fiction, after all, and writing the improbable is my job. I love realistic historicals—I love history books—but I write the fairy tales.
So a duke/servant marriage is surely improbable. But impossible? Nah. As I’ve pointed out often on this blog over the years, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Last night, in the middle of the night, I started thinking of all the true historical relationships I’ve read about that break the mold. Stay tuned, because over the next few days, I’m going to try to share some of them here.
So what do you think? Do improbable duke/servant relationships (and the like) in romances rub you the wrong way, or do you love the fairy tale aspect of these relationships? And this not only applies to historical romance but romance in general. (Think of all the popular stories out right now about 20-something self-made billionaires out there with all kinds of time to woo the simple, middle-class girl next door. I admit I love these stories too!)
And can you think of any real-life historical relationships that broke the mold?
Congratulations to Sandy X, who won a Kindle Fire in my THE DUCHESS HUNT release contest! Sandy, enjoy your new Kindle!
And to celebrate, I’m giving away a Kindle Fire! (Contest ends in July because I’m going to be exploring New York, Greece, and the UK until then!)