I have recently been reading "An Aristocratic Affair" by Janet Gleeson, a biography of Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough, sister to the much more famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and mother of the notorious Caroline Lamb. Harriet lived from 1761 until 1821; as a writer this is my favourite period in English history.
At a time when many consider women to have been powerless, Harriet was a very influential political hostess and close friend of the Prince of Wales. She and her sister were prominent Whig supporters and although they received a very bad press for their efforts, their husbands seemed to be quite happy for them to be on the streets canvassing during the elections.
She lived through some of the most troubled times of modern English and European history, was personally involved in Revolutionary France (her disapproval of Napoleon caused difficulties for her and her husband when they wanted to leave France after their visit to Paris in 1803).
Harriet was a fascinating woman who married well to please her family and thereafter conducted a series of discreet liaisons, following the fashion of the 18th century. Her affairs included a long lasting relationship with Granville Leveson-Gower and also the playwright Sheriden. From her letters she comes across as strong minded, kind and generous, even to those who tried to hurt her, and devoted to her sister Georgiana. Along with their mother, Lady Spencer and Lady Elizabeth Foster (the third party in the Devonshires' infamous ménage a trois) they formed a strong self-help group, the sisters looking after each other when they retired to the country (or even abroad) to have their lovers' children, defending each other from creditors and from the wrath of their powerful and rather alarming husbands. Harriet's lovers continued to pursue her even when she was no longer a young, attractive woman, and she remained friends with some of them until her death.
As a role model for a heroine we could do worse than look to Harriet: Her affairs may not be quite what we want for our romances, but she was a clever, articulate woman, warm-hearted, fiercely loyal to her friends and a devoted mother. I have no doubt that she will influence my future heroines (and in fact I see some of her traits in many of those I have already created).
Gentlemen in Question, pub. Robert Hale