Friday, 3 July 2015

Rags to Riches: The true story of Elizabeth and Maria Gunning

Today I welcome my good friend, Grace Elliot, with the remarkable rags to riches story of the Gunning sisters!

I shall see you on 6th July... a theatrical weekend awaits!


Rags to Riches: The true story of Elizabeth and Maria Gunning

In 18th century Georgian high society, a well to-do-lady aspired to catch herself a titled husband. With fierce competition from other, equally ambitious debutantes to attract the eye of an eligible bachelor, interlopers were discouraged and frozen out of society. Which makes the story of the Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth all the more unusual.

Elizabeth Gunning, after her marriage 
The two sisters were genteel nobodies: the daughters of an Irishman with neither money nor connections, and yet they did have one attribute in abundance – they were great beauties. When they were old enough, they worked in a Dublin theatre to help boost the family income. This was a potentially disastrous move for their reputations because most actresses were considered harlots. However, they survived the risk and were invited to a ball at Dublin castle.

The story goes that they had no money for ball gowns. But the theatre manager, Tom Sheridan, came to the rescue and leant them the Juliette and Lady Macbeth costumes to wear. Once at the ball they made such an impression on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that he granted their mother a reasonable pension.

Elizabeth Gunning

Mrs Gunning used the money to take her daughters to England, and their house in Huntingdon. They attended local assemblies, and created such a sensation that word of them spread ahead to London.

With a reputation akin to that of a modern celebrity, the sisters entered London society feted as beauties – and took it by storm. This was unusual for the day, where manners, breeding, grace, and connections dictated how ‘beautiful’ a lady was. But more than that, they did the unthinkable and completed a rags to riches story by snagging aristocrats for husbands.

Elizabeth again

In 1752, after a whirlwind romance, Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, and went on to bear three children. When he died in 1758, she still attracted noble interest and remarried a Marques, who then inherited a dukedom. Elizabeth was a favourite at court and became a lady for the bedchamber for Queen Charlotte, during George III’s reign. She died at the age of 57, quietly in her bed.

Maria Gunning

Her sister, Maria, was more controversial. She was renowned as being tactless, but for some reason this amused the haut ton and it added to her popularity. Also in 1752, Maria married the Earl of Coventry, but it seems he quickly tried to clip her wings. Whilst on honeymoon in Paris, he reportedly publically wiped her face with a handkerchief, when she wore rouge at dinner after he had forbidden it.

Maria, Countess of Coventry

However, his aversion to Maria wearing cosmetics was strangely prophetic. A woman famed for beauty, she did everything she could to preserve that image. This meant wearing the heavy makeup that was fashionable in some quarters. But unfortunately that makeup contained lead and arsenic which slowly poisoned her. She was caught in a vicious circle, because the symptoms of poisoning included skin breakouts and redness, which undoubtedly meant she applied yet thicker layers of cosmetics.

Maria's mirror.
It was this very mirror Maria looked in to apply her makeup

Her continued use of makeup signed Maria’s death warrant and she died at the tender age of 27. A rags to riches story, which unlike Cinderella has a sad ending.

This post copyright © Grace Elliot, 2015.


Mari Christian said...

Two amazing women. Wonderful portraits. What a pity Maria was addicted to makeup!

Catherine Curzon said...

Such fascinating lives!

Jude Knight said...

Fascinating. I knew of them from the mentions in regency novels, but nice to know their story.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing,Madame. It's an interesting story concerning these beauties,but not uncommon for the times.

Sarah said...

The Gunnings were iconic for any writer of romances with a poor but beautiful heroine...

Catherine Curzon said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Catherine Curzon said...

Sadly not!

Catherine Curzon said...

Deservedly so!

lynneconnolly said...

They weren't exactly nobodies - their grandfather was a viscount, so they had a foot in the door. And their acting career appears to have been largely amateur, and brief. Their mother appears to have been adept at the "print the legend" theory of historyf. It's interesting to see how the legends have proliferated about them. said...

The dichotomy of the sisters' fates makes for an even better "fairy tale" from real life. Thanks for sharing this!

Unknown said...

Just like Peg Plunkett, Irish women who conquered Dublin City!

Catherine Curzon said...

I think their mother was a *very* savvy PR lady - a bit of spin to help the cause!

Catherine Curzon said...

My pleasure; Grace's writing is so enjoyable, she tells such wonderful stories.

Catherine Curzon said...

And the book is wonderful, Julie, just finished it - thank you for telling Peg's tale!

Ossie Bullock said...

A couple of things. Though the Gunning sisters had Anglo-Irish parents (and as Lynne has pointed out, were granddaughters of a viscount - their mother was 'The Hon...'), they were actually born in England and raised there until 6 or 7 years old. It's true the family were not hugely wealthy, but they were landed gentry not paupers; and when they returned to Ireland in about 1741, it was to their estate and home of Castle Coote, a ruined ancient castle with a pretty nice and substantial house attached. But of course 'rags to riches' sounds so much more romantic...!

The other point is that the first picture you show of Elizabeth dates from *before* her marriage, not after - it was drawn by Francis Cotes in 1751, the year before she met and married the Duke of Hamilton. Contrary to what is often stated, an ermine trim to a gown does not necessarily imply noble birth - it became very fashionable for 'ladies of quality' from about 1750-1770, and thereafter ermine can often seen in portraits of female sitters whose family or husband had money and position, but no title. And on the subject of titles, Elizabeth was actually created a baroness in her own right when she was 42, such was the King's admiration for her.