Mad and Bad

Real Heroines of the Regency


By Bea Koch

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Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.

Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes.

But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don’t fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father’s family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother’s assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.

As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as “historically accurate” for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.


Introduction to the Regency World and Why We’re Here

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”1

Caroline Lamb claimed credit for those words, the most famous description of Lord George Byron, poet and all-around bad boy of early-nineteenth-century England.

She might as well have been describing herself. Caroline was equally as dramatic, talented, capricious, and fascinating as Byron. And just like Byron, she was a published author.

But Byron is remembered as a great writer of the era, while Caroline’s writing has become a footnote, and she is relegated to the role of hysterical ex-girlfriend in Byron’s story.

To many the Regency is a period of great men. Castlereagh, Palmerston, Pitt, Nelson, Wellington dominate the histories of the era; their names writ large across the historical stage.

But it is also an era of great women. Forcing their way into a historical record set up to extol the many accomplishments of men in so many surprising places that we are forced to take notice.

Each woman shines bright, illuminating those around her. Each woman connects to so many more.

Each has her own story. Her own accomplishments and disappointments. Her own love stories and losses.

The sad truth of history is that so many of these stories are lost. And the stories of people of color and women are disproportionately so.

The happy truth is that we’re still rediscovering stories every day. History is more alive than ever as we turn our attention to those who have been left to languish in the shadows and those who have been cast in a singular light.

Here we have an opportunity to examine these networks of women spreading through an iconic time period: the Regency.

So named for the ten-year period between 1810 and 1820 when then Prince of Wales George IV became Regent after his father, George III, showed increasing signs of mental instability, “the Regency” has long reigned supreme in the beloved world of historical romances. These romance novels have helped the Regency become what it is—and all that it means—today.

There has long been a misperception that Regency romance heroines are simpering misses who fall fast for a rake and think of nothing but love and, more crudely, sex. In actuality, contemporary romance novelists have always plumbed the depths of Regency history to find inspiration for heroines who break the mold, in more ways than one.

Lady Caroline Lamb is a perfect example of one such Regency woman, one who lived the type of life that could inspire a slew of romance novels. Her love life was certainly dramatic enough. But there is another layer to the story, a twin narrative that follows the more famous love affair and that peeks out at us in letters, diaries, and poems.

It’s the network of women in Caroline’s life who loved her and she loved back. And the women she sparred with in person and letters, those she tried desperately to befriend and those she scorned. Mother, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, enemies, and in-laws: They appear in every facet of Caroline’s life, guiding and worrying over her, cajoling and encouraging, censorious and generous, or in turn demanding and threatening as they tried to force Caroline to live as they wanted her to. It is an altogether familiar world for modern women—one that the women in our lives create through their very presence. Caroline lived in a world of women, even if she is historically associated with famous men.

There is such joy and strength in female friendship, and it is that joy that we can see in every facet of women’s lives during the Regency—and similarly that joy and connection that are all too frequently left out of the greater historical narrative.

It is touching to see echoes of that care and closeness we crave today in historical sources, like the famous Duchess of Devonshire’s sweet poem to her niece, the eventual Lady Caroline Lamb, née Ponsonby.


Fairy, sprite, whatever thou art

Magic genius waits on thee

And thou claimst each willing heart

Whilst thy airy form we see

Take the gift, the early year

Shall for thee in Splendor shine.

Genius gives it. Do not fear

Boldly mould, invent, design.2

Georgiana and Caroline are both famous for their scandalous love lives and social antics. But in this poem all that melts away, and we see something far more intimate and honest. It echoes through time, reminding each new generation of the gift that can come when someone sees you and believes in you. And it reminds us of the humanity that we sometimes forget in the greater historical narrative.

The bittersweet nature of these relationships can also be seen in Caroline’s constant push-and-pull with her in-laws and friends who turned critics as her antics came right up to the edge, and eventually over it, of socially acceptable.

Caroline has been called shameless and hysterical for her refusal to go quietly into the night when Byron was done with her. In actuality, her struggle to wrest control of her story from all those who would misrepresent her is familiar to the women of the twenty-first century. In her rejection of social norms and polite society we see glimmers of Elizabeth Warren’s famous “Nevertheless, she persisted” attitude.

And like our heroines of the twenty-first century, Caroline was a complicated woman who made mistakes. In that, she had many contemporary examples, including her own aunt, Georgiana.

The famous Duchess of Devonshire died in 1806, before her friend George IV officially became Prince Regent. But Georgiana’s fingerprints can be seen all over the Regency. She was a friend and, more important, patron of any number of the women in this book. Indeed, the famous portrait commemorating her friendship with Anne Damer and Elizabeth, Lady Melbourne, stares at us from the pages of this book.

Elizabeth, Lady Melbourne, was also Lady Caroline Lamb’s mother-in-law.

Connections everywhere, binding disparate women into remarkable networks.

In choosing the women to feature in this book I was faced with an interesting dilemma in considering who was truly a heroine of the Regency and what that meant. I have focused on women who contributed to the culture of a time period, which means, necessarily, that there are women featured who were prominent before and after this ten-year period. I would argue, strongly, that if we discount those who come immediately before and after, we lose something essential in our understanding of women at this time.

Indeed, we lose the very essence of what is so remarkable about the women of the nineteenth century—the connections they created through friendship, family, talent, and intellect, and the way they fostered their own ambitions and those of other women through careful patronage and targeted support.

The Regency era of our imagination isn’t simply ten years. It’s actually a much broader period, blending with the Georgian and Victorian on either end. And the truth is that there are hundreds of women who could be included in these pages.

I’m often asked why the Regency is so perennially popular. What exactly about this tiny time period grabs and holds our attention?

I would argue that one part of the fascination is in the struggle of a society seemingly ruled by a strict social code while in actuality the most famous and celebrated of the time are those who flouted those rules.

And no one more so than the women in this book. They lived life on their own terms and made the rules bend to accommodate them. They built careers in the most improbable places and demanded respect for their accomplishments.

The real heroines of the Regency aren’t empty-headed heiresses or scheming mamas—they’re intelligent, talented artists, thinkers, scientists, and so much more.



The Ton

Either You’re In or You’re Out

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

Marriage now is a necessary kind of barter, and an alliance of families;—the heart is not consulted;—or, if that should sometimes bring a pair together,—judgement being left far behind, love seldom lasts long.

—Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph, 1779

The first line of Pride and Prejudice—*the* defining novel of the Regency era by Jane Austen—tells us everything we need to know about the focus and priorities of the upper classes.1 Marriage, and in particular the right marriage, ensured that the wealth concentrated among a few families remained exactly where they wanted it, passed down through the generations, consolidating and consecrating their power. This singular obsession runs through sources from the time both consciously and less obviously so.

The discussion of marriage and what it truly means is put into even more material terms in Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s novel The Sylph, but it’s no less harsh a description of the institution and the way her entire social circle treated it during the time period.

Both Georgiana and Jane highlight the mercantile reality of marriage for the upper classes. Money needs to marry. And during the Regency, these marriages were plotted and encouraged during social events held over a social Season, like the Wednesday-evening ball held weekly at Almack’s Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms and the “marriage mart” culture they encouraged have been immortalized in the fictional worlds of Jane and Georgiana and their fellow nineteenth-century authors, which in turn captured the imaginations of historical romance novelists, who frequently feature Almack’s and the marriage machinations taking place therein in their Regency-set romances.

Almack’s and the Patronesses who ran the membership lists for the club, deciding who was awarded a voucher for entry and who was denied, have become a beloved and expected part of a Regency romance novel. The Patronesses are often portrayed as middle-aged and meddling (if invariably with a well-hidden streak of kindness), ruling their club with an iron fist and eye to the unwritten set of rules that governed the world of the aristocracy.

In reality the Patronesses were young women themselves, many of them friends or related through marriage, who lived the kind of interesting, exciting lives that Regency romance heroines aspire to.


Almack’s Assembly Rooms were founded around 1765 by William Almack, who originally had a coffeehouse and tavern on the premises.2 By the height of the Regency his daughter Elizabeth Pitcairn had inherited and was running her father’s establishment. The coffeehouse and tavern had morphed into a much more elegant operation, with a series of large ballrooms connected to one another.

Almack’s was one of the first clubs in London to admit both men and women. Men’s clubs were already very popular with upper-class men as a space for socializing. Almack’s allowed women into this inner sanctum.

Even more uniquely, the list of those admitted was ruled over by a group of aristocratic women, called the Patronesses.

The Patronesses were an integral part of William Almack’s vision for his club. He wanted to ensure an elite reputation for his establishment, and knew that engaging the services of the most aristocratic women he could find would help achieve this goal. In his original advertisement for Almack’s he announced that seven aristocratic women had each opened a subscription book with the intention of giving sixty subscriptions apiece, which would confer the right to the holder to pay ten guineas for admission to the twelve balls a Season.

In doing so he created a uniquely feminine space where aristocratic men and women could meet and continue the conversations that had been occurring in Parliament and elsewhere, with an eye to keeping their social world rigorously regulated through careful, often arranged marriages and courtships. But unlike Parliament, women ruled at Almack’s.

Almack’s and its Patronesses truly capture the many contradictions of Regency society. Even during their lifetime, they were characters of fascination and subjected to satirical representations as well as public gossip about their lives. The Patronesses were never neutral figures. By entering a world of power and setting themselves up as the ones to control it, the Patronesses found themselves in an unusual position. They wielded authority over those who traditionally never gave up power to anyone.

The Regency-era Patronesses of Almack’s are often remembered and associated with a number of incidents that occurred during their tenure, perhaps none more famous than Wellington and his trousers.

Almack’s was governed by a strict set of rules, which included a dress code. In May 1819 the Duke of Wellington arrived at Almack’s with the necessary voucher to attend the ball. However, he was turned away at the door because he was wearing full-length trousers, rather than the required knee-breeches. The Patronesses’ rejection of the new fashion reminds us of their core of conservativeness. Another rumor goes that he was turned away for arriving seven minutes after the doors had closed, necessitating the steward to ask the Patronesses to hold the door for him, a request that was refused.

Wellington was a lionized and beloved figure in the press and with the people for defeating Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. The Patronesses were painted as ridiculous and petty to deny entrance to such a figure due to a simple fashion error. Rather than being considered fair, they were seen as small, mean, and so obsessed with their own rules that they couldn’t bend them, even for such a great hero.

The sheer uncomfortableness of Regency men with this exceptional display of feminine power can be seen in the contemporary writing about Almack’s, like Henry Luttrell’s Advice to Julia, which features the lines:

All on that magic List depends;

Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends;

’Tis that which gratifies or vexes

All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.

If once to Almack’s you belong,

Like monarchs you can do no wrong;

But banished thence on Wednesday night,

By Jove, you can do nothing right.3

Luttrell bemoans the fact that the Patronesses have circumvented traditional power structures, and have specifically rejected the traits that would normally ensure social acceptance. Instead they have created their own “list,” and only they know the secret formula for guaranteeing a name’s inclusion.

Contemporary (and slightly later) chroniclers of the time have been less than kind to the Patronesses, perhaps no one more so than Rees Howell Gronow, known as Captain Gronow.

A Welsh officer in the Welsh Grenadier Guards, Gronow arrived in London in 1813 after serving with his regiment in Spain. He was a popular society figure, attending Almack’s Wednesday-night balls along with his fellow dandies. His military career continued and took him to Paris. He retired and struggled financially, while attempting to mount a political career—which failed. In 1862 he published the first of what would eventually be four volumes of Reminiscences, his true legacy.

Captain Gronow had a lot of opinions, some of them worthy of a great deal of skepticism, and he shared them freely. In 1813 he recorded the Patronesses as: Sarah Villiers, the Countess of Jersey; Emily Clavering-Cowper (later Viscountess Palmerston); Dorothea, Princess Lieven; Clementina Drummond-Burrell; Amelia, Viscountess Castlereagh; Maria, Viscountess Sefton; and Princess Esterhazy.

According to Captain Gronow, Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey, was a “theatrical tragedy queen” and “inconceivably rude,” in contrast with Emily Clavering-Cowper, later Viscountess Palmerston, whom he names as the most popular of the Patronesses.

To Captain Gronow, Princess Lieven is “haughty and exclusive” and Lady Castlereagh and Mrs. Drummond-Burrell are the “grand dames” of the proceedings. Meanwhile, Lady Sefton is described as “kind and amiable” while Princess Esterhazy is given the nickname of “bon Enfant,” which can mean both “good-natured” and, in a less charitable reading, “simple-minded and naive.”4

Gronow’s descriptions might often be unkind, but they hint at the differences among the Patronesses. We often think of this group of women as a unit, but they were individuals with different lives and ambitions. We also see these descriptors pop up again and again in almost any future mention of the Patronesses either together or separately, highlighting the way fact and fiction can become entwined in a historical source.

But what is even more interesting is to examine what the Patronesses thought of one another, and their impressions of each other.

Princess Lieven is a wonderful source for this. A prodigious letter writer separated from her family due to her husband’s ambassadorship in London, Princess Lieven wrote thousands of letters to her family and friends, keeping them abreast of everything happening in Regency England, and Lieven’s opinions on it all.

Princess Lieven describes Princess Esterhazy as “small, round, black, animated, and somewhat spiteful,”5 which is oft referenced when discussing the two women. However, Princess Lieven is not only discussing Princess Esterhazy, but also comparing her with another recently arrived ambassador’s wife, and after her description of the pair, she writes, “I get on equally well with both.”6

The princesses are often compared to one another as the only two foreign-born Patronesses, with Princess Lieven cast as the jealous older woman worried about losing her position of power to the younger, prettier Princess Esterhazy. But the princess’s letters reveal something far more interesting: two power players jockeying for favor and position in the world they both entered as foreigners.

Princess Lieven mentions her fellow Patronesses regularly in her gossipy letters, sometimes hinting at historical intrigues long forgotten, as in her discussion of her fellow Patroness Clementina Burrell-Drummond, who seems to have been kicked out of the Prince Regent’s inner circle due to her friendship with an out-of-favor mistress, only to be brought back into the fold when he became king.7

The Patronesses were larger than life. But in studying the details of those lives we can see that in actuality, the women who held themselves up as moral authorities were often the most scandalous of all, or at the very least intimately connected to the scandalous ones.

Part of the fascination with the Regency seems to come from exactly this touchpoint of the rules of a society and what happened to those who flouted them. The Patronesses were not the only aristocratic women to skirt this line between respectable and scandalous, but they were also the ones in the unique position of casting judgment upon their fellow aristocrats.

Rules are, of course, made to be broken.


Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey

Born: Sarah Sophia Child Fane

Married name: Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, Countess of Jersey

Notable lovers: Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston

Nickname: “Silence”

Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, née Fane, Countess of Jersey, is perhaps the most often mentioned and best remembered of the Patronesses, immortalized in her contemporary Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon as Lady Augusta and by later writer Georgette Heyer as “Queen of London’s most exclusive club.”8

She was born March 4, 1785, to John Fane, tenth Earl of Westmoreland, and Sarah Anne Child. Her mother, Sarah Anne, was the daughter of Sarah Jodrell and Robert Child, a banker and politician.

John and Sarah Anne eloped to Gretna Green in 1782, against Robert Child’s express wishes. He did not approve of his daughter’s husband and arranged for his fortune to pass to his daughter, and then her children, effectively writing the earl out of his inheritance.

It worked. Sarah Anne’s daughter Sarah inherited the family estate Osterley Park and also became a principal shareholder in the family banking firm, Child & Co. Sarah’s husband, George Villiers, fifth Earl of Jersey, had the surname Child added to his own by royal license, fulfilling a long-held family wish.

Sarah married George in 1804. The marriage, like those of so many of their contemporaries, was not a faithful one. Despite Sarah’s determination to stand in contrast to her notorious mother-in-law, Frances Villiers, who was famously mistress to George IV while he was Prince Regent (the prince had a thing for older women), she was not a faithful wife. One of her most famous supposed lovers was Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, who would go on to marry Sarah’s fellow Patroness, Emily Clavering-Cowper.

Sarah was a complicated figure. She was immortalized in many contemporary pieces of fiction, sometimes in a less-than-flattering light. In fiction Sarah is alternately meddling and severe, but in real life, Regency chronicler E. Beresford Chancellor wrote that “her amiable manners, her interest in politics, her admirable linguistic powers, her kindly, genial nature, all combined to give her a sort of prescriptive right to the exalted sphere in which she moved.”9 Sarah’s fellow Patroness Princess Lieven wrote that Sarah was the only other society hostess who threw as elegant a party as she did, and she mentioned Sarah many times in her letters as a friend.

Sarah had seven children, who all went on to make the kind of socially advantageous marriages Almack’s was supposed to facilitate. But perhaps most neatly for us, her daughter Lady Sarah Frederica Caroline Child Villiers married Nicholas Paul, ninth Prince Esterhazy and son of Lady Jersey’s fellow Patroness Princess Esterhazy, uniting the two families.

Sarah is also remembered for introducing the quadrille to Almack’s in 1816. [Figure 1] Up until that point, only country dances had been allowed at the Wednesday-night balls. This, along with the fact that only light refreshments were served, contributed to a stuffy reputation for Almack’s. Quadrilles are performed by four couples, arranged in a square set. In the early nineteenth century they were complicated dances that required the dancers to memorize a series of elaborate sets. While country dances were inclusive and easier for anyone to join, quadrilles could only be danced by those “in the know.” Perfect for members of a social club looking to make themselves even more exclusive!

Sarah Villiers, Countess of Jersey, Queen of the Ton, was the daughter of a banker and an heiress to boot. These are two qualities that fiction has told us would have resulted in her exclusion from the very exalted circles she ran. Instead she ruled over a legendary social scene, turning the tables on the Ton and holding court from her position of power as both a Patroness and a partner at Child & Co. Sarah never relinquished control of the bank to any of the men in her life, retaining the right to hire and fire partners and attending meetings regularly herself.

Sarah’s nickname was, ironically, Silence, due to her supposed penchant for rambling storytelling. But in Sarah we see a woman who refused to be quiet about the things that mattered to her, and instead used her considerable wealth, power, and personal charm to achieve her goals. Henry Greville, third Earl of Warwick, wrote about Sarah in his diary, “Few women have played a more brilliant part in society, or have commanded more homage, than Lady Jersey… It was her great zest and gaiety, rather than her cleverness, which constituted her power of attracting remarkable men, many of whom I have seen listen with the greatest complacency to what they would have considered to be egregious nonsense had it emanated from less charming lips.”10 And then, attesting to the true legacy Sarah left behind, “She will be a great loss to many, and she is the last, with the exception of Lady Palmerston, of a more brilliant and more refined society than is to be found in our present time.”11

Emily Temple, Viscountess Palmerston

Born: The Honorable Emily Lamb

Married name: First, Emily Clavering-Cowper, Countess Cowper; second, Emily Temple, Viscountess Palmerston

Notable lovers: Diplomat Carlo Andrea Pozzo di Borgo and Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston

Emily had many names throughout her life. She was born Emily Lamb in 1787, but even her birth surname was in question as her mother, Elizabeth, was famously unfaithful to her husband Peniston Lamb, bringing Emily’s parentage into question. Peniston was made Viscount Melbourne in 1781, honoring the family’s contributions to politics and changing Emily’s title for the first time, as she became the Honorable Emily Lamb.

Emily’s glamorous mother, Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, can be seen alongside Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer in the famous Macbeth witches portrait by Daniel Gardner. [Figure 14] Elizabeth’s many affairs distressed her children, but she remained a fierce advocate for her offspring, working hard to ensure successful marriages for all of them.

In 1805 eighteen-year-old Emily married Peter Clavering-Cowper, fifth Earl of Cowper. The two were wildly different, with the charming, vivacious Emily often outshining her more quiet and reserved husband. The couple had five children, though the paternity of two of them is in question. Their marriage was not a faithful one, but Emily’s most famous affair led to an even rarer thing: a happy second marriage with her former paramour Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston. Palmerston earned the nickname Cupid for his many affairs, including with two of Emily’s fellow Patronesses, Princess Lieven and Lady Jersey.


  • "I can only hope that Bea Koch decides to give us more books like this. With this book, she shines a spotlight on a group of women who deserve to live as more than footnotes in history...This is a book that deserves all the attention it can get."—Culturess
  • "With the popularity of TV shows and films set in Regency England, I'm thankful for Bea Koch and her examination of the era beyond the wealthy, white, Christian focus of the past. Koch vividly shines light on the queer, Jewish and women of color who have long been overlooked."—Ms. Magazine
  • "This is not the Regency you thought you knew! Bea Koch's Mad & Bad is an important and enlightening new look at this classic era."—Maya Rodale, bestselling author of historical romance
  • "Bea Koch presents a welcome assessment of the various forms of power and agency that women could wield in the male-dominated society of Regency England."—Roy and Lesley Adkins, authors of Jane Austen's England
  • "Bea Koch's Mad and Bad is a marvelous work of joyful feminist triumph that paints a nuanced picture of the British Regency era as women experienced it. From Caroline Lamb to Annie Lister to Mary Seacole, Koch's lovingly rendered biographies illuminate fascinating narratives of power, inequity, ambition, and passion. What a gift to have at our fingertips this excellent archive of mad, bad heroines, all of whom demand bother remembrance and careful study. I will return to its pages often, grateful for the historical tapestry Koch has gracefully woven."—Rachel Vorona Cote, author of Too Much
  • "As it turns out, the Regency Era wasn't just a world of Lord Byron-esque players and Mr. Darcy-esque dreamboats. There were women there, too -- gasp! -- and they were just as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Koch Takes readers on a romp through some of the most fascinating ones, from scandalous rich women who took a lot of lovers to sisters who hunted fossils to a gal who earned herself the nickname "Gentleman Jack." Romance novel readers, Austenites, and Byronheads will love delving into the truth behind the aesthetics they've long adored."—Tori Telfer, author of Lady Killers

On Sale
Sep 1, 2020
Page Count
272 pages

Bea Koch

About the Author

Bea Koch is one of the owners of The Ripped Bodice, the only independent bookstore in the US dedicated to romance. In addition to being a groundbreaking bookseller, Bea graduated from Yale with distinction as the last Renaissance Studies major and received an MA in Costume History from NYU: Steinhardt. She is the proud mother of dog Fitzwilliam Waffles. He has more followers on Instagram than she does.

Learn more about this author