This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

The death of an elderly Scottish lady on 15 May 1823 in the village of Ville d’Avray, between Paris and Versailles, was itself unremarkable. Yet the life of the woman, Grace Dalrymple Elliott, had been full of intrigue, ordeal and courage. She had consorted with dukes, lords and earls, reputedly bearing a child by the Prince of Wales; she had saved a marquis during the French Revolution; and she had endured a hellish stay in jail alongside (she claimed) a future empress.

Born around 1754, Grace was brought up in her maternal grandparents’ house in Edinburgh till her mother’s death around 1765, when she was sent to school in France. Soon after returning in 1771 she married

Dr John Eliot, about 20 years her senior. The marriage was not a success and, after affairs on both sides, ended when Eliot, discovering Grace’s indiscretions with Viscount Valentia, sued his rival for Criminal Conversation (adultery), securing a divorce in 1776.

The oldest profession

Publicly disgraced and financially ruined, Grace became a courtesan – a professional mistress to the well-to-do. She created a luxurious though precarious life for herself through liaisons with a succession of titled men, notably the Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Prince of Wales – later George IV – by whom, she claimed, she bore a daughter.

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From spring 1779 she began to visit Paris, where she met Louis Philippe II, the Duc d’Orléans (at that time the Duc de Chartres). Grace found the French capital not only more tolerant of a woman’s indiscretions, but also home to an enormously wealthy nobility who could fund an extravagant lifestyle for their mistresses. She moved to Paris in 1786 to continue her liaison with Orléans. She could not, of course, have foreseen an imminent end to the ancient regime and its excesses.

Three years later, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. Through the period of tumult, Grace remained in Paris to be with the Duc d’Orléans (now a Jacobin), despite her royalist sympathies. And in September 1792 she became embroiled in the conflict.

That month, Jacobin supporters burst into prisons to murder those they believed to be counter-revolutionaries and aristocrats. Grace was asked to help smuggle out of Paris the Marquis de Champcenetz, a former valet to the king and the governor of the Tuileries Palace. He had been wounded a month earlier during the assault on the Tuileries and, gravely ill, had been hidden by Grace’s friend Mrs Meyler, an English widow. As guards searched houses in Paris, Grace volunteered to hide Champcenetz in her country residence just beyond the city walls.

Having bundled him into her carriage, she learned that the city barriers had been shut. Abandoning her vehicle she half-carried the feverish marquis through streets busy with soldiers to her townhouse where, knowing that her servants were fiercely loyal to the revolution, she hid the fugitive in her bedchamber, secreting him in her mattresses as guards searched her house. Eventually she was able to spirit him away to her country house and then, in January 1793, to England.

This was one of several such incidents recorded in her memoirs, published posthumously in 1859 as Journal of My Life During the French Revolution. The French authorities were suspicious of Grace, with good reason; she acted as a spy for the British, couriered letters between émigrés and counter-revolutionaries, and may have helped pass correspondence from Marie Antoinette to the Austrians. But it was her association with the duke that brought her before Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety.

As the revolution grew more radical, even the Jacobin Duc d’Orléans and his associates found themselves under suspicion. Between spring 1793 and summer 1794, Grace claimed to have been questioned and imprisoned on several occasions. While held at the Récollets prison at Versailles in autumn 1793, she heard of the death of Marie Antoinette and the Duc d’Orléans. Then, on 1 January 1794, she was taken to the Carmes prison where (she claimed) she was held alongside Joséphine de Beauharnais, later to be Napoleon’s wife.

A censored life

How Grace managed to keep her head through the Terror is unknown: the final chapter of her Journal was censored by well-intentioned Victorian relations. After her release, she split her time between London and France before dying in 1823 while a guest in the mayor’s house at Ville d’Avray.

Grace’s Journal is one of the best firsthand accounts of the revolution in the English language. Since its publication in 1859, some have questioned the veracity of her account, partly on account of her scandalous history. Yet whatever the inaccuracies in her memoirs, there’s no doubt this was a remarkable woman who lived a turbulent, fascinating life in a turbulent, fascinating era.

Hallie Rubenhold is a historian and author. Grace Dalrymple Elliott features as a character in her latest novel, set during the French Revolution, The French Lesson (Doubleday, 2016).