Lady Caroline Stanhope, the Countess of Harrington, was born on April 8th, 1722, to a perfectly respectable family in British high society. She was the fifth child of Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Grafton, and Lady Henrietta Somerset, daughter of the then Marquess of Worcester. Little is known of Lady Caroline’s childhood and adolescence, but due to her family’s upper-class standing, we can safely assume she was raised surrounded by luxury and frivolity.
As with much of British history, women of Lady Caroline’s time would have been expected to be passive members of British society. Quiet, demure women were preferred, objects of men’s interests only for their beauty and inheritable wealth. As would have been expected of the women of her time, Lady Caroline married young. She and her husband, William Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Harrington, had seven children together — five daughters and two sons. She was also known for being a particularly fashionable figure; at King George III’s coronation, she was seen "covered with all the diamonds she could borrow, hire, or seize" and was "the finest figure at a distance."
Due to her equally noble birth and marriage, Lady Caroline’s life was filled with pressure to be a "proper" wife, mother, and lady. However, this seemed only to make her even more determined to rebel against everything that was expected of her. Lady Caroline had become, by the societal standards of her time, a "fallen woman." This is a particularly archaic term for a woman who has, in some way, tarnished her moral virtue, become "impure" in the eyes of God, and "fallen from his graces." It is a term synonymous with prostitute and was often used to describe women who had engaged (or were rumored to have engaged) in sex outside of marriage.
It is true that Caroline Stanhope had many affairs during her marriage, both with men and with women. She was even given the nickname "The Stable-Yard Messalina" by the press for her promiscuous reputation — "Messalina" being the name of the disgraced wife of Emperor Claudius, and "stable-yard" a reference to the Stanhope’s home near St James yard... and her stamina in the bedroom. She was frequently portrayed as a sort of nymphomanic, with an insatiable desire for sex. An article in the Town and Country Magazine claimed there was evidence for all of her affairs with lovers "from a monarch down to a hairdresser and every member of the diplomatic body," as well as several of her own servants and footmen.
None of this seemed to bother Lady Caroline. In fact, she began her own social club, "The New Female Coterie," after she was blackballed from membership by the more prestigious Female Coterie social club due to her perceived lack of sexual morality. Lady Caroline’s club welcomed women from all backgrounds, but particularly other fallen women and women who were sexually intimate with other women. They met in a popular brothel run by Sarah Prendergast, another high-society woman who had become embroiled in a scandal of her own.
Though her relationships with women are less well documented, one of her more notable affairs with another woman was that with Elizabeth Ashe. Author Charles E. Pierce wrote that "Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper." It was reported that when Ashe left her for a diplomat, she was deeply upset — "her character was demolished by the desertion." It is possible their affair has also included Elizabeth Pierrepoint (nee Chudleigh), Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull. Pierrepoint’s biographer wrote: "[Miss Pierrepoint]’s intimacy with Lady Harrington and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgences.
Sadly, little is known of Lady Caroline’s later life, as women of her time were rarely written about or discussed unless they had a scandal or birthed a successful son. She died in her home at Elvaston Castle on 28th June 1784, aged 62, and five years after her husband. She was buried in St. Mary Abbots churchyard in Kensington, London.
Though she was shamed in her time, Lady Caroline should be remembered as a woman who made space for other women and who gave them a sense of belonging when society had cast them aside. She turned her back on societal expectations with fashionable flair and sought to please herself at a time where many women thought it impossible.