“The impudence of this woman was astonishing.”: The Honourable Eliz. Harriet Grieve

We warmly welcome another fabulous blog post by Dr. Ruth Scobie

The Honourable Eliz. Harriet Grieve appeared to be anything but a difficult woman. Indeed, she was surprisingly helpful and open-minded for a lady of wealth and family. Elegant and well-spoken, a cousin of the prime minister Lord Frederick North, with a fine London townhouse frequented by people of fashion, Grieve was nevertheless willing to receive and correspond with the little people – clerks, minor officials and coach carvers – and to help them out with any little problems of employment. Because she was so well-connected, Grieve, who may also have advertised herself as a “sensible woman” who lent money “in emergencies”, could guarantee a state place or sinecure for any deserving candidate. Of course, these candidates would need to provide money to smooth the way. This could be paid to the helpful Mrs Grieve in cash or bonds to pass on to the necessary officials.

Difficulties arose, however, in 1773, when petitioners began to complain that the places they had paid for had never materialised, and it became clear that almost everything they knew about Grieve was a lie. While her targets ruined themselves and their families to raise the money for her bribes, she had created the persona of the well-connected noblewoman out of thin air, cheek, and possibly gang connections. A social nobody with a criminal record, Grieve seems to have manipulated, borrowed and blackmailed her way to the clothes and house of a wealthy woman. She had bribed Lord North’s servants to let her coach park outside his front door for hours at a time, bolstering her claims to be a relation. Perhaps Grieve’s boldest and most brilliant move, though, was to befriend the 24-year-old politician and man of fashion, Charles James Fox [http://chertseymuseum.org/fox], one of the best-known faces in London. Fox was struggling with gambling debts, so she lent him money and appealed to his vanity: she knew, she told him, a West Indian heiress called Miss Phipps who would love to meet him. A marriage could be easily arranged, although not quite yet, since the young lady was still on a ship from the Caribbean. Then their meeting was delayed further by her catching smallpox, then Fox’s need for a makeover (Horace Walpole claimed he submitted to having his eyebrows powdered, and “cleaned himself”). The heiress didn’t exist, but in the meantime the whole world saw Grieve and Fox together, and his coach parked outside her front door. This gave her all the credit she needed to be taken as a woman of influence. “In short, Mrs. Grieve’s parts are in universal admiration,” concluded Walpole, after gleefully retelling this story, “whatever Charles’s are.”

Even as the scam fell apart, it proved difficult to convict Grieve or her accomplices. Few of her victims were willing to testify, since bribing your way into a government place was, if not always illegal, at least embarrassing; as was admitting you were, in the words of one newspaper, a “credulous simpleton.” Grieve was magnificently imperturbable in the courtroom, provoking hilarity with a string of outrageous accusations against the plaintiffs’ reputations. Moreover, she had given many of her ‘customers’ notes promising to return their money if she failed to provide their posts, and in these cases she was only technically guilty of unpaid debts. Eventually, though, she was found guilty of fraud in October 1774, and sentenced to transportation for seven years, leaving for Virginia in a convict ship the following month.

The case of Mrs Grieve, now almost entirely forgotten, was a cause célèbre for much of 1773 and 1774. Sympathy for her victims, one of whom was said to have died of a broken heart, quickly gave way to amused gossip, especially when an ingratiating letter from Fox was read aloud at her trial. Two lengthy poems were published about the affair: Female Artifice; or, Charles F-x Outwitted (London: J. Ridley, 1774) and “An Heroic and Elegiac Epistle from Mrs. Grieve, in Newgate, to Mr. C- F-” in the Westminster Magazine (March 1774). It was the basis for a comedy by Samuel Foote, The Cozeners, in which Grieve became Mrs Fleece’em, a conwoman who uses her “stock of wit and invention to take in the various characters who hunt after places, or wives with large fortunes,” according to the Universal Magazine. In all three of these retellings, the conwoman is celebrated as a carnivalesque character who turns the world upside down, exposing the hypocrisy of a social and legal system which rewarded elite men’s avarice, pretence, and corruption but punished women and the lower ranks for the same crimes. Yet none of the writes seriously objects to her expulsion from England, and the restoration of the social status quo which this implies. “The impudence of this woman was astonishing,” wrote the London Chronicle, and there was something especially unnerving about this impudence, this cool, unfeminine skill at artifice. There is nothing more astonishing, or more alarming, than a woman who can be whoever she wants.

Grieve seemed to embody a new system of credit-based capitalism which concealed or subverted familiar distinctions of rank and even gender (if Grieve was somebody’s daughter or somebody’s wife, it was never clear whose) and made possible radical forms of social mobility: from the convict to the cousin of Lord North, even if only temporarily. “Elizabeth Harriet Grieve” may not have been her name any more than “Honourable” was her title; the identity and appearance of the woman who fooled high society in the 1770s remains elusive. Her name, like her rank, husband, and history, was part of a costume which she chose and could put on or off. It was significant that Grieve made expert use of newspaper advertising: an emerging and suspect form of self-publicity because it was available to anyone who could pay for it. It was also important that the fortune of the imaginary Miss Phipps comes from the West Indies – the globalisation of trade, and the resulting influx of newly wealthy nabobs and merchants were seen as a particular threat to the stability of English convention. Indeed, some versions of the story begin with Grieve herself arriving in London from America, having returned from transportation for an earlier crime. This, of course, leaves the door open to imagine that she might return from Virginia again, to dazzle and ruin us with her impudence and her refusal to follow the rules.


1

Anonymous drawing of an unknown woman, c. 1775 (British Museum)

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One thought on ““The impudence of this woman was astonishing.”: The Honourable Eliz. Harriet Grieve

  1. Pingback: Sunday breakfast and browsing | History Inc

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