While reading Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain, I came across a brief portrayal of a woman I’d never heard of before, Harriot Mellon. To summarize what Mortimer says: In 1777, she was born the illegitimate daughter of an Irish peasant woman. She makes an early living tending to the clothes of a group of traveling actors, which leads to her first role on stage at the age of ten. By her late thirties, she is making six hundred pounds a year from acting — “pocket money” for her at this point, Mortimer says. For she has attracted the amorous attention of Thomas Coutts, the principal partner of Coutts Bank. After his wife dies of dementia, the seventy-nine-year-old Thomas and the thirty-seven-year-old Harriot are married, and spend seven evidently-happy years together.

Coutt’s three adult daughters are unkind to her, fearing the possibility of being disinherited by this gold-digging tramp, and through this unkindness, they bring about, in a downright Greek-tragic twist, their fate: Thomas, dismayed by their attitude, leaves everything to his wife, including his partnership in the bank. Yet Harriot is not vengeful; she continues to provide her “stepdaughters” with an annual allowance of ten thousand pounds.

High society is no more welcoming to her, especially when, in 1827, she marries again, this time to the duke of St. Albans, twenty-three years younger than her. Society ladies shun her for rising above her station, but this marriage too is evidently a happy one. From penniless peasantry to life as a duchess with a personal fortune of two million (which she controls herself through her partnership in the bank) — quite a compelling story, I thought. I’m surprised she hasn’t been adopted as an inspirational heroine by popular culture. Wikipedia says there is one biography of her by Joan Perkin, The Merry Duchess, though Amazon also shows a public-domain printing of her memoirs, as well as this account of her life.

Mortimer’s series of “time-traveller” guidebooks to British history are always entertaining as well, if you’re unfamiliar with him.