They were the celebrity couple of their day… she was the beautiful heiress to one of the largest fortunes in Britain, and he was the handsome nephew of military hero the Duke of Wellington.
So why did their marriage end in acrimony, despair and a court case that changed the course of legal history?
Ten years of meticulous research, some super sleuthing and an eye for intriguing historical detail are the building blocks of this fascinating, compelling and heart-wrenching debut which unlocks the secrets of a high society scandal that gripped Regency England.
Geraldine Roberts unearths some remarkable parallels to contemporary life – the cult of celebrity, stalkers, lavish spending, massive debts – in this torrid tale of wealthy, witty Catherine Tylney Long who turned down a royal duke and instead gave her heart, and all her worldly goods, to charming but feckless dandy William Wellesley Pole.
Catherine is often portrayed as the tragic woman who squandered the chance to become queen of England but, as Roberts discovers, the legacy of this determined and caring young woman was so much more than merely a sad story of ruin.
In 1805, at the age of sixteen, Catherine, daughter of the late Sir James Tylney Long, an unassuming country squire, became the wealthiest heiress in England, inheriting her great uncle’s 23,000 acres of land spread over six counties, a vast fortune and several stately homes including Wanstead House in Essex, described as ‘the English Versailles.’
Fame and fortune did not turn the head of this unpretentious and sweet-natured girl who soon captured the hearts of the public and became widely known as ‘the angel.’ Fortunately, Catherine had qualities other than virtue that made her so universally admired… intelligence, accomplishment, self-assurance, humour, and spirit.
When she came of age in 1810, she took full control of the Tylney Long estate and was soon the most eligible young lady in Britain. Catherine knew it was her duty to marry advantageously but as a devourer of popular fiction and romantic novels, she also held a firm belief that true love was the greatest source of happiness.
So when she was courted by the portly, florid, middle-aged Duke of Clarence, fourth in line to the throne but destined to one day become King William IV, she turned him down and instead married for love.
Ignoring the warnings of her closest confidantes, she chose the urbane, well-travelled, William Wellesley Pole, nephew of the Duke of Wellington and a man who could charm women with his easy good nature and witty conversation.
The pair excited the public’s interest on an unprecedented scale with gossip columns reporting every detail of their sumptuous wedding and their magnificent home in Wanstead, where they hosted glittering royal fetes, dinners and parties.
But their happiness was short-lived. A decade later, William had frittered away Catherine’s inheritance, they were mired in debt and the couple were forced to flee into exile.
As they travelled across Europe, they became embroiled in a series of scandals that shocked the public and culminated in the destruction of Wanstead House, a landmark court case over custody of their three children and the death of Catherine at the age of 35 from what her doctor declared was ‘a broken heart.’
Roberts’ powerful and moving evocation of a dark, desperate chapter in the history of early 19th century high society is packed with the kind of enthralling and intricate personal detail that brings to vivid life a sense of both time and place.
The Angel and the Cad, so beautifully and sympathetically written, also pays long-overdue tribute to a strong, intelligent but virtually powerless woman who was prepared to take on the male-dominated world to fight for her rights and the future of her precious children.
The story of Catherine and her arrogant, profligate, cruel husband who became hell-bent on destroying the woman who gave him everything was still the talk of the town several decades after her death and to this day, her lonely ghost is said to wander the ruins of Wanstead House.
However, it was through the actions of women like Catherine, who declared her determination to protect her children ‘at every hazard and at every risk,’ that the female cause began to be heard… and finally to be addressed.
(Macmillan, hardback, £20)