Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #4 (Elizabeth Chudleigh)

It’s springtime in London, and Kent and I run around to restaurants, pubs and private clubs, where we drink red wine, smoke cigarettes late into the night and gossip, comparing our love histories. Kent introduces me to his single friends, thus providing me an opportunity to flirt with boys, and he tells me about Ava, his muse, who inspired the Bad Girls Project and nearly made Kent end his marriage to C.

“I worked all the time before I met her, but with Ava I felt free again,” Kent says. “She was such a free spirit, she could make anything fun—just lying on the lumpy mattress in her little flat, talking about art and life. We were in a world of our own.”

“She sounds lovely, Kenty, but what did that do to C.?”

“Well, it wasn’t an easy time for us.”

No, I guess not. But who am I to judge? At the moment, I’m a pleasure-seeker. It’s what I love best about London: the people I’m meeting here aren’t all hung up on morality and the work ethic. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, I’m living one day at a time, only the Twelve Step program I’m running for myself replaces alcoholism with me constantly worrying and obsessing over everything in my life. I’ve admitted that I’m powerless over my addiction to control, my life has become unmanageable, and a power greater than me—namely, the spirit of the Bad Girls Project—can restore me to sanity.

My pleasure seeking isn’t about dating men, however. I’m more interested in food, drink, tobacco, staying up late and cultivating dreamy little crushes on people, places and things. I dream one night of a nice man who helps me fix my car. At the flat on Elgin Crescent, a sexy, silvery gray tomcat wanders in every now and then and lets me caress him for awhile until he gets bored and leaves. I flirt with a married man until he tries to kiss me. That was fun—now go away, please. It would be nice to be in love again, but I don’t want the emotional drama that goes with it. I don’t even have the nerve to pick up the phone and call my husband.

I suppose my biggest crush of all right now is Kent.

He may be my first cousin, but he’s also my muse, and it’s not clear whether he chose me or I chose him. But I do know I’m wildly fond of him. He’s a musician and a materialist (in an artistic way), opinionated and handsome. A big man, Kent takes up a lot of space, and I don’t care if some people call him the Duke of Kent behind his back and say he likes living in England because he’s a royalist.

Being around Kent gives me a taste for the aristocracy. At the British Library, I find loads of information about the British Peerage, much of it detailing the bad behavior of the Marquess of This and the Countess of That. My favorite is Elizabeth Chudleigh, a bigamous duchess from Georgian England who was the subject of a scandalous divorce trial. I like her because she was a sloppy drunk with a gambling problem. As a maid of honour to the Princess of Wales in 1747, she rampaged all over London—drinking, betting, screwing noblemen of King George II’s court and wearing see-through dresses—after her secret marriage and pregnancy were revealed.

“Miss Chudleigh’s dress, or rather undress, was remarkable,” sniffed Mrs. Montagu, a lady in attendance at a Venetian Jubilee masqued ball held at the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea. “She was Iphigeneia awaiting sacrifice, but so naked that the high priest might easily have inspected the entrails of his victim. The maids of honour were so offended that they would not speak to her.”

Not that the opinions of the Mmes. Montagu of the world mattered a bit to Elizabeth Chudleigh. In fact, her bad behavior won her a marriage proposal from a duke, even though she was still technically married to her first husband, and this teaches me a very important lesson about saying a big “no” to the bourgeois world of convention and respectability. I buy myself a tight, trashy leopard-print dress and sashay around London in it. I flirt with Kent’s friends—musicians, TV producers, landed gentry in Lincolnshire—especially the guys with the plummiest, most artistocratic accents.

“Joycie, do you really think you have bad girl potential? Could you really be that bad?” Kent asks in the lord of the manor style that he developed to compensate for being an American when he arrived on English shores twenty years ago. Kent is such a dandy. He wears bespoke suits around the house and gets his hair colored by a stylist, which he started doing back when he was in a New Romantics rock band.

“I don’t know, Kent. Do you have bad girl potential? I guess I am pretty sure I do but I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what ‘bad girl’ means. You tell me. Do you need me to be a bad girl? What did Ava do to you, anyway? Why was she such a bad girl? You must like bad girls, or you wouldn’t keep talking about them.”

Elizabeth Chudleigh lived as she pleased without having to pay for it in the end. Indeed, she ended her days partying with royals in Europe and throwing around the duke’s money after he died, much to his family’s chagrin. Still, she led a bit of an empty existence. And her politics were all wrong, I’m sure.

They say that the super-rich and the super-poor have a lot in common: amorality, promiscuity, substance abuse, disdain for education and work. With my next bad girl, I want to find a hard-scrabble streetfighter who had to invent herself from scratch.

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