Jo Manning: On
By Cheryl Bolen
With the 2005 publication of her biography My Lady Scandalous:
The Amazing Life and Outrageous Time of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, Royal
Courtesan, Jo Manning has made a stupendous leap from penning
traditional Regencies to authoring a hardback biography.
Manning has spent her life preparing for writing My Lady
Scandalous. In 2000, Regency Press published her novel The
Reluctant Guardian and in 2004 5-Star published its sequel, Seducing
Mr. Heywood, a BookList top ten romances of the year.
It was more than her love of the era, however, that qualified
Manning to write of a courtesan who gave birth to a child likely
fathered by the Prince Regent. Manning is a research expert. After
obtaining a master’s degree in library science, she worked in five
university libraries, has done archival work, and headed up the
reference department for Reader’s Digest General Books Division,
training researchers in the early days of electronic data bases and
handling research requests from Reader’s Digest companies worldwide.
From initial concept to complete book took Manning three and half
years. Her agent, Jenny Bent, sold the book on a 47-page proposal which
Manning said was, "One of the hardest things I had ever written,
primarily because there were still so many gaps to fill."
With her advance (which she said was in the $20,000 to $30,000
range) she was able to embark on the monumental job of filling in those
gaps. "Pinning down who she [Grace] was and what actually happened
was a rigorous exercise indeed," Manning said. The little that had
been written about Grace contained masses of errors--errors Manning took
great pains to correct.
From her advance, Manning paid for French translators,
genealogists, English researchers, and two trips to England and France.
In addition, Manning spent half her advance for picture rights. There
are 116 black and white illustrations in My Lady Scandalous, many
of which she had to pay to use. She also hired a London photographer to
take photos of specific places, and her French researcher and two French
translators also took photos. She’s grateful to several private
collectors who shared photos at no cost. "I was not a trained
picture researcher," Manning said, which made the picture searches
"a major research project." Google Images, picture libraries
such as the Mary Evans Picture Library and the Bridgeman Art Library, as
well as the National Portrait Gallery in London were of great help.
Manning felt it was important to do on-site research, and she
spent several months researching in England and France. "It was
extremely important to be there, physically," Manning said. "I
had to go to the places Grace had been and, though much is available
digitally now, a lot is not. Also, physically handling the documents is
valuable. You are seeing what these people saw, turning the pages of the
journals they read."
There were times when it was impossible for Manning to return to
England from her Florida home. For these situations, she hired
researchers. She got her Scots genealogist through the Society of
Genealogists in London, but the genealogist was unable to find a birth
record for Grace Dalrymple. From a list of from the British Museum,
Manning hired a woman who researched the Bentley Archives at the British
Library. That researcher failed to turn up the original of Grace’s
journal of the French Revolution, which was published posthumously.
Manning still hopes to find that document.
Writing Grace’s story was replete with serendipitous incidents,
Manning said. One of the serendipitous finds was her French researcher,
a retired law professor who is a friend of one of Manning’s New York
friends. "It turned out that she lived in the very area where Grace
had spent the last years of her life and knew people at the local
historical society from whom she got word-of-mouth lore on Grace,"
Another serendipitous find came when she called the historian of
the Seventh Marquess Cholmondeley’s Houghton Hall. Manning’s
previous attempts to get information there had been extremely
frustrating. "I could not get anyone at the Hall to respond to my
letters and e-mails...so in utter frustration one morning I picked up
the telephone and called." When she finally got to speak to the
historian he told her that if she had called earlier he would have been
unaware of the name Grace Dalrymple Elliott, but that just a couple of
days before he had found a cache of documents in an attic that had been
untouched for at least 150 years. In that cache were letters and other
correspondence relating to Grace, who had been under the protection of
Lord Cholmondeley, who raised her only child.
That phone call led to Manning’s journey to Houghton Hall and
another serendipitous occurrence. While she was there, Lord Cholmondeley
unexpectedly came down from London. He had heard that an American writer
was at the Hall, and he wanted to meet her. The young marquess was
fascinated by Grace, whose existence he was unaware of.
During the odyssey of writing the book Manning went down a lot of
dead-end roads. Her first year of researching netted very little.
"I was so frustrated, thinking I’d made a bad decision to write
this book," Manning said. She thinks because Grace was notorious,
someone had destroyed her correspondence.
"I networked like crazy to track down any and all
sources," Manning said. She tracked newspapers at the British
Library’s newspaper annex in North London, went through period
magazines and other reference sources at the British Library in Saint
Pancras, and spent time at a number of places in London, including the
National Archives in Kew and the Society of Genealogists near
Blackfriars. In addition to going to Houghton Hall, she went to Lord
Cholmondeley’s former London residence and to Grace’s last London
address, which is now the site of the Natural History Museum.
Another find came via the internet where Manning learned of The
Regency Elopement, about Grace’s granddaughter’s father.
Manning’s work has corrected misinformation that had been
printed about Grace and filled in many of the gaps in her life. Because
of Manning’s exhaustive efforts, we now know Grace was buried in Paris’s
Pere Lachaise cemetery, even though the tombstone was removed in 1992.
While obtaining information was often frustrating, one snippet of
information would lead to another, and the body of information began to
snowball. Manning turned in her manuscript a month late because she kept
having to go back and add new information. "I could have used
another six months on the book, but I’d signed a contract," said
Would she do it all again? Yes. Now, before any royalties have
come in, Manning has broken even. "I feel that I had to go all out
and invest in the research and travel and additional researchers because
I had to prove myself as a biographer who could handle historical
She had intended to follow Grace’s story with one on Grace’s
friend Lady Worsley, an heiress who, like Grace, went through a
scandalous divorce. Manning may still write that book, but she became
discouraged when she learned that someone else had beat her to it.
Manning recently completed a proposal for another biography of one
(or more) now-obscure women who were prominent in the late Georgian era
and says she’s bitten her fingernails down to the quick waiting for
her [agent’s] response.
This article appeared in the Quizzing Glass, January-February,