Like polishing one of your granny’s silver frames, Lyndsy Spence’s biography, “The Grit In The Pearl,” buffs the tarnish off an old frame-of-reference. This meticulously researched book snapshots the life and times of Ethel Margaret Whigham, eventually known, through marriage, as the Scandalous Duchess of Argyll.

The story begins as a chronicle of the fractured relationship Margaret had with her mum and loving bond she shared with her dad. At face-value each twist in the family drama could be read as a vehicle of Freudian analysis. Perhaps, Margaret’s life-long narcissistic behaviors were rooted in feelings of abandonment or an unresolved daddy-complex.

But, the tale becomes more intriguing after Margaret’s 1930 debutante season.  As Ms. Spence said in an impromptu Instagram-chat, ” Margaret was simply considered a slut.” WHAT?

Legend has it, the debutante was a beautiful hedonist. Combining her assets with her mother’s social ambition and father’s wealth she traveled in aristocratic circles yet, dismissed aristocratic rules. From Scottish estates to Egyptian sand-scapes, and on to hot nights in Havana,  Ethel Margaret Whigham dolled-up, dressed-up and flirted-up men around the globe as casually as she tried on the latest glad-rags.

Quick to fall in love, quick to be engaged Margaret was equally quick to book passage to the next exciting adventure, leaving a wake of fiancé’s wondering what happened.  For most of her life, she was afforded the opportunities of being a celeb-u-tante; never needing to explain her whims.

In time, Margaret sought to be married. She aspired to have children, a stable of animals and to live a stable life. But the definition of stable was ephemeral. She was twice married and twice divorced.

Her lovers had lovers, her husbands had lovers and Margaret had lovers. Eventually the rules she dismissed ruled the Duchess of Argyll was a nymphomaniac, a rare condition thought to be brought-on by an accidental bump to her head. Rather than shrink from the title, it gave the Duchess power.

Spence explained,  “It was the norm in posh-society to look the other way when faced with the sex-capades of men.  The problem was The Duchess of Argyll enjoyed the same lust for life.” Her refined image of perfect hair, make-up and signature triple-stranded, diamond-clasped pearl necklace was a glossy facade for her insatiable primal wants.

Ever ready for paparazzi pics, Margaret loved to look pretty, dance, travel and have sex, lots of sex with lots of men, Unburdened by conventional rules she lived her life free of inhibition. Married to the Duke of Argyll, an emotionally abusive, socially detached, penniless, wife-cheating drunk, the Duchess felt entitled to date whom ever she met.

One of her dates, fascinated by the latest technology of Instamatic-Polaroids captured himself with the Duchess ~ mid-blow-job.

The Duchess stashed the carnal momento away and forgot about the insta-tryst.  Her life of psycho-sexual indulgences continued until the image of that faceless man, standing in front of a woman wearing a triple-stranded, diamond clasped pearl necklace was found by the Duke. The Insta-dic-pic was  irrefutable evidence the Duchess of Argyle really was a slut. Her philandering, not his, was grounds for divorce and proof that she owed the Duke a healthy alimony settlement.

The Duchess was perpetually entangled in expensive litigation with as many court cases as companions.  Litigation intended to protect reputations tarnished by lust favored men. Posh-society gave them a pass, while judging women, including the Duchess of Argyll, to be the guilty party in affairs-of-the-heart.

The relevance of this easy-to-read-bio is more than it’s lacy-racy accounting of salacious privilege. The injustices of the Duchess’ life prompt readers to see Margaret’s values through a contemporary lens. The updated frame-of-reference reflects a bold woman-of-agency with modern sensibilities.

The tarnished profile of a narcissistic women is buffed into a more sympathetic appreciation of a person eager to live her life on her own terms. For the Duchess, her pursuit of happiness was stolen by societal confirmation of gender inequities.

“TheGrit in the Pearl” is a Valentine to all women who’s reputations have been slut-shamed for living lives of self-determination, insatiably outside the accepted frame-of-reference.

Ethel Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyle:  12/1/1912- 7/25/1993



Author : Lynsey Spence

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