Mary Delany (1700–1788) lived many lives. She is best known today for her cut-paper flowers – her ‘mosaicks’ – and perhaps also for suffering the misfortune of an arranged first marriage to a corpulent Cornishman forty years her senior called Alexander Pendarves, who aroused an aversion that even her Christian kindness and habits of politeness could not conceal. In that life she felt herself to be like Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father for a greater cause, in this case the family finances. But having agreed to marry Pendarves, it mattered that she behaved well. When she woke up one morning seven years later to find him dead in the bed beside her, she had nothing with which to reproach her conscience and a small (smaller than anticipated) but adequate independent income. She declared that she was done with matrimony and resolved to enjoy the life of a well-connected single woman.
She mixed in the highest social circles, close to the court, alert to the ups and downs of political favour and with a powerful investment in national affairs, even though, as a woman, she had no official position. Like other elite women she nevertheless had a job to do,