Maxwell house

She was the original wild child. Her parties never finished before 6am. In a society bound by class and shackled by social respectability, she laughed in the face of convention. In her lusty Scottish accent, she was cheeky to kings and compassionate to commoners. Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, was a one-off.

She is one of ten women of the 18th century who are celebrated in a new book, Mistress of the House, by art historian Rosemary Baird. Their stories fly in the face of the perception that rich women of the period were little more than chattels, currency in the marriage market whose job in life was to look beautiful, produce heirs and bolster the wealth and careers of their menfolk.

Baird’s research reveals that these women could wield far more power than they are sometimes given credit for, that a great house was less an elegant prison and more a private kingdom from which their power could radiate. The mistress of a great mansion could, from her domestic base, affect the lives of her husband, her children and the wider society. She could be mistress, not only of a house, but of her own destiny.

Baird, who is curator of the Goodwood Collection at Goodwood House in Sussex, seat of the Dukes of Richmond, became interested in the seeming absence of women in the history of great houses. "Whenever we read about country houses, we always read about the man of the house. Yet often, nowadays, people doing up houses are women. So I started to look back at the documents to see how involved women were in the 18th century. And sure enough, there they were, writing letters ordering window sashes, organising carpenters and saying how they wanted things done, even paying the bills."

She was beginning to uncover a secret history of women as art collectors and decorators. Some even commissioned and oversaw the building of new houses from the fashionable names of the period such as Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam. These were women wielding power as consumers, taking advantage of the burgeoning shops in London offering the latest in wallpapers and china, both followers of fashion and arbiters of taste.

However, more than creating beautiful homes, they were powerful hostesses, using a fine house to extend hospitality to guests of influence, hosting political discussions, literary salons, furthering their husbands’ professional lives and arranging favourable marriages for their children. Some wielded power by the force of their personalities: Mary Blount, Duchess of Norfolk, was scathingly called "My Lord Duchess", so clearly did she wear the trousers.

However, Baird discovered that, more usually, women skilfully disguised their power lest it be construed as unseemly or threatening. "There is a lot of evidence from the 18th century that women believed they should give the credit to their husbands, which implied it was the man who did it, when it perhaps wasn’t at all."

Even the Duchess of Norfolk had her subtleties. When Henry Seymour Conway reported that the Duke and Duchess were thinking of creating an ornamental lake, he described their negotiations thus: "The Duke does not know positively whether he shall do it or not, but the Duchess does and says ‘My Lord Duke intends to do it very soon.’ I fancy she is in the right."

Jane Maxwell was no less powerful a figure, in Baird’s words "a fantastic chateleine, a great character". Echoes of her strong, warm personality come clearly from her household records, even after 200 years.

Her upbringing was unusual to say the least. The daughter of a baronet, her parents separated when she was very young and she and her sister went to live with their mother in Edinburgh in a second-floor apartment in Hyndford’s Close in the Old Town. Life in Hyndford’s Close was a far cry from the genteel elegance of the emerging New Town. Jane and her sister played at riding on the backs of pigs being driven to market, and Jane lost a finger in a game which involved jumping from one travelling cart to another.

Nonetheless, a judge and family friend, Lord Kames, took her education in hand and she proved herself a girl of formidable intelligence. In the intellectual hotbed of Edinburgh during the Enlightenment, she was taught - albeit in a comparatively unstructured fashion - about music, literature and ideas, all of which would fascinate and delight her for the rest of her life.

By the age of 17 she was a lively, chestnut-haired beauty, engaging to be married to a young army officer. But in 1766, he was sent to fight in America, and within the year reported missing in action, presumed dead. Jane had turned down several other suitors before she was invited to a ball hosted by Charles Gordon for his young relation Alexander, the fourth Duke of Gordon. A shy and diffident 24-year-old, the Duke insisted that he had nothing suitable to wear, and no-one to dance with, but Charles had taken care of that. He produced a suitable outfit and a blind date: Jane Maxwell.

"She was beautiful and the Duke was transfixed," says Baird. "It’s true that Dukes were often pressurised to marry the right candidate in terms of land and money, but every so often they just marry someone really beautiful. I think the Duke was captivated by Jane."

As the daughter of minor nobility who had fallen on hard times, Jane had married well. However, when the couple were on their way to the marital home in Gordon Castle, near Fochabers in Morayshire, she received a letter in her maiden name. The young soldier had returned from war and wanted to marry her. Jane read the letter and was found prostrate with grief.

While it is believed that this incident cast a shadow over the Gordons’ marriage, Jane threw herself into becoming a fitting mistress of the immense house which awaited her. She and the Duke undertook improvements together. Records show that a footman was dismissed because he refused to wear livery, cut his hair and wear a powdered wig. In 1776, when they decided that the village of Fochabers was too close to their home, they arrange to move it further away.

Jane had the first of her seven children, and seems to have loved nothing better than to make the great house reverberate with guests, or, as Lord Kames described, "musick, dancing and chearful company". One neighbour described her as "the life of all circles she entered". Her own children were joined by several of the Duke’s illegitimate offspring - he had nine - who were welcomed by Jane. Two sons, both named George, were differentiated warmly as "my George" and "the Duke’s George".

Never unfaithful as often as her husband, it is clear that Jane also had affairs. In later life, when attempting to arrange a marriage for her daughter Louisa to the Marquess Cornwallis, the issue of hereditary madness in the Gordon family was raised. Ever frank, the Duchess pronounced that there was "no need to worry about Louisa, she doesn’t have a drop of Gordon blood in her!" Louisa’s parentage still remains a mystery.

"Exempted by her sex, rank and beauty from those restraints imposed on women by the generally recognised usages of society, the Duchess of Gordon frequently dispensed with their observance," wrote Sir Nathanial Wraxhall. But she emerges as a character as kind as she was unconventional. "She liked everyone," says Baird. "There is a lot of evidence that she particularly liked people who weren’t grand, that they were amazed at how long she spent talking to them and how kind she was."

Her role as mistress of the house applied not only in Morayshire but to the Duke’s residences in Edinburgh and London, where she went regularly from 1778. A scathing rhyme of the time went: "The Duchess triumphs in a manly mien/ Loud is her acent and her phrase obscene," but she was an admired and favoured hostess. In Edinburgh, Burns was a guest at her supper parties and was invited to Gordon Castle in 1787, when he described her as "charming, witty and sensible".

In London, she was equally popular, and the Tory leader, William Pitt the Younger, admired her for her political adeptness. Her London home became a centre for Tory activity. She charmed the London socialites by encouraging the dancing of Scottish reels, and spearheaded a fashion in wearing tartan. She rarely waited to be asked to dance, as would have been expected of a lady, but requested the pleasure of the man of her choice.

As the mother of five daughters, Jane considered it her duty - very like Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, written in the same period - to find her girls satisfactory husbands. Jane aimed high, and though she failed to bag William Pitt and the son of the Empress Josephine, she succeeded in attaining three Dukes, a Marquess and a Baronet.

Her efforts were both lampooned and envied, and she has gone down in history as a social climber. Certainly some of her efforts were extreme: she hiked her youngest daughter Georgina round a variety of suitors, and when she had set her sights on the Duke of Manchester for her daughter Susan, she checked out his place of residence before she even met him. (In the event, that marriage was unhappy, and ended after less than a year when Susan eloped with a footman.)

However, Rosemary Baird believes history has been harsh on Jane by pigeon-holing her as "a rather horrific matchmaker". "She wanted her daughters to marry well, but she was too much of a character to be classed as social climber. When she saw an opportunity, she took it, as with the Duke of Richmond, who came to visit Gordon Castle and found himself married to her eldest daughter Charlotte with two maidservants as witnesses. But Cornwallis was clearly in love with Louisa, she just made sure the deal was clinched."

By the early 1790s, Jane and the Duke were spending more and more time apart. He had installed a mistress at Gordon Castle, who had borne him a son. Soon, Jane announced her intention to build a separate residence at Kinrara, near the Spey, south of Inverness, and spent increasing amounts of time there, first in an old farmhouse, then in an elegant new house which she had built to her instructions.

Her role as hostess continued with vigour, as she regularly hosted young and fashionable London types at her farm: the barn was converted into a rude barracks for the ladies, and the stable for the men. "She was not really tamed," laughs Baird. "All her parties went on till six in the morning. When she went to London, she was cheeky to the Prince of Wales. She like to have masses of people to stay at Kinrara, sometimes sleeping on the floor. She was always extraordinary, unconventional."

Even in her final years, with her eyesight failing, she found balls and parties irresistible. Her last months were spent in quietness at Kinrara. A traveller visiting the area just before her death in 1812 wrote that he found in the place "an air of perpetual spring, and a feeling of comfort and seclusion". Even when she was dying, Jane Maxwell found the strength and skill to create the atmosphere she needed, to be, as she had been all her life, chateleine of all she surveyed.

• Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses, 1670-1830, by Rosemary Baird, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, price 20