Hazel McHaffie

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

A Christmas indulgence for me in a year of social isolation was watching period drama set in the 18th century. Pure escapism. Exactly what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the stresses generated by the pandemic. But by chance, a fitting introduction to a biography I’ve had in my tbr pile for ages, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; rather like an undemanding crash course in the life, times and customs of aristocratic families and high society in that era. So, time to get stuck in to the more serious business of reading the book.

I felt a degree of investment already in this particular family story. I’ve twice visited Chatsworth House (the Derbyshire seat of the Cavendish family through 16 generations); watched the present Duke and Duchess in action on more than one occasion; listened to Debo, the Dowager Duchess, speaking at a literary event (the real live variety!). And of course, we all know the story of Lady Diana Spencer (Georgiana’s great great great great niece) who went on to marry and later divorce the heir to the throne in our lifetime, and whose own life mirrors much of her forebear’s – the similarities will be obvious in my short review.

This acclaimed biography was the result of years of painstaking research (mostly for a PhD) and published in 1999 – two years after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Running to nearly 500 pages of small print, it’s not for the fainthearted, but I found it fascinating and eminently readable, although I confess I did get lost in the complicated political shenanigans sometimes. The upside of that is heightened admiration for the author who has steered a steady course through mountains of data and a turbulent period in history. Small wonder that she’s wheeled out on as an authority in various documentaries relating to the royals or the Spencer family.

Born at Althorp (Diana’s home), on 7 June 1757, Georgiana was the eldest child of the first Earl and Countess Spencer. Beloved of her mother, she grew up in an exceptionally sophisticated milieu of writers, politicians and artists, and was from her childhood encouraged in the social skills. She dabbled in writing – prose, poetry and plays – as well as music. Striking and stylish rather than lovely, she was natural, with an unconscious charm, giving herself no airs, and entirely without snobbery. Unsurprisingly she became the darling of society, combining a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval wherever she went.

Thrust into public life at 16, naturally vibrant and attractive and appealing, adored and feted by so many, an acclaimed hostess and leader of fashion, she nevertheless endured a chaotic and chequered marriage, having little in common with the fabulously wealthy but reserved and shy fifth Duke of Devonshire. Neither understood the other.

Sexual freedom and licentiousness were common and accepted amongst the ton at this time, and both parties were serially unfaithful. Before their marriage, the Duke had a mistress and a child (a girl, Charlotte, whom Georgiana took into her family when the mother died before Georgiana had any children of her own), and he continued this liaison. To her chagrin, and that of her in-laws, however, motherhood remained elusive for Georgiana for some nine years. She suffered a number of miscarriages, partially laid at the door of her reckless living, drinking and gambling to excess, and her bulimia. In spite of her position and appeal, in spite of moving in the highest circles at home and abroad, she was tormented by self-doubt and loneliness, always seeking attention and praise. A woman of contradictions.

Within two years of becoming the Duchess she was thoroughly disillusioned with her marriage, and fashionable life, and the dissipation within her high society circle, as well as frustrated by the convention of her time that restricted women in so many ways. One relationship however, had a profound influence on her: that of a brilliant though flawed politician, Charles Fox, who led her into a life in politics. It was politics indeed that lifted her out of her meaningless life of parties and fashion, and gave her purpose. Within the space of five years she matured into an adept political campaigner and negotiator in her own right, although she was vilified for her too-modern-for-18th-century-sensibilities practical involvement in electioneering – about 100 years ahead of her time.

Hugely influential in her direction of travel too, were powerful ambivalent relationships with two women – Mrs Mary Graham, with whom she formed an intimate bond and could really be herself; and Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess) who became her constant companion and confidante, but who also struck up a liaison with the Duke, whom she later married. Ironically they both conceived children by the Duke within days of each other.

In spite of enormous wealth, status, exalted connections, moving in the highest circles of royalty and aristocracy, innate abilities, advantages, time and opportunities, Georgiana’s life spun out of control as she sank into her addiction to gambling, and accrued ruinous debts. The Duke grew more and more intolerant and variously demanded a separation, or exiled her abroad. But Georgiana held one trump card; the Duke still needed a legitimate male heir.

With so many affairs and illegitimate children on the part of the Duke and Duchess and Bess (who formed the third side of their ménage à trois), elaborate arrangements had to be made to preserve a facade of respectability and to ensure the children were adequately cared for and protected. I was unaware that in the 18th century fathers were automatically given custody, but so it was. However, Georgiana’s maternal affection shines through, and even when she was banished abroad, she set about educating herself so that she could help her children learn. (Shades of parents today struggling to stay abreast of their children’s schooling during lockdown!) In so doing, she developed a keen interest in matters scientific and geological, becoming accepted into professional circles and acquiring a valuable collection of minerals and fossils for a museum within Chatsworth. It was only her scientific studies that stopped her craving for gambling.

Overall the book leaves one with a distaste for the rudimentary medical knowledge and lax morality and tumultuous politicking of the 18th century. Descriptions of Georgiana’s treatment for an eye infection, and her agonising death, are positively nauseating. Our modern sensibilities balk at the blatant infidelities and machinations in the marriage markets amongst the ton, too. The hapless children are passed around like parcels to disguise their parentage.

On the other hand the practice of writing letters to all and sundry has much to commend it. They have provided a rich mine of information which gives colour and depth to their stories, and they make fascinating reading. By comparison, today’s electronic messages pale into insignificance. It was rather shocking then to read, As a general rule, the Victorian descendants who took it upon themselves to preserve their grandparents’ papers employed a rigorous policy of sexual segregation: women’s letters were destroyed, men’s letters were preserved.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, then, was full of contradictions, perhaps best summed up by the author in her epilogue as …
an acknowledged beauty yet unappreciated by her husband,
a popular leader of the
ton who saw through its hypocrisy,
a woman whom people loved who was yet so insecure in her ability to command love that she became dependent upon the suspect devotion of Lady Elizabeth Foster,
a generous contributor to charitable causes who nevertheless stole from her friends,
a writer who never published under her own name,
a devoted mother who sacrificed one child to save three,
a celebrity and patron of the arts in an era when married women had no legal status,
a politician without a vote
and a skilled tactician a generation before the development of professional party politics.
A remarkable woman indeed.

If you want a potted sanitised version there’s always the film version!







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