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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Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas.

Chatsworth is a magnificent house at normal times; converted for Christmas it’s truly spectacular. This year the theme was Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas, with each room devoted to a different story or character – who could resist it?! – so we made the trip from Edinburgh especially to experience it … six and a half hours driving there; five back.

From the cut-out characters which greeted us on the way in, through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases,

to the stunning set pieces, the attention to detail and artistic flair was amazing. And what a setting! Priceless paintings gave way to garlands of baubles and foliage; glorious antiques stood cheek by jowl with fairy-lit Christmas trees.

And there, in the midst of all the fictional depictions of his works, in the real Cavendish family visitors book, Charles Dickens‘ actual signature highlighted!

Shop fronts, darkened alleys and famous quotes captured the authentic Dickens we know and love.

The imposing entrance was devoted to paper sculptures and there was a delicious irony in the midst of so much ‘tinder’ to find a real fire blazing in the hearth. Risk assessment? What risk assessment?!!

Cut out letters hung elegantly from floor to ceiling,

huge scrolling quotations festooned the pillars, really capturing the importance of words to the whole display.

Clad in Victorian dress, guides stood in the shadows, adding to the ambience but ever ready with information.

Oliver Twist’s famous rogue, Fagin, prowling around beneath the towering edifice that formed sleeping quarters for his pack of mini pickpockets, enchanted the children with his ‘conjuring’ tricks, and the adults with his smart repartee.

And, as if the sight of the magnificent dining room set for a wedding banquet for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations were not enough,

the lady herself paced from end to end declaiming the treacherous Meriwether Compeyson and revealing her own sweet revenge with adopted daughter Estelle.

Little Miss Dorrit‘s dimly-lit room included one of the countless huge Christmas trees, this time bedecked in lace baubles, reels of thread and button garlands – Amy’s valiant attempt to bring cheer into the debtors’ prison.

Oh, I could go on and on, but you’ll have got the general idea. Magnifique! Such proportions! Such vision! Such skill! Everything about the experience took my breath away. What an amazing literary inheritance we have. I’m so glad I went.

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How many Camels are there in Holland?

Today, come with me into the big tent, the Main Theatre, to listen to two well known people – both octogenarians. There are 570 seats and it’s packed to the gunnels. Every year I’m astonished and heartened that thousands of people pay so much money to listen to writers. But then, this is the world’s leading literary festival.Audience in Main TheatreFirst, at 10.30, it’s Phyllida Law, mother of Emma and Sophie Thompson, and a well known actress in her own right, talking about life with her mother, Mego, who developed dementia.

Phyllida is known to her Rwandan grandson as ‘ancient lady‘; I could only dream of looking as sparky and being as entertaining as she is at 81. Even walking in she stops to quip! When an emergency vehicle momentarily drowns her out, when something goes bang at the back of the tent, she has a witty aside ready. Journalist Jackie McGlone has her work cut out keeping the actress on track, but does so beautifully when she can stifle her own mirth.

I didn’t know until I researched the family that Phyllida is a Scot: born in Glasgow; moved to the village of Ardentinny to look after her mother Mego when she needed care; still keeping a remote cottage in Argyll as a retreat. She confides that she loves the warm embrace of the Scottish people who formed a team of carers to help her shoulder the responsibility when her mother needed watching at night as well as by day.

How many Camels are there in Holland: Dementia, Ma and Me is her account of life with her mother as her mental acuity diminishes; using the scribbled notes she kept during that time. It’s her second memoir – she also wrote things down when her mother-in-law ‘Granny Annie’ was living with them for 18 years (by her own account, not the 40 years Wikipaedia reports). Annie was very deaf and Phyllida resorted to handwritten notes to communicate with her. As she admits: ‘I can’t do any of that laptop rubbish.’ On neither occasion were the scribbles intended for public consumption, but when Phyllida wanted unusual and special gifts for her two daughters on their 50th birthdays, she hit upon the idea of a compilation of these family anecdotes. What a uniquely precious gift! Now shared with the public.

The title comes from the ridiculous questions asked to test the deterioration in Mego’s mental ability. ‘How heavy is an average hammer?’ ‘How long is a necktie?’ Phyllida berates them as such ‘male questions‘. Far better to ask, ‘What’s your bra size?’ I confess I’ve never heard such questions asked in any mental state assessment, but then Phyllida’s take on dementia differs from my understanding in a number of ways. She’s a consumer speaking from a single personal perspective, instinctively resorting to hyperbole and the witty one-liner.

In reality reviews have been very mixed and one sneakily wonders if it would have been hyped as much had it been written by your average Mrs Joe Bloggs. But in person the author comes across as delightfully scatty, witty, frank and fun. She says her mother was always slightly dotty so the transition into dementia was barely perceptible initially; there’s a strong suggestion that her zaniness has passed to her daughter.

Caring for someone with dementia can be gruelling and disturbing, but Phyllida says life on stage, and being married to the writer and narrator of The Magic Roundabout, equipped her with a lively sense of humour, and in her book she demonstrates a delightful capacity to laugh at the absurd. Indeed she’s been accused of not taking the subject of dementia seriously enough. I love the example of Mego preparing to go out. ‘Ma, you’re not wearing your distance specs.’ ‘Oh, that’s all right, dear, I’m not going far.’ And the occasion where her husband exclaims: ‘The pudding’s moving!’ Phyllida adds: ‘The polite term is weevils!’ And their brief experiment with marijuana in scones (as a possible treatment for Mego) where they managed to overdose themselves, had the audience roaring with laughter.

But as she says, it’s not the craziness that is sobering and heartbreaking, it’s the moments of clarity. She instances many in the book. Awaking from sleep one day and not recognising anything or anyone Mego says: ‘I think I must have been a little bit nearly dead.’ Asked on another occasion if she needs anything from the shops she says, ‘A new brain … I’ve lost mine.‘ Imagine knowing.

A questioner asked if her relationship with her mother changed once the dementia really took its toll. Phyllida replied with disarming candour that there was always a distance between them because she had been sent away to boarding school from the age of 7, so her mother was a sort of ‘half-term treat‘. This space between them meant caring for her later was easier than it might have been. Nevertheless Phyllida admits to a ‘thread of fear for the future‘ running through her life, lest she has inherited the condition herself.

Jackie McGlone described HMCATIH as written with ‘a clear head and a loving heart‘, allowing the reader ‘to smile with not at‘. What a lovely tribute.New seats for book lovers

Just time for ten minutes in one of these new seats and I’m back queuing for the 1.30 event in the same tent: Roy Hattersley talking about the Dukes of Devonshire. He’s been attending the EIBF annually (talking about his 19 books) for all its 30 years – maybe that’s why he was allowed to chair his own session.

Having recently visited Chatsworth, the seat of the Devonshire’s, I was looking forward to some illumination of the family history. Hattersley spoke with erudition, fluency and great knowledge, but it was a whirlwind history lesson covering a 500 year history. I fear I can’t possibly do justice to it or make it interesting for this blog, so I won’t even try to. Rather I’ll select a couple of gems: The 8th Duke was the only man who’s ever yawned during his own maiden speech! In Hattersley’s view, MPs today should learn a lesson from the Whiggs of the past: go by their own personal judgement and conviction not by the voice of their constituents.The audience spill out of the big tent

I leave the crowded square with my head whirling.




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Counting my Chickens …

It’s Christian Aid week so lots of extra fundraising activities to shoehorn into the daylight hours … time for a Blue Peter moment methinks. And the-one-I-made-earlier? A post about an easy-to-read book which includes heart-warming tales of good animal- and land-husbandry. Appropriate in this week when we’re all working to relieve the hunger of 870 million people around the world. (Sorry – I’ve just noticed the superfluity of hyphens!)

As you know, I visited Chatsworth recently and was bowled over by it. So I was keen to read Deborah Devonshire‘s book: Counting My Chickens, which went straight on to my tbr pile.


She has, of course, got plenty of tales to relate, having lived a colourful and exciting life: first as the youngest of the six famous and scandal-ridden Mitford sisters, and then as Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (since 2004, Dowager Duchess). I’ve heard her speak in the flesh at the Edinburgh International Book Festival too, and she’s most engaging, with highly irregular and forthright views, so I had high hopes for her written word too. She’s known great tragedy as well as huge celebrity, but what I didn’t know before I looked her up for this blog, was that she lost four of her seven children (as babies). What heartache.

She gets you on her side from the outset, admitting to struggling long and hard with her opening sentence. She consults others, listens to advice from writing tutors, but is still so exercised by it that she concludes: ‘As 50,000 books are published every year the first sentences must add hugely to the level of anxiety in an already anxious race.’ What author could resist?

Though enormously privileged herself, she clearly applauds humility and down-to-earth-ness within her class. I loved the story of her mother-in-law (the previous Duchess) and her friend, the Duchess of Rutland, who arrived at a Dior collection in Paris in ‘their tweed overcoats, which had done years of war service, and ditto shoes‘. They were refused entry. Although they were disappointed, they were not surprised, and calmly ‘sat on a bench eating their sandwiches to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying.’

Counting my ChickensAnd Deborah (Debo to her friends) Devonshire has no truck with humbug or pretentiousness herself. ‘I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows, and good stout things they are. Much better than the strange looking garments in desperate colours at £1,000 each in the Knightsbridge shops.

After a mild lament about the uselessness of knocking old ladies to the ground and snatching their handbags, she writes: ‘I pity the thief when it’s my turn. My bag is positively septic inside,so if he’s got any sense he will wear one of those things that dustmen and dentists cover their noses with when delving into unpleasantness. He will find handfuls of tiresome credit cads sliding about in their meaningless way, heaps of copper coins which don’t even buy a newspaper, unanswered letters of top priority, combs in variety, scissors, rubber bands, an Old Age Pensioner’s railway card and Biros without tops which all help to make it filthy.’

She never went to school or sat an exam; nevertheless she takes a keen interest in everything from dry stone walling, wild edible fungi, floral art, fine wine, architectural fashions, gardening, chickens, courtesy, through to bread making, and writes engagingly about them all. Indeed, she’d be high on my list of people-I’d-most-like-to be-sat-next-to-at-a-banquet.

Though she was born ‘The Honourable Deborah’, to a minor aristocratic English family, in a large property with many servants, she was taught from an early age the value of work. ‘My sisters and I were brought up close to the land. We knew it from the sharp end – trying to augment our meagre pocket money by keeping hens and goats and selling their produce to our long-suffering mother. She had a real chicken farm whose slender profit paid our governess.‘ And it’s clear from her writing (and from Chatsworth) that she has a keen understanding of animal husbandry. Indeed she was so appalled that children today know so little of where their food comes from, that it inspired her to create the famous farmyard at Chatsworth, the forestry demonstrations, and the gamekeepers’ plot. But having been raised herself on milk, cream and butter from Guernsey cows that failed the tuberculin test, she has continued to lament the rigorous rules that prohibit sharing the natural products of the farm without certificates and testing and outside scrutiny and sterilisation and pasteurisation and all the other ‘isations’. And as Duchess, she has taken great delight in defying regulations, using what her mother called ‘unmurdered foods‘ for her own household.

Not only impatient with the petty rules and regulations imposed for ‘health and safety reasons’, she also has a great sense of the ridiculous. The written criticism levelled at floral art exhibitors leaves her cringing: ‘I would give up after spending hours trying to shove a lily and a fern into yards of velvet, bits of glass or a straw teddy bear, only to find the judge’s note saying: “A good attempt but you should try to be flatter in front”, or “a pity there is a crease in your base”. Difficult for some lady competitors to obey the first directive and impossible for anyone to comply with the second.

And speaking of the beautiful old churches she knows and has frequented, she slips in a lovely parenthesis: ‘The feel, smell and taste of the oak pews at Swinbrook (I suppose that all children lick pews under cover of praying for their guinea-pigs) are not the same as those at Edensor.

Lamenting the habit weekend guests have of appropriating one’s books, she tells with some relish of her sister whose books carried a message on their plates: ‘This book was stolen from Bryan and Diane Guinness.’

The least enjoyable part of this short but thoroughly entertaining book is her penultimate section on Books and Company. As she says herself: ‘I have read very few books and I have minded finishing them so much that I have often vowed not to start another.‘ And it shows. But even here she redeems herself by happily linking her limited reading to her own experiences as an unusual home-taught child, a duchess running a stately home, a ‘shopkeeper’ attracting customers, a chatelaine overseeing innumerable priceless artefacts.

A must-read for anyone who visits Chatsworth House.



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A grand diversion

My trip to London felt a bit like the Grand Tour of yesteryear: London via Chatsworth and Woburn, so today’s post might be a tad exuberant.

I’ve wanted to visit Chatsworth, the family seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, for ages. I’ve watched programmes about it, read about it, but it still blew me away. You need to experience it though, not just see it, and I know a few amateurish photos won’t capture the sheer scale or magnificence, but they’re all I can offer of …

the glorious setting ….the stunning settingthe beautiful house (complete with gold window frames!) …the beautiful buildingthe stately entrance …the stately entrancethe exquisite woodwork …exquisite woodworkthe priceless paintings and ornate furniture …priceless paintings and ornate furniturethe fabulous chandeliers …fabulous chandeliersthe amazing sculptures …amazing sculpturesthe famous cascade (gravity fed) …the famous cascadeand the stunning gardens …lovely gardensWow, my old English teacher would have a conniption at all these superlatives!

Woburn Abbey wasn’t open …Woburn Abbeyand the gardens in March, with temperatures below zero, aren’t a riot of colour, but the deer park was well worth seeing …the deer parkas were the antiques …antique centreand the quaint Woburn village …Woburn VillageAnd I came away with more than I set out to buy.

By the time I arrived for my workshops about medical ethics I felt totally refreshed and ready for anything. And I was in for another treat.

The sessions I run are very much interactive, and the delegates at this conference were superb, very willing to challenge and be challenged, and to move outside their personal comfort zone (always an aim of these events). We made the most of a whole day devoted to exploring just how far we would go in assisting conception and death, supporting choice or setting limits. All great fun.

And now we’ve returned to Scotland to find spring submerged in a second winter!But at least I’m not tempted to leave my desk and get out in the garden. Onwards and upwards.



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