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Dearest Bess: The Life and Times of
 Lady Elizabeth Foster afterwards Duchess of Devonshire
 from Her Unpublished Journals and Correspondence


By Dorothy Margaret Stuart

Elizabeth and Georgiana:
 The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses


By Caroline Chapman in collaboration with Jane Dormer

Review by Cheryl Bolen
Dearest Bess: The Life and Times of Lady Elizabeth Foster afterwards Duchess of Devonshire from Her Unpublished Journals and Correspondence
By Dorothy Margaret Stuart
Methuen & Co Ltd., London, 1955
245 pages

Elizabeth and Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses
By Caroline Chapman in collaboration with Jane Dormer
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002
264 pages

Like most biographies written in the 1950's or earlier, Stuartís work colors her subject not only favorably but so utterly positively that the present-day reader wonders if "Dearest Bess" (Lady Elizabeth Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire) was Stuartís ancestor.

In the case of Chapmanís 2002 book, there is no doubt that Chapman is completely indebted to Lady Elizabeth Fosterís great-great-granddaughter, Jane Dormer, who allowed Chapman full use of the family archives that included journals, correspondence, sketch books, and scrap books.

Quite naturally, Chapman presented Lady Elizabeth Foster sympathetically, despite that she abandoned her first husband and two sons, slept with her dearest friendís husband and bore him two illegitimate children.

Both authors will have the reader believe that Bess only loved one man Ė the fifth Duke of Devonshire Ė despite that other sources claim she had many lovers.

The title of Chapmanís work is a bit misleading because this is clearly Bessís book. Yet it is impossible to write about Bess and not write about the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his first wife, Georgiana, who Ė together with Bess Ė comprised the most infamous menage a trois in history.

Both authors tell an entertaining story about a fascinating subject, Lady Elizabeth.

She was born in 1758 to the clergyman third son of the Earl of Bristol and lived modestly throughout her childhood. Due to his brotherís influence, her father was later named a bishop in Ireland. There he encouraged Bess to marry a little known member of the Irish Parliament.

The marriage was not a success. Shortly after marrying John Foster, Bessís father succeeded his brother as Earl of Bristol. As the daughter of a wealthy earl, she now could be called Lady Elizabeth. Did she perceive that she had married beneath her station?

She chose to leave her husband and return to England, even though that meant leaving her two young sons. Shortly after arriving in England she met the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his engaging wife, Georgiana. The attraction between the three of them was intense and instantaneous. A few months later Bess (the name they called her) was living with them. She would live with them for the rest of their lives.

Within two years, she was pregnant by the duke and went to the continent to give birth in secret. Georgiana did not know her best friend was her husbandís mistress. Bessís journal entries at this time are wrenching. She was consumed with shame and fear and sympathy for the child she bore in a run-down Sicilian brothel.

Unlike most bastards born at this time, Bessís bastards profited by their motherís tenacity to give them every advantage she could possibly wrangle. What a paradoxical mother she was! While she had been content to give up her two Irish sons to free herself from a man she did not love, she would never turn her back on the illegitimate children fathered by the powerful Duke of Devonshire.

And what a paradoxical lover was the Duke of Devonshire! Both his wife and mistress bore him daughters three weeks apart.

Three years later Bess would trot off to the continent once again to give birth in stealth. This time she bore a son, Augustus Clifford. While there she would get to see her daughter, Caroline St. Jules, who was almost three. What a sad irony that Georgiana still had not borne her husband an heir. (It would be two more years before she would.)

A test of Bess and Georgianaís friendship came when Georgiana got pregnant by her lover, Whig politician Charles Grey, after Georgiana had delivered the duke an heir. The duke banished his wife to the continent for the birth of her illegitimate child and insisted she use her ailing sister as an excuse to hide her true reason for going. He told Bess she could stay with him. She chose to accompany Georgiana.

Two and a half years later, the duke allowed them to return. Bess had gotten her daughter from her foster home and at that time incorporated her little girl into the Devonshire nursery where she would be raised alongside her half-sisters, who did not know of the relationship. No one knows how, but a few years later, Bess managed to foist her illegitimate son into the Devonshire nursery, too.

When her son was twelve, Bess used her considerable influence to get him a post in the Royal Navy, and for the next several years cajoled higher-ups, including Lord Nelson and the Prince Regent, to promote her son. At age 23 he became master and commander at the instigation of the regent, and he eventually made admiral.

In 1806, at age 49, Georgiana died. Bess and the duke were distraught. Georgiana appointed Bess to oversee her papers, a means of keeping Bess under the dukeís roof. Three and a half years later, Bess married the duke. They were only married for 21 months when the duke died.

The almost inconsolable Bess was suddenly turned away from her home by the dukeís son and heir, who was generous to Bess and to his half-siblings. It was at this time the illegitimate children were told of their parentage. They had not even known Bess, who doted on both of them, was their mother.

With her hefty £6,000 pounds a year from the sixth duke, Bess eventually moved to Rome and became a much-loved patroness of artists, scholars and of excavating and preserving the cityís vanishing antiquities. She also developed a deep love for Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, the Vatican secretary of state, though her biographers maintain that their relationship was "pure." In all, she used the title Duchess of Devonshire for 13 years, until her 1824 death. She died on the exact day that Georgiana had died 18 years earlier and wore a piece of jewelry with Georgianaís hair when she died.

--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in November 2006.
 

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