Review by Cheryl Bolen
Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire
By Amanda Foreman
Modern Library, paperback, 1998
$15.95, 419 pages
While Amanda Foreman was researching her doctoral dissertation on
late eighteenth century English attitudes toward race, she kept being
drawn to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, finding herself reading
nothing toward her dissertation but everything she could find on the
famed whig hostess. Within six months, Foreman persuaded Oxford to allow
her to change subjects, and the result is the captivating Georgiana
Duchess of Devonshire, which was the number one bestseller in
England and won that country s
prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography.
Four years of meticulous archival research went into this, the
most comprehensive of the many books written about the woman who was
Princess Diana s
great-great-great-great aunt. No biographer has ever done a better job
of breathing life into her subject s
Married to one of the richest peers in England when she was
seventeen, the beautiful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, came to
symbolize the late Georgian age with all its glittering decadence. Her
closest friends included the future English regent and Queen Marie
Antoniette. She was governed by passion: passion for whig politics, for
gambling, for her children and her best friend who shared her husband
s bed, and for the statesman for whom she would bear a secret
love child. Yet despite all these trappings of hedonism, Georgiana as
presented by Foreman is one of the most interesting, complex, and
warmest women ever chronicled in English history.
Georgiana s parents,
Earl and Countess Spenser, were something of a novelty in their age.
They married for love. Georgiana, born in 1757, was the first of their
three children. The others were Harriet (later Lady Bessborough, mother
of Caroline Lamb) and George, who would succeed his father as Earl
Despite her parents reluctance
to lose her, they allowed her to marry the twenty-four-year-old Duke of
Devonshire just after her seventeenth birthday. At the age of sixteen
her husband had become the Fifth Duke of Devonshire, head of the
Cavendish family, and leader of whig society. His staggering wealth was
twice that of Georgiana s
enormously wealthy father.
Remote and stiff, the duke spent most of his time away from his
young wife, preferring to gamble at Brook
s until five in the morning. In the meantime his bride stormed
into London society. Because of her exalted rank, enormous fortune, and
youthful beauty, she caught the public
s fancy much the same as Princess Di did two centuries later. She
made fashionable the three-foot pompadours molded over horsehair. (The
only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor!)
Like most of the aristocrats of the day, Georgiana developed an
obsession for gambling and would be plagued with enormous gambling debts
for the rest of her life. And throughout her life her mother would
chastise her gambling in the frequent letters to her firstborn, many of
which still exist. Even though Georgiana was married to one of the
richest men in the kingdom, she was constantly borrowing money from her
friends, family, the Prince of Wales, and her banker.
Her other obsession was for whig politics. The Spencers and
Cavendishes championed the party that was in opposition to the king, as
did the king's firstborn son -- until he became regent in 1811.
There are rumors that Georgiana may have been lover to the prince
and/or charismatic whig leader Charles James Fox, but Foreman could not
find evidence of either. When the Prince of Wales attempted to kill
himself in order to win Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert
s affection, Mrs. Firtzherbert (no friend of Georgiana
s) refused to go to his bedside unless Georgiana accompanied her.
It is believed Georgiana produced the ring Mrs. Fitzherbert donned to
seal her fate with the prince that night.
Employing a political idea that was century before its time,
Georgiana led an arduous door-to-door campaign in the Westminster
election of 1784. Her efforts are credited with bringing both Fox and
Lord Hood victory. In that election, the opposition whigs dressed in the
buff and blue of the American rebels.
Georgiana was less successful on the reproductive front. It would
be nine yearas after marrying before she finally bore a child, daughter
Georgiana, who went by the name G. Two years later, a second daughter,
Harriet, was born. Georgiana was an adoring mother who nursed her own
children, and she affectionately raised the duke
s illegitimate child, Charlotte Williams. Still, the pressure was
on for Georgiana to bear an heir a feat that finally occurred sixteen
years after her marriage. Georgian era woman could not take lovers until
they produced an heir.
While Georgiana had difficulty reproducing, this was not the case
with her dearest friend, Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster, who bore the Duke
of Devonshire two children while living in the same house with the duke
and Georgiana (though she would go to the continent for the births). A
few years later these two illegitimate children of the duke
s (Caroline St. Jules and Augustus Clifford) would come live in
the duke s home and be raised
with his legitimate children. (Caroline St. Jules would marry George
Lamb, Lady Melbourne s son,
who was said to have been fathered by the Price of Wales.)
Shortly after Georgiana gave birth to the boy who would become the
Sixth Duke of Devonshire (the bachelor duke), she had an affair with
whig politician Charles Grey, later to be known as Earl Grey, and she
apparently had no difficulty bearing him a love child, little Eliza
Courtney. The duke banished Georgiana to the continent for the birth and
would not allow her to return to England for two years. The price of
reuniting with her beloved legitimate children was denouncement of Grey,
who was the love of her life, according to Foreman. Eliza would be
raised by Grey s parents and
not told who her mother was, but she adored Georgiana who brought the
child gifts and lavished affection on her.
The last decade of Georgiana s
life was plagued by ill health. She died in 1806 before she reached
fifty, and thousands of mourners streamed into Piccadilly to pay her
respects. Fox wept bitterly. The Prince of Wales said, The best natured
and best bred woman in England is gone.
--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in June 2006.