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Biography and letters of

Harriet Granville

Review by Cheryl Bolen

Piety and Wit: A Biography of Harriet Countess Granville 1785-1862
Betty Askwith
Collins, 1982

A Second Self: The Letters of Harriet Granville 1810-1845
Virginia Surtees, Editor
Michael Russell, 1990, £14.95, 320 pgs.

A woman of the twenty-first century might be perplexed that Harriet Granville merited not only one book but several on her life and letters. For in addition to the two reviewed here, there is another volume of her letters, and she was recently one of the featured personalities in Katie Hickmanís work on wives of English ambassadors. So this woman who never made artistic contributions, never gave birth to future prime ministers or distinguished poets, whose husbandís only achievement was an unremarkable ambassadorship to Paris, became the subject of four books in the century after her death.

What made her life so interesting to historians? The seeds for Harrietís claim to fame were likely sewn before her birth. Her parents, the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his glamorous duchess, Georgiana, were among the wealthiest, most famous peers of their day.

Born in 1785, Harriet Cavendish (the Devonshire family name) was the second Devonshire daughter, the first having been her beloved sister, "G," to whom almost all the letters in the Second Self book are addressed. Her parents, trying desperately for a son and heir, must have been extremely disappointed she was not a male, but her mother compensated by being affectionate throughout her daughterís childhood. The Devonshire heir, the sixth duke, was born when Harriet was five, and she was close to him throughout her life.

Though she was said to be close to her mother, Harriet avoids mentioning her in the posts written after her motherís 1806 death.

It would have been impossible for a daughter to have been more unlike her mother than Harriet. For starters, Harriet was unattractive. And because of the influence of her evangelical governess, Harriet never indulged in the vices that distinguished her motherís hedonistic lifestyle: adultery and addictive gambling that nearly bankrupt one the kingdomís wealthiest estates. Most especially, Harriet was a prude.

The governess Miss Trimmer (selected by Lady Spencer, the duchessís mother) had done her job well, especially given that Harriet was raised with a bevy of illegitimates. Her father sired three illegitimate children; her mother was forced to leave her legitimate children for more that two years while she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter; her motherís sister, Lady Bessborough, gave birth to two natural children by her longtime lover, Granville Leveson Gower. And if all that wasnít enough, both her parents loved their live-in friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, the mother of two of the dukeís illegitimate children!

When her father announced his intention of marrying his mistress after the first duchessís death, the spinster Harriet must of have been at the lowest point in her life. Her adored sister was living far away at Castle Howard with her husband and growing family. No man had offered for her. And she could not live under her fatherís roof when he remarried the woman she loathed.

It was at this time her motherís sister put her own feelings aside and encouraged her adored lover to marry her niece. Lady Bessborough and Granville had been lovers for seventeen years. Because he was the younger son of the Marquis of Stafford, Granville needed to marry a woman with a generous dowery.

He offered, and Harriet was only to happy to accept. The letters in Surteesí book commence at her marriage, and it is doubtful any bride was ever happier or more completely in love with her husband than Harriet was with Granville. Not just during the honeymoon. Her devotion never ceased. She even writes of him as "adored Granville."

Her letters drip with affection for her adored Granville, her beloved sister and cherished brother. She speaks kindly of Miss Trimmer, too. But few others mentioned in the letters escape Harrietís scathing tongue. Had she known these private letters to her sister would be revealed to thousands, she probably would not have written with such a high degree of critical arrogance.

The mean-spiritedness of the letters, though, is well compensated by the one action which cannot fail to endear Harriet Granville to ensuing generations. Though she gave birth to five children, she allowed Granvilleís two illegitimate children by her aunt (whom Harriet did not like) to come live with her. Not only that, she came to love these children, Harriet Stewart and George Stewart.

Though Harriet Cavendish had been raised in a state of opulence that can never be revived, she would never as a married woman ever live in splendor. She adjusted admirably to her reduced circumstances, and one feels that she was not bothered by it in the least. She had obviously been closer in temperament to Miss Trimmer than she was to her duchess mother.

Named a viscount in 1815, Granville served altogether for 15 years as ambassador to Paris, leaving the post in 1841. In 1833 he was elevated to an earldom, after voting for the Reform Bill in the House of Lords. Two years after returning from France, he suffered a massive stroke. He died in 1846, the year Surtees selected to end her volume of letters. Harriet spent much time with her daughters and her brother, the bachelor duke, after Granvilleís death.

Askwith pens an excellent biography of Harriet, incorporating much fresh archival research. Both books are recommended. Surtees limits the letters to the years of Harrietís marriage. They are an especially rich source of information on house parties of the era. The Granvilles were guests at some of Englandís most spectacular estates. An earlier edition of Harrietís letters spans the years prior to her marriage.

This review first appeared in The Quizzing Glass in March 2007.
 

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