Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, and was nearly as famous in her day. In 1774 Georgiana achieved immediate celebrity by marrying William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire, one of England's richest and most influential aristocrats. She became the queen of fashionable society and founder of the most important political salon of her time. But Georgiana's public success concealed an unhappy marriage, a gambling addiction, drinking, drug-taking, and rampant love affairs with the leading politicians of the day. With penetrating insight, Amanda Foreman reveals a fascinating woman whose struggle against her own weaknesses, whose great beauty and flamboyance, and whose determination to play a part in the affairs of the world make her a vibrant, astonishingly contemporary figure.--From publisher description.
Knightley's role portrays Georgiana as a victim of circumstance, cruelly treated by her husband and his mistress, when there was much more to her life than that. She did not resent Lady Elizabeth Foster, but valued her friendship, despite Bess' calculating insinuation into her social circle ('Racky', as she was known by Georgiana and the Duke, wanted the wealth and position that her friend enjoyed, more than she was after her husband!) Bess had two children with the Duke, and was able to maintain contact with both - whereas her husband kept both their sons in Ireland until they were much older (the film suggests she hooked up with the Duke for purely noble, maternal motives). Neither did Georgiana forsake a girlish romance with Charles Grey to marry into the peerage - he was her 'toyboy', and their affair began later in life. The film also glibly skips over Georgiana's influential role in the complicated politics of the day, supporting Charles Fox and the Whigs by actively campaigning on the party's behalf and by cajoling the fickle Prince of Wales. She was far more powerful than a mere mascot dressed in party colours. The incredible personal debts she amassed (over £50, 000) - mostly from gambling, but also a misplaced generosity with friends - are strangely absent from her big screen adaptation. In watering down the film to explain history to Hollywood, Georgiana's exceptional story has been cruelly diluted; this book is a must for anyone interested in a true representation of her character.
That said, the necessary but laborious exposition in Amanda Foreman's biography can sometimes act as a drag on the narrative, particularly towards the latter years of Georgiana's life, when she was bravely struggling to form and hold together a coalition of the famous Whig names of the day - Fox, Grenville, Grey and Pitt. The background to the French Revolution is rather surplus to requirements, when a personal perspective - Georgiana was good friends with Marie Antoinette and the 'Little Po' - would have sufficed.
The best summary of this amazing woman is as follows: 'an acknowleged beauty yet unwanted by her husband, a popular leader of the ton who saw through its hypocrisy, and a woman whom people loved who was yet so insecure in her ability to command love that she became dependent on the suspect devotion of Lady Elizabeth Foster. [...] a generous contributor to charitable causes who nevertheless stole from her friends, [...] a politician without a vote and a skilled tactician a generation before the development of professional party politics.'
Georgiana's Victorian descendents censored her copious correspondence and personal diaries to project an acceptable public reputation for a complex character; nearly all references to her domestic life with Bess, her affairs and her illegitimate daughter with Grey were erased. Sadly, 'The Duchess' seems to have been written with the same intention, despite Amanda Foreman's advisory role on set.
She had a life so interesting that it seems to be a gift to those who are trying to read her biography. She is fashionable, she gambles, she dances with the prince of wales, she manages the social life of the Whig party, she is a wife, she is a mistress, she is in debt, she is a mother, she does a whole lot.
Amanda Foreman tells us all about it with a very light touch. She doesn't ignore, excuse or moralize about the Georgina's life. She describes each facet of the situation and leaves the rest to the reader. She manages to balance on the fine line between telling us too much about the wider historical context and telling us nothing. This book is a delight to read.
Her personal life was often unhappy. Married to one of the richest men in the land, with a lofty title, she was never loved by the Duke, who took multiple mistresses. Her parents had had a loving marriage and she strove to be a good wife, but her husband was generally cold to her. Foreman provides a good explanation of his character – he never had an affectionate upbringing as his wife did, was naturally reserved and thought of marriage as more of a duty – his mistress was the one to who he showed affection. Georgiana also had massive debts and for years did not produce a male heir. The vicious reports of her behavior could not help. Georgiana sought love in other quarters. Various affairs were attributed to her – with Charles Fox, the politician she supported for years, and her close female friends. After meeting Lady Elizabeth Foster, Georgiana and her husband became close to her and she lived with them on-and-off until Georgiana’s death (Bess married the Duke soon after). Bess became the Duke’s mistress though speculations arose about her relationship with Georgiana. Whether the relationship was physical or not, Foreman notes, the more important part was Georgiana’s emotional dependence on her. Foreman delineates the motives of the characters skillfully and provides excerpts from letters and documents. The story reads like a good novel. She mentions in the intro that she grew attached to Georgiana and perhaps the one quibble would be in the way she writes Bess and, to a lesser extent, Georgiana’s sister-in-law, Lavinia, who disliked her. Foreman often describes negative feelings – jealousy, schadenfreude – for both women when it’s not clearly supported by evidence (though they could clearly be imagined). Bess is not a sympathetic woman but in a way, she was acting just like others in the ton – having affairs, stealing other women’s husbands, out for money. She did seem to care about her children (legitimate and illegitimate) but, for example, when she’s able to bring her illegitimate daughter to live with the Devonshires, Foreman notes how she must have felt triumph at spiting Georgiana’s mother, who had a longtime grudge against her.
Georgiana’s documented affairs were with another member of the ton, the Duke of Dorset, and another Whig politician, Charles Grey. She gave birth to his daughter but had to give her up after her husband threatened to deny her access to their children. Foreman creates an excellent portrait of high society in the late 18th century. Everyone knew everyone and had affairs with each other, even wives. The only scandal came when a couple would run off together – then the ton would have to ostracize the woman. Of course a husband still controlled the marriage, leading to situations like Georgiana’s, where her husband’s illegitimate children were brought into their household, but he forced her to give up Grey’s daughter. Georgiana’s sister Harriet married Duncannon, a relative of the Duke’s. He was a much worse husband, cruel and abusive. When he found out that Harriet was cheating on him with the playwright and Whig politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan, he wanted to divorce her. That would create a public scandal so the Duke, acting for the family, prevented him from moving forward. Georgiana portrayed this society in The Sylph – probably the most interesting part of the book. High society is often glamorized in movies and pop culture, but Foreman accurately shows the unhappiness, loneliness and rigidity of that life. Georgiana was constantly under the eye of her family – her mother always advised or nagged her – and her in-laws, who disliked her and blamed her for the lack of a male heir. Even all the parties exhausted her and were prime reasons for her gambling and debt, her lifelong weakness.
Foreman spends a lot of time on British politics. I found this to be very interesting, mostly due to my love of Anthony Trollope, but I could see that some might find this tedious. The author covers several important elections and the formation of opposition governments. Georgiana was usually in the background, holding meetings, suggesting strategies, keeping up morale and using her friendships with the leading Whigs to hold the party together. The Whig party was anti-Royalist, though they did have the Prince of Wales on their side. He was unstable and needy but a great friend of Georgiana’s and in several cases she was able to convince him to support the Whigs and keep things under control. Her public campaigning in 1784 helped the Whigs keep their seats (this was the period where the aristocrats had favored candidates though they couldn’t campaign themselves, so their wives would). It raised the censure of the opposition, who tried to portray Georgiana as trading favors for votes – though, as Foreman notes, Pitt’s party would go on to have their own aristocratic figurehead and campaigner, the Duchess of Gordon. Foreman includes a number of portraits of the various characters as well as political cartoons showing negative caricatures of Georgiana. She analyzes the tactics that were used – some of them being the same as today in that they were not as concerned with the truth as appearance and political scoring. Georgiana did understand the power of propaganda as she set fashions utilizing the Whig colors and held spectacular events in support of the party. She died the same year as Fox and Pitt, 1806, and during the 19th century, as politics became less about aristocrats wielding power and middle-class career politicians rose, women would be excluded from politics.
I would highly recommend this biography – well-written and entertaining, it creates a fascinating portrait of society in the late 18th/early 19th century as well as one of a contradictory, tragic and influential woman.
As for the comments from other reviewers with respect to her morality, they should understand that the British aristocracy have always been highly promiscuous including during the Victorian era. They espouse ideals to the contrary but that is a matter of form and further they truly believed that these principles should apply to the lower classes. How many lovers did Jenny Churchill have? A lot , but perhaps not as many as her profligate husband Randolph Churchill who died of syphlis.
Lady Georgiana Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana, became the most prominent woman in Britain after marrying the wealthy Duke of Devonshire. She captivated the nation with her avant garde involvement in politics, but newspapers were more enthralled with her lavish personal life. Her million dollar gambling debts, scandalous love affairs with leading politicians, bulimia, heavy drinking, lesbian involvements, and unhappy marriage would be considered riske even by today's standards...and this was the 18th century.
The supporting characters in Georgiana's life are just as interesting as she is. Bess, her conniving best friend, schemed to become the Duke's mistress and upon doing so, promptly turned the marriage into a menage-a-trois. Her life long friend Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, shared her love for extravagant gowns and helped her set the tone of fashion for the era. Grey, the Whig politician who became the love of her life, fathered her illegtimate child.
Amanda Foreman breathes life into the decadent lifestyles of the Regency era nobility and the privilege of the period. I really loved this book--enough to buy it--- but I would recommend picking it up only if you're interested in the Regency/French Revolution era.
I was fascinated by the affairs and romantic intrigues, and found it interesting to see how illegitimate children (the product of affairs) were often brought into the home and raised alongside the legitimate offspring of the nobility.
I did find that the book bogged down in the middle, with too much emphasis and detail about politics.
This book was recently made into a movie, The Duchess, starring Kiera Knightly. I am looking forward to seeing it. I wanted to finish the biography first, so that I had a better grounding in the historical facts. I am sure Hollywood will have taken liberties. If nothing else, they would need to compress and leave out a great deal of the politics. The book is simply too long to fit it all into a film. And people will be far more interested in the fashions and intrigues than they will the politics of the Whigs versus the Pittites.
This book is a well-researched and fascinating glimpse into 18th century life, where Georgiana always seemed to be in the thick of everything, including the Regency Crisis of the late 1780s, and the French Revolution. The political history in the book was a little dense and hard-to-follow at times, but given her political influence, passion, and acumen, it is absolutely necessary to the book. The current climate of political mudslinging and celebrity worship/vitriol appeared to be no different in her day, and Georgiana was the regular target of all of it. At times it was tempting to dismiss her life of parties and gambling, yet her accomplishments are astounding for a woman of that (or any) era, and I wept at her death in 1806. Hollywood could not have scripted her life any better, and now I am keen to see The Duchess, the Keira Knightley adaptation of this book.
As always, it is instructive to return to the source when a movie is being made about a lightning rod figure from history. Foreman does a fine job of contrasting Georgiana's extraordinary political life with her less-than-ideal flaws without resorting to much modern-day coloring of Georgiana's choices -- although this reader must agree with the Foreman's assessment that the author has fallen a bit too hard for her subject.
A must-read if you are to see the movie.
With many historical figures the problem is to place the character in context for the life and time of the reader. Sometimes the smartphone internet cafe moccachino user just does not ‘get’ the medieval monk. With Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) we have no such problems. She is a woman as suited to the 21st century as she was (and was not) to the 18th century.
Georgiana blasted her way to prominence through force of personality. No great beauty, she was adored by almost all who met her and dominated the London smart set, the ton, for most of her life. She all but ran the Whig party during the crucial years at the turn of the 19th century. She had everything that we would call desirable today: fame, adulation, power and money. Think of her as a sublime mix of Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, the Duchess of Cambridge and Hillary Clinton.
There was also a dark side. She had a gambling addiction and never really understood the value of money. Her gambling and other debts almost bankrupted her husband, the Duke. She took lovers and her illegitimate child almost ruined her marriage; that it did not says much about the infidelity of the Duke and the mores of the time. She almost certainly had a long-term lesbian love affair with Lady Elizabeth Foster, ‘Bess’, who shared her home and her husband.
Throughout this book, no matter how reprehensible, shocking or unacceptable (to our eyes) her actions, we cannot help but fall a little in love with Georgiana and root for her to succeed as we would any fictional heroine.
Amanda Foreman has written a magnificent biography. Intimate, exciting and always driving forwards as we want to learn more about this woman and what she did next.
There is an illustrated edition but it lacks the very interesting preface by the author where she decries the destruction of Georgiana's papers by her family.
This is the first biography that I have gone back and reread - it is that interesting.
Of course the heart of the story becomes the manage-a-trios that develops between herself, her husband and best friend Elizabeth Foster (Bess). Georgiana endures having to have her husband's mistress live with her and eventually three of his illegitimate children be raised with her assistance. Most women would buckle under the strain of such an arrangement. However Georgiana manages to carry it off with the style and grace that become her trademark.
The novel is engrossing and extensively researched. The main character undeniably fascinating. The constant repetition about Georgiana's debts does become tiring however, making the novel slow down somewhat at certain points. Still, given the subject it makes for an undeniably fascinating read.
Like many people, I am sure I looked for a book about Georgiana after seeing the recent movie. I was fascinated by her portrayal and wanted to find out what was fact and what was fiction.
After reading this book, The Dutchess of Devonshire is now one of my favorite historical characters and I am sure I will continue to read everything I can get my hands on about her and her time period. That she was contemporary to Marie Antoinette - and a friend - also fascinates me as I have been reading on Marie lately.
Enough about me
The book is well executed and reads wonderfully. You jump in and can't get out! Period history is not boring or tedious through Ms. Foreman's eyes. I learned a great deal about the politics of the period and the social mores of the aristocracy.