Excerpts from the Book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire: Eliza

Extract from the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Georgiana lay in an airless, shuttered room in a house near Montpellier, waiting to give birth. Although only thirty-four, she feared that her life had run its course. A new will, dated 27 January 1792, lay hidden amongst her possessions next to a life insurance policy for £1,000. Bess and the six-year-old Caroline St Jules were the only people with her; the others had pressed on t Nice on account of Harriet’s health. The baby was due in a few days and in the time she had left Georgiana composed letters of farewell to each of her children, in case of her death. She tried to find words that would provide them with comfort and advice long after she was gone. ‘As soon as you are old enough to understand this letter it will be given to you,’ she wrote hopefully to her two-year-old son. ‘It contains the only present I can make you – my blessing, written in my blood ….. Alas, I am gone before you could know me, but I lov’d you, I nurs’d you nine months at my breast. I love you dearly,’

As well as giving each of them her blessing, Georgiana begged the children to learn from the mistakes which had ruined her life: ‘One of my greatest pains in dying,’ began her farewell to Little Georgiana, ‘is not to see you again. But I hope that this letter will influence your whole life; I die, my dearest child, with the most unfeigned repentance for many errors. Learn to be exact about expence – I beg you as the best Legacy I can leave you – never to run into debt for the most trifling sum; I have suffered enough from a contrary conduct.’ Her final injunction was that they should always be dutiful to their father, loving to their grandmother and ‘affectionate to my Dear friend Bess – love and befriend Caroline St Jules’.

The children knew that their mother had been sent away to give birth to an illegitimate child; the proof is in the blacked-out paragraphs which disfigure Georgiana’s letters to them during these months. Their Victorian descendants attempted to wipe out every trace of her transgression: in the Chatsworth archives there is a gap where her letters about the birth would have been. Every letter which ever mentioned the child’s name, bar one or two, has either been destroyed or mutilated. But we know from other sources that on 20 February 1791 Georgiana gave birth to a girl. She called her Eliza (a favourite name of Bess’s) Courtney (a surname which belonged to the Poyntz family and therefore, unusually, gave no hint of her patrimony). Someone took Eliza from Georgiana’s arms almost immediately. The baby was nursed by a foster mother and then, when she was old enough to travel, sent over to England to live with Charles Grey’s parents in Falloden in Northumberland.

Somehow, a poem which Georgiana wrote just after Eliza’s birth made its way into her daughter’s hands and a copy lies among her descendants’ papers:

Unhappy child of indiscretion,
poor slumberer on a breast forlorn
pledge of reproof of past transgression
Dear tho’ unfortunate to be born

For thee a suppliant wish addressing
To Heaven thy mother fain would date
But conscious blushes stain the blessing
And sighs suppress my broken prayer

But spite of these my mind unshaken
In present duty turns to thee
Tho’ long repented ne’er forgotten
Thy days shall lov’d and guarded be

And should th’ungenerous world upbraid thee
for mine and for thy father’s ill
A nameless mother oft shall assist thee
A hand unseen protect thee still

And tho’ to rank and wealth a stranger
Thy life a humble course must run
Soon shalt thou learn to fly the danger
Which I too late have learnt to shun

Meanwhile in these sequestered vallies
Here may’st thou live in safe content
For innocence may smile at malice
And thou – Oh! Thou art innocent