Labour of love for a Diana of the Whig
Boris Johnson muses on the whereabouts of the modern Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
O Amanda, I say, as we huddle for warmth on a bench at Paddington station. Alack and fie for our generation! The Friday afternoon human traffic flows past us on the platform pinched, put upon. Why are we so anaemic by comparison with our forebears?
Maybe it’s just me but I can’t think of anyone nowadays who lives like her heroine, Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire. Amanda Foreman has rediscovered the life of the Queen of the Ton, as London’s high society was known in 1780: the routs, the revels, the balls that went on into the next day; her sapphic affair with her husband’s mistress, and what seems to have been a liaison with CJ Fox, not to speak of the Prince of Wales.
When Georgiana.wore a new hat, the Morning Post consecrated much space, and the female population instantly chucked their superseded niillinery. She wrote 100 letters a day, torrentially explaining her feelings.
“I am so amazed,” says the historian, “at the emotional openness, the moral laxity, and the intellectual curiosity all in one.” We have some modern spirits who approach Georgiana, in some of her aspects. She was bulimic, locked in a cold and loveless marriage, and, apart from anything else, the daughter of Earl Spencer.
“It was sheer fluke,” says Amanda. “There are these weird and uncanny parallels: the star quality and the incredible talent for self-destruction.” But our Lady Diana Spencer had nothing like the intellectual selfconfidence of her ancestor, the political fascination, or the gift for Whig propoganda.
None of the great political hostesses can match her, not Kay Graham, not Pamela Harriman. Carla Powell may have been the Pussy Galore of the Referendum Party. But imagine that Carla owned a house in St James’s as big as the Ritz, constantly churning like a Rowlandson etching with bucks and beauties, losing fortunes in games of whist and faro.
Then think of her sallying forth during elections, a goddess dirtying her slippers in the ammonia and rotten wood of the backstreets, to win votes by kissing butchers, scandalising the already slack and sated morals of the time. “It was real Enlightemnent stuff,” says Amanda. “The children of the 1780s were like the 1960s generation, with this sense that they are better and more intelligent than anyone else, and then they are utterly crushed, in our generation by the oil crisis, and in the 18th century by the French revolution.”
Yes. Crushed. We look again at the wretched crowds of commuters. Death duties and very high tax have done their levelling work, she says; and now the House of Lords, the last remnant of the British ancien régime, faces its comeuppance.
“This Government hates history,” she says quite fiercely, “and it hates the reminders of history, and it’s very upsetting and troubling that they seem prepared to wreck things. These institutions never come back. Normally you abolish something and that’s it.”
So I am grateful to Amanda for rescuing Georgiana, or George-ayna, as she is pronounced,’ from the vast letter-caches of Chatsworth and Althorp. Scotland Yard, the British Library, all the technology of Oxford Computing, tried in vain to decipher the blacked-out bits that made her 19th century heirs so ashamed. It hardly matters.
It is ages since I have so enjoyed a biography, and I’ll eat my hat if it doesn’t win the Whitbread next month. A moderate sized hat, that is, not a “Devonshire”.
“I think she’s so stunning; she’s so gorgeous,” she sighs, looking at the pouting Gainsborough on the jacket. “It was a labour of love. I was doing it for her. I was out on a Saturday night five times in a year, and I thought, ‘I am wasting my youth. I am not going to get this back.” Now, though, she feels “a great sense of loss” that she no longer has Georgiana’s voice as her companion, an agony alleviated, one supposes, by a hardback sale of 15,000.
Amanda is the daughter of Carl Foreman, the American scriptwriter of High Noon, Young Winston and The Bridge on the River Kwai, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and who died when she was 15. In a way, the book is for him, too.
“I wish I could tell him. He’d be so relieved, because I was such a disaster at school. He gave me the Penguin History of the Stuarts and I said I don’t want to read it; and of course, now I look back and it upsets me so much, and I want to say, ‘Look, I did lots of degrees in history and I wrote a book. . .
Now Arnanda must catch the train for her plane to Scotland for some rout or revel; and I am left brooding on the lessons of Georgiana. Yes, things went badly for her and the Whigs. Fox gave way to Pitt, the stem Tory. The Whig oligarchy disintegrated. She had one passionate affair too many, and was exiled by the Duke.
In one sense, Whiggery is again in the ascendant today. European Union, the ultimate Whig wheeze, proceeds apace. Lord Jerkins, Whig extraordinaire, is cock of the walk. Cabinet ministers behave with the kind of moral laxity that would have boggled Rowlandson. But where is the fun, the glamour? Where is the modem Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire? Fie, la, alack! etc.
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