How a scandalous eighteenth-century Duchess helped a rebellious twentieth-century scholar understand herself, her father and her times.
By Lynne Tillman
When Amanda Foreman was twenty-four and a graduate student at Oxford University, she came across a letter written by an eighteenth-century English aristocrat, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Foreman had been researching English attitudes about race in the eighteenth-century, but she found herself instantly drawn to Georgiana, the high-spirited young woman who`s arranged marriage to one of the most powerful men in England thrust her into the public eye. “I was struck by her voice; it was so strong, so clear, honest and open that she made everything I subsequently read seem dull by comparison.” She persuaded Oxford to begin a new PhD and for the next five years immersed herself in the life of Georgiana. Foreman read every letter written to her and by her, every relevant diary, biography, memoir and history. The absorbing result of that foray into the past is Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Foreman`s first book, which won England’s prestigious Whitbread Prize for Biography in 1998 and has just been published in America by Random House.
Amanda Foreman is now thirty-one, an attractive and lively young woman. We meet in Greenwich Village on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Walking to the cafe, Amanda excitedly declares she’s just become engaged to be married. “Yesterday,” she murmurs, as if embarrassed to be happy and fortunate. Cafe Loup is empty at 4pm, except for its good-natured, boisterous bartender and a couple of drinkers. We take a table and order tea.
“Tell me about that first letter,” I ask her. “What was it that inspired you?” Amanda pushes her lanky blond hair off her forehead and looks at me earnestly: “It was the letter (to her confidante Lady Melbourne) in which she renounced her great love Charles Grey, to maintain her marriage and keep her children. ‘He has one consolation,’ Georgiana wrote ‘that I have given him up to my children only.’ That letter gave me a glimpse into what it meant to be a mature woman. She was sacrificing everything for her children. She had fought against her instincts in going into this relationship, knew she would always feel guilt, shame, and fear while in it. But then not to allow herself this one opportunity for real happiness…. A lot of women, even today, go through this.”
Amanda emphasizes the word sacrifice. It’s a loaded issue for her, the daughter of the late Carl Foreman, the 1950s blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter of High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, among others. Rather than renounce his principles during the McCarthy period and “name names” cite Communists in Hollywood Carl Foreman fled to England. Amanda was born there, in 1968. (Her father died of cancer when she was sixteen.) His sacrifice marked her life definitively. “I am who I am because of my father’s decision,” she tells me intently. “The blacklist was something I was aware of even before I realized its place in history. I knew my father had fought against something dreadful, that he endured professional and emotional hardship because of his principles. It made him larger than life to me. But I also felt the childish insecurities and fears that accompany such a family history that something dreadful could happen again.”
Diana and Georgiana were both Spencers and both wildly popular with the people.
In fact, Georgiana`s nickname, “Doll Common,” would have been good for Princess Di.
Georgiana’s life had its own full measure of insecurities. In 1791, Georgiana was banished to France by her husband; not only was she carrying the child of her young lover Charles Grey, but her compulsive speculating had caused her to lose a fortune on the stock market. Despite her renunciation of Grey and her pleas to be reunited with her other three children, the Duke refused to allow Georgiana to return to England for two years. (“The Duke must be the only man in England not in love with the Duchess of Devonshire,” an observer had once noted.)
Amanda Foreman grew up with the pain and alienation of exile, watching her father suffer for his beliefs. “Very rarely do children get the feeling that their lives have been shaped because of something that happened to their parents and because of what their parents did. Except in this country, where for all the children of immigrants or Holocaust survivors, the past is so much part of their present. It was very much so in my growing up, making me an outsider, always.” Her family was able to return to Los Angeles when she was seven. “My father was invited back to resume his Hollywood screenwriting career,” Amanda explains, “but I realized that old scores had clearly not been settled. The blacklist was over, but the survivors and perpetrators were coexisting in an uneasy peace.”
“Biographers are notorious for falling in love with their subjects,” she writes in the introduction to the book. “It is the literary equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, the phenomenon which leads hostages to feel sympathetic towards their captors. The biographer is, in a sense, a willing hostage, held captive for so long that he becomes hopelessly enthralled.” And the deep, in some respects irrational, sense of identification Foreman came to feel for her subject invigorated her search for Georgiana. Like Amanda’s father, Georgiana was a player in contentious times. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, encouraged and promoted freedom, rationality, science, revolution, secularism, and individual rights. Georgiana participated fully in its debates. She was a lifelong adherent of the Whigs, England’s constitutional party, which supported the American revolution and was anti slavery. Her own fascinating, complicated career exemplified her era, and though constrained by being a woman, she exploited what freedoms she had.
“Georgiana was on an incredible journey to self-actualization, always in the process of becoming, and only at the end of her life did she finally realize herself,” Amanda says. “But in her early years, she didn’t know who she was, she was not the labels she’d been given: Duchess, society hostess, adulteress. That sent shivers down my back, her joumey I’m drawn to it, inspired by it.’ Amanda is intense, even theatrical. I think about her father and his influence on her. She’s an uncanny blend of a method actor, finding her character, and a methodical historian. To discover Georgiana, Foreman used every aspect of herself. She has unearthed a self-destructive, bold, multitalented, and frustrated woman. Amanda leans across the table: “Sometimes I thought, This is going to kill me, I`m not going to survive this experience, she is sucking out all the life from me. Then I thought, It doesn’t matter, because I`m giving her life. It doesn’t matter what happens to me, because she’s living again. ”
At times Georgiana’s brilliant, chaotic world threatened to overwhelm Amanda’s. “But she is the great love of my life,” Amanda announces passionately. “How does your fiancé feel about that?” I ask. “He understands,” she answers shyly. “When I was twenty-four, I was very angry. It was very hard to be me, so churned up inside. Georgiana gave me a second chance. Finding her, going through her life, living through what she lived through, finding a voice to write, I found a peace I’d never ever felt before.”
Raucous laughter bursts out from the bar. It doesn’t seem to distract Amanda, and suddenly I imagine her in the stacks at the library, madly working for hours on end. Writing such a well researched biography takes enormous discipline, concentration, and clarity. So it is surprising to learn that she was, according to her, “a screwed-up kid,” who did badly at school and nearly didn’t get into college. “It was a miracle I got into university, it took me years. I was always having to retake exams, until I got to Sarah Lawrence. I’m very grateful to them and to one professor especially, Fred Smoler. I was such a mess, then four years later I felt much better. My older brother had always been the wonder boy, and you know how siblings always take roles he was academically successfull, and I took the role of being the troubled one.”
Georgiana must have comforted Foreman by providing a different troubled universe against which to compare her own, one long ago but not really so remote. Georgiana’s life had all the elements of a made-for-TV movie. Apart from being an adulterer and a compulsive gambler, she was a behind-the-scenes political figure, fashion-setter, trendmaker, and secret novelist. She was caught up in sexual and emotional liaisons and conspiracies beside which the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal pales. “The aristocracy lived hypocrisy,” Amanda says. “If you get caught, you’re a non person, but do anything you like so long as you don’t.”
The parallels to the late Princess Diana were seized upon by the British press when the book was published in England. Diana and Georgiana were relatives, both Spencers, and both wildly popular with the people. Both married into great wealth, power, and loveless unions, and lived their lives under the proverbial microscope. “It was very much seen as taking the lid off aristocratic life,” Amanda says, “and the English were fascinated by that, what went on behind the curtains. But I never once thought about Diana when writing the book. It was only after her death that it struck me how Georgiana’s celebrity and the psychological deformations that engendered-was a fascinating prototype of the modern variety. What the English didn’t really think about are the women’s issues.”
Her biography of Georgiana is a tale about smart, ambitious women who cannot control their destinies and become entangled in each other’s mostly futile efforts at happiness. “These women are killing themselves in their attempt to make something of themselves,” Amanda says with fervor. Furious at the limits imposed on her, Georgiana rebelled all her life. Her compulsive gambling was a nightly adventure at risking everything. “Georgiana couldn’t control her mother, her husband, but in this one area she could feel a kind of psychic compensation.” Amanda speaks fast, and now even more quickly, the words rushing out of her mouth like breath. “But it’s the moment when she’s most out of control; that’s the paradox. Gambling was an expression of her rage. That’s why she’s always penitent. She cannot express her anger consciously, so she does it unconsciously.”
Georgiana’s dearest friend was Bess, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Within a few months of their meeting, the Duke of Devonshire took Bess as his mistress, and Georgiana shared the Duke with her for nearly twenty years in a ménage à trois that was highly unusual, even among the aristocracy. Despite Georgiana’s own anxiety over the arrangement, she eventually gave everything to Bess, with whom she had a fiercely committed, mysterious relationship. Although Foreman found no evidence that the relationship between the two women was overtly sexual, their expressions of love for each other were clearly charged and erotic. “But Bess didn’t have Georgiana’s wealth or her personality or capacity for friendship,” Amanda tells me. “She would’ve destroyed Georgiana if Georgiana hadn’t loved her so much.” In a letter to Bess, Georgiana once wrote, “Do you hear the voice of my heart crying to you? Do you feel what it is for me tobe separated from you……”
Much of what Georgiana did was hidden, her role in politics played off-stage in subtle pleadings and manipulations. Yet her addiction to gambling was witnessed by society, and the neurosis that produced it contradicted the reasonable mind of her letters, with their measured tone, sense and sensibility (this was also the age of Jane Austen). Her enormous debts weighed heavily upon her, forcing her to imperil herself by lying to her husband and to write begging letters to friends. Unbelievably, she always gambled away what she borrowed. To the contemporary reader, Georgiana’s modernity resides as much if not more in her vices as in her virtues.
The biography is, in a sense, one part epistolary, making use of the letters to bring us Georgiana’s actual voice. The letters show her acute self-consciousness, capacity for self-criticism, and political savvy. “There’s one she wrote in which she said, ‘I can’t say no. I never say no to anybody even when I know I’m being used.’ She pathologically wanted people to like her.”
Her mother Lady Spencer’s letters to her, thefemale equivalent of Lord Chesterfield`s letters to his son, were episodes of harsh criticism and advice. Georgiana answered each dutifully and affectionately. “I love her mother,” says Amanda, with amusement. “She’s terrible, but her motives were good. She loved her daughters. But she’s so critical, not allowing them to be adults, too busy telling them what`s wrong.” Ironically, her mother`s overzealous scrutiny was one of the reasons Georgiana hungered to achieve and be accepted in arenas not considered, even in that liberal time, suitable for women.
Georgiana “hoped to be a faithful historian of the secret history of the times”. She certainly knew how to use the media. “She was a master of political propaganda,” Amanda says emphatically, “designing Whig uniforms and hats, organizing parades or a gala with a hot-air balloon.” Indeed, the Duchess’s home, Devonshire House, was the Whig Party’s salon, with Georgiana its reigning political hostess. She even, in 1784, campaigned on the street, getting out the Whig vote. “The Duchess of Devonshire has been canvassing in a most masculine manner and has met with much abuse,” wrote a disapproving Mrs Montagu. Propagandists on the other side “linked Georgiana’s genius for the ‘common touch’ with being common, hence her nickname of ‘Doll Common`.” Doll Common would have been a good name for Princess Di, too. Like Diana, Georgiana’s reputation rested on rumor and innuendo and was at odds with how she saw herself, her inner life, and deeply held beliefs.
Behind Amanda Foreman’s desire to bring the true Georgiana to the world, and her identification with Georgiana’s struggles for self-realization, lies her father’s legacy to her. “When I was growing up,” she says, “I spent my entire time rebelling against him, and a lot of his good words fell on dry ground. He wanted me to be a self-motivated, self-governing individual but it is hard to explain that to a fourteen-year-old. He had to hope that his words would make sense after his death which they finally did.” They now animate her, and her book about Georgiana is touchingly dedicated to him. “My father could not bear social injustice. He believed passionately in the ideals expressed in the U.S. Constitution. He was an ardent patriot; his work expressed a righteous anger at socity`s failure to defend the rights of the individual.” Not coincidentally, Amanda is now writing a book about the British who came to America to fight in our Civil War on both sides.
Amanda herself has come back to America, to live, write, and marry. But, I tease her, you’re still something of a rebel. What about the fuss over your posing nude in the Tatler. She laughs. “Oh, that was in an issue called ‘The Smart Young 100.’ Twenty people were each asked to pose ‘with your bare necessities.’ I was photographed behind a stack of my books you couldn’t see a thing.”
It occurs to me that one way to think about Amanda naked behind a stack of books is that after years of living inside someone else’s skin, it was time to get back into her own. In revivifying Georgiana, Amanda Foreman seems to have found her way home.