Spot the historian

Amanda Foreman is better looking than most historians and her book on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – shortlisted for the Whitbread – is pretty good too.

Gibbon set the standard for historians, not least in appearance. “He was ugly, and his features were so overlaid by fat as t be almost grotesque”, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. Nice lex, shame about the face. So an attractive historian causes a bit of a stir – it has the same incongruous appeal as a supermodel with a PhD in astrophysics.

Amanda Foreman has caused just such a stir. The gossip column of the London Evening Standard has developed an unhealthy fixation with her: over the past few months it has called her “fragrant”, “divine” and “luscious”, and declared itself “breathless with excitement” to discover she was looking for a new love in her life. Such encomia were rarely directed at High Trevor-Roper or A J P Taylor.

Foreman’s book, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire has been one of the year’s great publishing successes. It has sold around 15,000 copies: hardly Bridget Jones, but not bad for a book about life, love and politics in late 18th-century England. It has also been shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award, along with John Bayley’s Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch and Ian Kershaw’s Hitler.

When the shortlist was announced, newspaper picture editors had the tricky choice of whether to run a snap of the venerable Bayley, the professorial Kershaw or the “fragrant” Ms. Foreman. No prizes for guessing who won. The Telegraph ran a large colour photograph of her in a black leather jacket, and described her as “mixing history and glamour in her books and her life”. Bayley and Kershaw were nowhere to be seen.

When I met her at her sunny, three-storey house in Fulham, the leather jacket was draped over the chair beside her computer. Foreman is blonde, attractive and outgoing; she laughs off her role as historiographical pin-up. “Nobody likes to be called ugly, but looks are just not relevant,” she explains patiently. “Whatever looks I have now, in 10 years’ time they’ll be gone anyway. Being telegenic is irrelevant; it’s the quality and integrity of the work that counts.”

In explaining her indifference to the media hype, she invokes the example of her father. “In the fifties my father was the golden writer who could do no wrong. Then he was blacklisted, and all he had were the clothes he stood up in. He couldn’t get a cup of tea, let alone a job. That gives you a tremendous sense of what is and what isn’t important. For him, it was maintaining his integrity, being true to himself, not naming names, and working, if necessary under a pseudonym. The rest is ephemera”.

Her father, who crops up repeatedly in our conversation, was the scriptwriter and director Carl Foreman (best known for High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai). He was a victim of McCarthyism in the fifties and left the US for exile in Britain. Foreman married an English woman and had a son and daughter. Amanda was born in 1968. The family lived in London until she was seven, but went back to the US when the UK film industry crashed.

Foreman classes herself as Anglo-American but, growing up, felt out of place in both. Her adolescence was difficult and the death of her father when she was 16 left her feeling bereft. She was seen as a failure and, worse still, saw herself as one. “I failed to thrive at school – I love the way the term “failure to thrive” covers everything – and got poor grades at A-level. As a teenager, this catalogue of failure, culminating in not being able to get into university, is horrible. I spent two years applying and got turned down about 10 times. I didn’t want to fail any more. If my esteem had been any lower, we’d be looking underground for it.”

She found academic salvation at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York. “It is a proudly, fiercely independent alternative college which doesn’t believe in grades or exams,” she says. “There’s no hierarchy. They liked me and took me in; they gave me a chance. Sarah Lawrence is full of misfits. It was such a relief. I had always been the misfit, and that’s so lonely. Loneliness as a child is terrible.”

She studied philosophy at Sarah Lawrence, did a year at Columbia University in New York, and then started a BA in history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She rapidly switched to a postgraduate degree and the rest is history. Literally.

The find of your young life was Georgiana Spencer (note the famous name), who married the fifth Duke of Devonshire, became a major figure in Whig politics, gambled prodigiously, and was part of a complex web of personal and sexual relationships. She had an affair with future prime minister Charles Grey, and lived for a time in a menage-a-trois with her husband and her closest friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster. The book’s publicists played up the linkage between Georgiana’s life and that of her descendant, Princess Diana, but the latter’s was almost prosaic by comparison. Georgiana would never have been off the front page of a late 18th-century Sun.

When Foreman encountered Georgiana, it was love at first sight. “People talk about when they meet their partner or spouse across a crowded room and they just know. Well, I just knew from the moment I read one word that she’d written. I was reading a biography of Charles Grey and it quoted one of her letters. I could just feel she had so much intelligence and it was belied by the descriptions of her. there was such a dissonance between the two, and I was very intrigued by that. She was always mentioned in other books in a dismissive way.”

She embarked on a doctorate and, having done just a year’s research, also secured a book deal with Harper-Collins. Foreman wrote the book – which was adored by the critics – and then set about writing up the thesis (more details, fewer adjectives; more politics, less sex), finally completing it to the examiners’ satisfaction in June.

Writing the book ahead of the thesis is certainly novel, especially when it becomes a bestseller. Was Foreman tempted to see the thesis as, for want of a better word, academic? “Not at all. I wanted the thesis to be accepted as well as the book. They are very different things. I was attacking the separate sphere theory which said that men and women lived in different spheres and that women were denied any access to political, economic or community power. I tried to pull that argument apart and show that there were interlocking spheres. Georgiana was very involved, very much part of the fabric of politics.”

Having been awarded her doctorate, Foreman thinks she can finally bid Georgiana farewell. It feels like a birth and a death rolled into one, and her emotions are complex: “I’ve never loved anyone quite as much as I loved her. And she’s dead, and I haven’t quite got my head around that yet. Two years into the research I could feel myself reaching a decisive point – I could either turn back or carry on. I had to let down some kind of emotional barrier, allow them to take over. It wasn’t just her but all of them. They were occupying the space normally occupied by your friends or your family. Normal life was on hold.

“I’d always felt lonely, but when I was writing the book I didn’t feel that isolation any more. It was like having a different person within me. I was devoted to her and would have done anything she’d wanted me to do. I spent the first two-thirds of my life utterly furious with everything and everybody, and myself especially. I couldn’t express myself and that was driving me crazy. I couldn’t seem to write either. It was only when I started writing Georgiana that the anger went, or that it was channelled properly and it became energy, as opposed to just self-destructive fury,

“But now it feels like I’ve been let out of prison. I remember once driving down the motorway; it was raining, I couldn’t see where I was going, but I thought it’s fine, I can crash the car, I’ve given her life, it doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I felt quite at peace”.

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