The First Celebrity – An interview with Amanda Foreman published by Harper Collins ©
Amanda Foreman quite literally grew up amid her father’s film sets (she is the daughter of Carl Foreman) and is today a research fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written for various publications, including the New York Times, and her first book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire became an immediate bestseller.
What was it about Amanda Foreman’s account of the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales that so captured the hearts and minds of the British public last year? Well, it could be that the book was “mesmerizing” (Literary Review), or that it was “well-written, extensively researched and highly readable” (Stella Tillyard, Mail on Sunday) or perhaps that this was simply “an outstanding debut by a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy and elegant writing style” (Roy Strong, Sunday Times). And all of this is absolutely true.
But does it tell you everything? This month Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is published for the first time in paperback and, once again, it’s flying high on the bestseller charts. And if you ask Amanda Foreman why she thinks Georgiana has struck such a chord with us, she has a typically modest but interesting answer. “I think that people are always interested to see prototypes,” she explains, “to see the origins of things – because it gives us a perspective on our own lives. And that’s what Georgiana is: she’s the prototype of the celebrity.”
Amanda is something of a celebrity herself, and is currently touring the UK. But if you can’t wait, then read on, because Amanda took time out in the midst of her busy schedule to tell us more about the book.
When and how did your interest in Georgiana begin?
“I was a graduate student at Oxford and had just started my doctorate on attitudes to race and colour in late Eighteenth-Century London. As part of my research I was reading a biography of Charles Grey, who, as a young man, proposed the motion to abolish the slave trade. The biography also referred to his tragic love affair with Georgiana and quoted some of her letters to him. But the way the biographer referred to her, dismissing her as some inconsequential, rather sad figure, contrasted – and I felt wrongly – with the brilliance of her letters. And from then on I just kept thinking about her, convinced that someone was wrong, and that this woman whose words had so moved me had clearly been mistreated. I started to neglect my thesis to the extent that one day I realised that I’d spent six months reading about Georgiana and doing nothing on my doctorate at all! So I went to the authorities and threw myself on my knees and said please, please will you let me change my subject and write about her? Fortunately for me, they agreed.”
What was it about her, what were the qualities that first captured your interest and excited you enough to make you want to write about her life?
“In her letters there was this incredible immediacy and openness that was very rare; almost as if, in reading the letters, she was in the room with you, speaking to you. It was just an overpowering feeling that I’d never really come across before. And as well as this incredible directness was an equal sense of vulnerability. Even from this distance, I could feel her wanting us to like her.”
Can you tell us a little more about the description you give in your introduction to the book, that “the impression of being an invisible, perhaps even an uninvited spectator, remained throughout my research …’?”
“Well, it’s like being a spy Polonius behind the arras and it’s a very strange feeling because you really are sifting through someone else’s belongings. I certainly felt a tremendous responsibility that I had to get it right. Having invaded Georgiana’s space and her territory, I would be committing a terrible sin if I was then ever cavalier or lazy or unthoughtful.”
What is the relationship between biographer and subject? Did you grow close to Georgiana as a person?
“Very, very close; I used to have really long one-sided conversations with her for months and months and months. But the funny thing is that people always surprise you, and even when I guessed something correctly, I tended to put it down to luck. That’s the thing about people, of course; no matter how well you think you know them, you don’t, because they don’t even know themselves. We are all so guilty of self-deception, how can anybody know us?”
Did you ever feel the past around you and inspiring you in places such as Chatsworth where Georgiana had lived and breathed or is that just a romantic fallacy?
“It’s true. I never used to believe it was possible until I went to Althorp. By that time I was almost three quarters of the way through the book. I’d done all the research and it was nearing the end, and I suddenly thought, – This is insane, I haven’t been to Althorp yet!’ And it was only after going there and seeing where she grew up that I suddenly understood her childhood. It had a very powerful effect on me and I added two new chapters to the book and rewrote the beginning. Yes, it had a huge impact on me.”
We often make the mistake of forgetting that a biography such as yours covers a whole life and that people change over the course of a lifetime. Was Georgiana the same woman at, say her marriage as she was at her death?
“No, I think she was completely different. And that’s why I think her life rings so true for us in a modern time. It’s because she was on a lifelong quest for self-realisation and self-fulfilment. She started out really quite hollow with no self confidence, no understanding of who she really was, and it took her an entire lifetime to become solid inside. And so at the end of her life she was really a very different person – she’d gained self-knowledge. She really is someone who started out with very little and ended up with an awful lot.”
Would Georgiana have been so memorable had she not had the Devonshire estates and finances behind her?
“I think the answer is yes. I really believe that some people are just destined to be stars, they’re born with star qualities; they always have it and they can’t help it. And I think Georgiana came into her own towards the end of her life, when she was heavily involved in politics, negotiating the Ministry of all the Talents, and getting that coalition together. You see, what she really wanted to be was a politician, and her skill was extraordinary. So I think, in some ways, those final years were the happiest and most fulfilled of her life, despite physical pain, illness and old age. I also think that people are always interested to see prototypes to see the origins of things because it gives us a perspective on our own lives. And that’s what Georgiana is: she’s the prototype of the celebrity, and that’s what makes her so fascinating.”
The Duchess of Devonshire appeared on Saturday at Drury Lane Theatre in a mob cap; Her Grace, ever since her initiation into the business of electioneering, has been much attached to mobs. To what extent were the worlds of politics and fashion one and the same in the latter part of the eighteenth century?
“They were very interrelated. Britain was so small at the time that the same 10,000 people who were in politics were also the arbiters of taste, the leaders of society and the connoisseurs of art. They all interacted. The thing is, we forget that politics is not just about the Bills and the debating on the floor. Even if you look at party politics today, we’re always talking about what’s going on behind the scenes, who’s falling out with whom, which alliances are working, who is close to Tony Blair, who has his ear … that kind of thing. And for the Whigs, the behind-the-scenes was particularly important. If you weren’t in power it was even more important that you be fashionable – you had to have something to attract people to you!”
Georgiana’s very passionate relationships have always been subject to some questioning. But do you think anyone ever gave her back the depth of love that she was capable of expending on those closest to her?
“That’s an extremely interesting question, and I think not. She was a very passionate woman, and when she gave she really did give everything. And in a way, I think it’s one of her great tragedies that she had such a big heart. On the one hand, that’s what made people love her, but it also brought her terrific pain because almost no one could match her passion.
I think she realised very early on that being a public figure meant that whenever she met anybody, she had to be charming to them; her fame gave her responsibilities towards those who met her and it was important to them that she liked them. What they didn’t realise was that she was desperate to be liked back. And very, very few people were able to give back to her in the measurement she gave out.”
When you look at Georgiana, are there things you would want to change about her, things that irritate you, or make you want to beg her not to do this, that or the other …?
“Well, there were certain times when I would just feel terrible for her; when I realised, for example, that she’d made some awful mistake. But there’s that saying: to know all is to forgive all, and once you see both the strengths and limitations of her character you realise that the dreadful mistakes she’s making are a product of that particular personality. What’s fascinating is that men and women react very differently to her. Men often think that she is too neurotic, but women always identify with Georgiana’s struggle – her struggle to be true to herself in what was (and still is today) a man’s world. That is what people always identify with.”
© Harper Collins 1999