WSJ Historically Speaking: The Bad Idea of Daylight-Saving Time



Every November, a great theft is perpetrated against hundreds of millions of innocent people. They are robbed of an hour of afternoon sunlight by the government decree that divides the year into standard and daylight-saving time. The switch to standard time occurs precisely at the wrong moment, when the days are already growing shorter.

The arguments used to justify the DST arrangement always employ the language of cost, savings and safety. But, as the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once observed: “At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

It was in the 14th century that humanity was liberated from relying on the sun or water for telling the time. In place of sundials and water clocks came the wonder of mechanical devices that worked independently of cloudy days and freezing weather.
The oldest working clock in the world is said to be the hourly clock in Salisbury Cathedral in the west of England. Designed in 1386 to strike a single bell on the hour every hour, it was built with one purpose in mind: to bring people closer to God by reminding them of service times. For the medieval peasant and noble alike, time wasn’t the handmaiden of money but an expression of religious faith. Continue reading…

A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman


books0703gallagherWinner of the Fletcher Pratt Award for Civil War History

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award

The New York Times Top Ten Books of 2011

Named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune, The Economist, Nancy Pearl, NPR,, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly


Though with the North we sympathize
It must not be forgotten
That with the South we’ve stronger ties
Which are composed of cotton
Punch, 30 March, 1861

It is said that the closeness of siblings can be measured by the intensity of their fights. During the first one hundred years, Britain and the US were almost always arguing about something. Trade, maritime rights, and boundary disputes were the chief tinderlights; a spark from each had the capacity to send troops running to the barricades. Much good such martial spirits did for the belligerents. The war of 1812 ended ignominiously for both sides: the British Army suffered a stunning defeat at New Orleans, but not before it had seized Washington and set fire to the White House.

American anglophobia, already high, increased after 1812. It was positively unhealthy to be suspected of pro-British leanings. Every decade saw some fresh dispute. During the 1840s the quarrel centered on territory, in the 50s a friendly discussion over colonial ambitions in Central America turned into sour recriminations. Yet the two countries were each other’s best customers.

Southern cotton and Northern wheat fired up British factories and fed her workers. In return, manufactured goods and financial investment poured in to a hungry economy that was increasing faster than its population. (Between 1840 and 1860 America doubled from seventeen to thirty-two million.) The South grew richer and more genteel, while the North grew bigger and more powerful as artisans turned into workers, and entrepreneurs became bankers or industrialists. A vast network of railroads, partly financed by British capital, connected the North in a lattice of commerce. By 1860 an English oak dining table could be unloaded in New York on Monday and set for lunch in Chicago on Wednesday.

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The same ease of transport enabled British immigrants to avoid the fetid slums of New York and seek a new life in any of the thirty-four states and seven territories of America. There were Englishmen in the New England mills and on the Texas homesteads, Cornishmen in the Wisconsin lead minds, Welshmen in the Ohio collieries, and Scots in the Vermont Quarries and Carolina plantations. Unlike the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish, who clustered in conspicuous communities in the North, the British tended to integrate very quickly. In the North their sentiments were largely pro-Union and vehemently anti-slavery, while below the Mason-Dixon line they sided with the majority in favour of secession. During his tour of the South, the Times correspondent, Sir William Russell, was surprised to see what a difference a few miles could make to the moral opinions of his compatriots. Among the most articulate defenders of slavery were some of the, ‘British residents, English, Irish and Scotch, who have settled here for trading purposes, and who are frequently slave-holders. These men have no state rights to uphold, but they are convinced of the excellence of things as they are…’

As the bickering between the North and South turned into bitterness, southerners took great satisfaction in pointing out that the world depended on its cotton. In 1858 the loud-voiced Senator from South Carolina, James H. Hammond, spelled it out to a silent Congress. No one dared say no to the South, he declared, not even mighty Britain. Deprived of cotton she, ‘would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war on it. Cotton is King.’

The war officially began on 12 April 1861, when the South Carolina artillery pounded the tiny Federal garrison out of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. Understandably, news of the engagement roused secessionism to a fever pitch among southerners. They were absolutely convinced of two things: that the North did not have the stomach for a fight, and that Britain would recognize their independence. They were wrong on both counts.

London remained loudly silent. The government was inclined to recognise the South, but not at the cost of becoming involved in the war. It feared losing southern cotton, and yet did not wish to prop-up a slave economy. The British press, however, suffered no such doubts. Editorials applauded Lincoln and denounced the South as ‘bullies’. The rush of volunteers in the free states added excitement to the reports crossing the Atlantic. These were heady although precarious times. The Secretary of State, William H. Seward, bluntly told Russell, that the North would fight Britain too, if she attempted to interfere. ‘We shall not shrink from it,’ he warned. ‘A contest between the Great Britain and the United States would wrap the world in fire.’

When Britain revealed her hand in May 1861, North and South were equally enraged. Queen Victoria issued a Proclamation of Strict Neutrality. This was far less than what the South had expected, and far more than the North would tolerate. Strict Neutrality recognised the South as a legitimate fighting entity, but also the North’s right to blockade her ports. Britain considered this a fair compromise. But the North considered it tantamount to a recognition of Southern independence. A leading Northern Senator pronounced it ‘the most hateful act of English history since the time of Charles II’.

In theory the Proclamation prohibited British subjects from enlisting in either military service, from violating the Northern blockade, and from fitting out or equipping Union or Confederate vessels for warlike purposes. In practice, people did exactly as they pleased. In the first months of the war, officers, soldiers and ordinary civilians left in droves for America. They joined a mass exodus that included thousands of Germans, Irish and other Europeans. Later, as the Northern blockade increased, Britain also furnished an unofficial navy of blockade runners. ‘Firm after firm,’ recalled an English blockade runner, ‘with an entirely clear conscience, set about endeavouring to recoup itself for the loss of legitimate trade by the high profits to be made out of successful evasions of the Federal cruisers.’ At the height of the war, between 1862-4, Liverpool exhibited an energy and spirit not seen since the bustling days of the Slave Tra de. Seamen who supported the Confederacy scratched the figure of a turkey into the lintels of their houses, a few of which survive to this day.

Altogether, some 50,000 British men and women participated in the war. The South, already disappointed by Britain’s refusal to grant recognition, deeply resented the influx of foreigners who filled the ranks of the Union army. However, as we shall see, it too attracted a sizable number. Moreover, it was the grit and tenacity of the British blockade runners which enabled the Confederate army to enter the field with more than bowie knives. The problem for the South was not a lack of rifles but the dwindling supply of men.
The British involvement in the Civil War has always been a sensitive subject. At the time, Northerners accused Britain of complicity; Southerners, of betrayal. The bitterness engendered by the war no longer taints Anglo-American relations. However, grudging acceptance has come at the cost of historical amnesia. The British who fought alongside Union and Confederate soldiers have disappeared from the picture. With them, the world they inhabited, an Anglo-American world bound by shared ideals, shared dreams and shared kin, has disappeared too.
As cousins by culture and yet strangers by nature, these British adventurers are unrivaled historical witnesses. Moreover, their perspective as both the parent and rival of American civilisation, their experiences of immigration and integration, their understanding of the outsider’s struggle, makes them a talisman for the present. There has never been a book about the bloody pas-de-deux between these closest of strangers.

Historians have, of course, written diplomatic histories of the war; made studies of foreign volunteers; exposed the extent of Federal and Confederate espionage in Britain, described the Confederate naval operations in England, and examined the international reporting of the conflict. But no one – understandably, given the breadth and depth of the research required – has ever drawn all the facets together into a multi-stranded narrative of the Anglo-American world during the Civil War.

A World on Fire’ began as a study of the British volunteers. But eight years of research revealed a vast cyclorama, an immersion of humanity, that demanded its own epic telling. The British volunteers provided a wealth of unique histories. But it was only by placing each one within and alongside the biographies of their neighbour, their enemy, their army, their government, and ultimately the war itself, did the many and the one achieve a synthesis of meaning.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 22 of A World on Fire, ”Crossroads at Gettysburg,” pages 486-497

Dawson watched as 14,000 Confederate soldiers assembled in the woods. One division, led by the ringletted George Pickett, was almost exclusively Virginian. Prayers were read to the brigades, as though the men were receiving the last rites. ‘This is a desperate thing to attempt,’ Dawson heard one of the brigadier generals remark. ‘Just then,’ Dawson continued, ‘a hare which had been lying in the bushes, sprang up and leaped rapidly to the rear. A gaunt Virginian, with an earnestness that struck a sympathetic chord in many a breast, yelled out: “Run old heah; if I were an old heah I would run too.”’

The Federals could not see the Confederates massing in the woods across from them. ‘From our position the eye ranged over a wide expanse of uneven country, fields broken by woods, showing nowhere any signs of an army movement, much less of conflict,’ Charles Francis Adams Jr. wrote in his memoirs. Even at the height of the battle, Gettysburg seemed pleasingly pastoral: ‘a quiet, midsummer, and champagne country. Nei- ther our lines nor those of the enemy were visible to us; and the sounds of battle were hushed.’ When the Confederate artillery fire began, Charles Francis Jr. and the survivors of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry had been lying on the grass, near their horses, while they waited for orders. The thick heat and soft buzzing of insects acted as a kind of sop- orific. ‘Lulled by the incessant roar of the cannon,’ he recorded, ‘while the fate of the army and the nation trembled in the balance, at the very crisis of the great conflict, I dropped quietly asleep. It was not heroic; but it was . . . war.’

Forty-seven Confederate regiments spaced a mile apart began advancing across the 1,400-yard field which lay in front of Cemetery Ridge. Francis Lawley – too ill to climb the tree himself – shouted up to Justus Scheibert to describe the charge to him. The Prussian started a running commentary, full of technical descriptions, prompting Lawley to bellow at him in frustration to use layman’s terms, but Scheibert was at a loss for further words, having never witnessed such butchery. The closer the Confederates stumbled towards the concave Federal line the easier tar- gets they presented. Fremantle entered the wood where Pickett’s division had gathered only a few minutes before. Federal shells were bringing down huge tree limbs, and yet the wood was full of grey-clad soldiers, ‘in numbers as great as the crowd in Oxford Street in the middle of the day’. Then he saw that every single one was wounded.

The woodland scene confused Fremantle. When he found Longstreet, who was sitting on a rail at the edge of the wood, he made an exception- ally thoughtless comment. ‘Thinking I was just in time to see the attack,’ he wrote contritely, ‘I remarked to the General that “I wouldn’t have missed this for any thing.”’ Longstreet gave a hollow laugh,‘“The Devil you wouldn’t! I would like to have missed it very much; we’ve attacked and been repulsed; look there!”’28 Longstreet asked wearily for a drink and Fremantle offered him a sip of rum from his flask. Scattered in heaps and fragments below were nearly 7,000 Confederate soldiers. George Pickett had lost two-thirds of his division, including all thirteen colonels. ‘I suppose that I was the first man to whom Pickett spoke when he reached the line,’ wrote Francis Dawson. ‘With tears in his eyes, he said to me: “Why did you not halt my men here? Great God, where, oh! where is my division?” I told him that he saw around him what there was left of it.’

Read the comprehensive bibliography for A World on Fire here.

Read the comprehensive bibliography for A World on Fire. To download the comprehensive bibliography for A World on Fire, please click the following links:

“History as a Cecil B. DeMille epic…One puts down A World on Fire with a sense of awe.” —The Boston Globe

“Thrilling narrative on a grand scale.” —History Today

“[A] remarkable book…an extraordinary cast.” — The New York Times Book Review

“[A] magisterial history.” —Newsweek

The New Yorker – 1 August 2011
Over There” by Hendrik Hertzberg
Amanda Foreman’s “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” (Random House; $35) broadens the scope. Her story is more than an eye-opening corrective to American insularity. It is an immensely ambitious and immensely accomplished—and just plain immense—work of narrative art. At a third of a million words sprawled over nearly a thousand pages, “A World on Fire” is not far south of “War and Peace.” Yet the pages fly like the wind—like “Gone with the Wind”—because there’s so much life, so much action, and so many vivid people in them.

The Wall Street Journal – 25 June 2011
When Cotton Wasn’t King” by Michael Burlingame
Amanda Foreman’s well-researched and highly readable “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War” examines why the British government never did recognize the Confederacy. Ms. Foreman, the author of the best-selling biography “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” (1999), is such an engaging writer that readers may find this 958-page volume too short. She supplements the traditional scholarly approach to British-American relations with an array of testimony from dozens of British witnesses to and participants in the Civil War. Their diaries, letters, reminiscences and newspaper reports provide insights into the war that differ from similar accounts by Americans, who perforce could not achieve the detached perspective of foreigners.

Guardian – 27 November 2010
A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided by Amanda Foreman“” by Jay Parini
Amanda Foreman leapt into public view with her Whitbread-prizewinning portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, in 1999, proving herself a storyteller of lavish gifts, a writer with an eye for the telling biographical detail who could also portray society at large – in that case the world of late-18th-century aristocrats in Britain and France. More than a decade later, she has delivered a massive work of considerable artistry, which tells the complex and riveting tale of British involvement in the American civil war.

More reviews here.

Virtual Book Signing – 2 November 2012
Abraham Lincoln Book Shop – Chicago, IL
Host Daniel Weinberg speaks to Amanda Foreman about her book A World on Fire.

The New York Historical Society – 8 November 2011
The Civil War: Great Britain’s Role

Ohio University – 31 January 2012
The George Washington Forum on American Ideas, Politics, and Institutions
Amanda Foreman speaks to an audience at Ohio University about her inspiration for writing A World on Fire.

C-Span – 15 July 2011
BookTV: After Words
Amanda Foreman discusses her book A World on Fire with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner.

CBS Boston – 8 July 2011
NightSide: Amanda Foreman, Author of “A World On Fire” Discusses The American Civil War

The Oldie – 7 June 2011
Oldie Literary Lunch
Amanda Foreman speaks to an audience of The Oldie magazine readers about A World on Fire and the discovery that led her to the subject while she was researching for Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

C-Span – 26 March 2011
The Lincoln Conference, Washington DC
Britain’s Response to the Emancipation Proclamation


5 x 15 – 18 April 2011
Amanda Foreman @ 5 x 15

George IV by Christopher Hibbert


The prevailing view of George IV was entirely negative until Hibbert’s sympathetic biography revealed a gifted individual whose harsh upbringing and personal weaknesses conspired to ruin his potential. It was also the prince’s misfortune to fall into the hands of the brilliant but dissolute Whigs. The Duchess of Devonshire, Charles James Fox, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan were indeed a “School for Scandal.” But while they eventually grew into sadder and wiser middle-age, the prince never matured past adolescence.

George IV’s pathological self-indulgence turned him into a buffoon, blinding critics then and now to his contribution towards Britain’s cultural heritage. Many of London’s most beautiful buildings owe their genesis to this much maligned king. As Hibbert argues, no other monarch cared so passionately about art and architecture.

Eschewing the obvious for the nuanced, Hibbert rescued George IV from the clowns’ corner to restore him to his true, tragic glory.

Amanda Foreman

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“Christopher Hibber’s George IV is at once soundly based on research in the Royal Archives at Windsor and a rollicking good read. I found it invaluable when I was researching The Unruly Queen, my life of George IV’s wife Queen Caroline, and I recommend it to anyone interested in George IV’s flamboyant and outrageous personality.”
Flora Fraser, author of Princesses and The Unruly Queen

“This is one of the most satisfying biographies of an English king: it is ample, convincing and well written.”
Times Literary Supplement

In this definitive biography of George IV, Christopher Hibbert delivers a superbly detailed picture of the life and times of England’s rebel king. From his exorbitant spending on his homes, his clothes, his women; throughout his patronage of the arts; his “illegal” marriage to Catholic Mrs. Fitzherbert; and lesser known facts such as his generous charity donations, George IV led a rich and enchanting life. Hibbert also revives George IV’s many witty one-liners, including one he uttered when he met his bride-to-be (Caroline of Brunswick) for the first time: “Harris, I am not well, fetch me a brandy”.

Christopher Hibbert, “ a pearl of biographers” (New Statesman), was born in 1924 and educated at Radley and Oxford. He is the beloved author of many highly acclaimed books, including The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, The English: A Social History, and Cavaliers and Roundheads. He lives in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.

Amanda Foreman is the author of The New York Times best-seller Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography, and is currently writing about the American Civil War. She lives in New York.

Copyright© 2008 Christopher Hibbert

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What Might Have Been by Andrew Roberts

Throughout history, great and terrible events have often hinged upon sheer luck. Tiny changes to great enterprises can produce profoundly different results. We all ask ‘what might have been?’ about our own lives, now Andrew Roberts has assembled a team of twelve leading historians and biographers and asked them what might have happened if major world events had gone differently?

Each concentrating in the area in which they are a leading authority, historians as distinguished as Antonia Fraser, Norman Stone and Anne Somerset look at vital moments of history and consider: ‘What Might Have Been?’

In her first publication since her acclaimed Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman looks at what might have happened if Lincoln’s Northern States of America and Lord Palmerston’s Great Britain had gone to war, as they so nearly did in 1861. Whether it’s Stalin fleeing Moscow in 1941, as imagined by Simon Sebag Montefiore, or Napoleon not being forced to retreat from it in 1812, as recorded by Adam Zamoyski, the events covered here are important, world-changing ones.

George W. Bush’s former White House advisor David Frum considers a President Al Gore’s response to 9/11, while Simon Heffer posits a Heseltine premiership had Margaret Thatcher been assassinated by the I.R.A. in Brighton. Conrad Black wonders how the United States might have entered the Second World War if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor.

All twelve essays are thought-provoking and scholarly, some of them posit a fascinating and often horrifying parallel universe – a universe that so easily just might have been.


‘This is counter-factual history at its best – drawing fresh but informed conclusions from perfectly credible errors. Stimulating, provocative and playful, What Might Have Been is everything one looks for in a collection of essays.’
Graham Stewart, Literary Review

‘The main object of these essays is to entertain, and they do so handsomely. This book is a hymn to the accidental and the erratic. Look on these works, ye Determinists and Dialectical Materialists, and at least consider the possibility that you might not be entirely right.’
Philip Ziegler, Daily Telegraph

Moments when the fates of nations seem to turn on the roll of a die, haunt the minds of the twelve writers assembled for this intriguing and entertaining anthology.’
Andrew Holgate, Sunday Times

What Might Have Been is the latest of a series of volumes in which a gifted team of authors envisages alternative historical scenarios. As has become the custom of the genre,20some of the contributors submit sober and measured assessments, while others spot a chance for playfulness.’
Blair Worden, Sunday Telegraph

‘All twelve essays are good fun, and the will make the reader think – and that is, after all, what all good history, ‘factual’ or ‘counterfactual’, should be about.’
T.G. Otte, Times Literary Supplement

Copyright© 2008 Andrew Roberts

Georgiana’s World by Amanda Foreman

6As one of the most flamboyant and influential women of the late 18th century, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was an icon of her time. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she married the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774; within a short space of time she had become the undisputed queen of fashionable society, adored by the Prince Regent, an intimate of Marie-Antoinette, an influential Whig hostess and a darling of the common people. Yet for all her aura of public glamour, Georgiana’s personal life was fraught with suffering brought on by her compulsive gambling, which led to insurmountable debts and ignominy, and her search for love, which caused misery and exile.

“Georgiana’s World” is the illustrated version of Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography, “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”, and brings a fresh perspective to her life and times. Filled with images of the people and places she actually knew, a series of special features explore such aspects of 18th-century life as aristocracy.

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The Sylph by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

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Georgiana’s extraordinary influence on fashion first became noticeable during the ‘feather headdress affair’. These were three-foot ostrich feather headdress which she imported from Paris. They were so scarce in England that fashionable women resorted to bribing undertakers for their horses’ plumage. The following year, in 1775, Georgiana initiated the craze for extravagant hair towers of preposterous designs. One day she would appear sporting a pastoral tableau, complete with miniature wooden sheep; the next she might wear a nautical theme with storm-tossed ships and sailors artfully placed among the curls. Later on, she introduced the ‘picture hat’ and, in 1783, again transformed women’s fashion with the free-flowing muslin dress that was simply tied by a ribbon around the waist. There was the ‘Devonshire brown,’ a ‘Devonshire hair powder’, even a ‘Devonshire minuet’ which Georgiana created with Vestris, the leading dancer of the day.

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Madame de Pompadou by Nancy Mitford, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

Madame de PompadorAt eight o’clock one morning, the Comte de Maurepas, Louis XVth’s Minister of the Navy, was called from his bed to receive a Royal messenger. Maurepas did not even bother to read the letter handed to him. Its timing, and the Royal seal on the back, could mean only one thing. His long-running battle with the Marquise de Pompadour, the King’s official mistress, was over. Maurepas dressed, gave directions to his servants, and then set off to begin his rustic exile far, far away from Versailles. Such was the definite and unyielding power of the Marquise.

It says something about the two countries, that in Britain we admire our ruling Queens while in France they celebrate their royal mistresses. It was the French, after all, who invented the word chauvinism. Indeed, the idea of legitimate female power never crossed the Channel. There was no legal provision for a daughter to inherit the throne. And, as for royal consorts, they were foreigners and therefore deeply under suspicion. Nevertheless, what was officially denied to the Kings’ wives was unofficially granted in abundance to the women who held the post of ‘maitresse en titre’. Of this select group, the most dazzling was Madame de Pompadour. It is no wonder that she is the inspiration behind two museum exhibitions, at the Wallace Collection and the National Gallery. During her twenty year tenure, the very best of French culture either flowed out of her largesse or came to her door.

The Marquise was not unique in her encouragement for the arts. Of the seven great mistresses of Versailles, only one was profoundly if not stubbornly middlebrow. This was Madame du Barry, the last maitresse en titre of France, who escaped to England before the Revolution only to return at its height and, not surprisingly, end up on the guillotine. The others all took great pride in their role as benefactors of the arts. Racine and Moliere, the finest playwrights of the seventeenth century, were just two of the many who owed their success not to Louis XIV but to his mistresses. And, while it is true that a number of second-rate artists also received encouragement it must be remembered that the mistresses belonged to a class which considered itself above such bourgeois things as expertise.

Mme de Pompadour, however, was an unusual woman in this respect. Although she had conquered the aristocracy, she did not belong to it. There was no disguising the fact, and nor did she try, that her family was middle class. Her upbringing, therefore, was different from her peers. She knew many writers and intellectuals before her elevation to maitresse, and among her best friends was the philosopher Voltaire. She supported and promoted him, even though he infuriated the King by doing things that no Courtier would dare, such as grabbing his arm or interrupting his conversation.

But it was de Pompadour’s mastery of her position rather than her salon which impressed Versailles. The maitresse en titre was expected fulfill a set of clearly defined duties. Every waking hour had a purpose. When she was not amusing the King, there were hundreds of requests to answer, plans to execute, and scores to be settled. Although most tourists came away thinking that life at Court was simply about pleasure, its one thousand occupants knew better. The palace had not changed since the Sun King, Louis XVth’s great-grandfather had made it the primary residence of the Court. Under his baleful eye, Versailles evolved into a terrifying, competitive place where honesty and kindness were rare and exotic qualities. The aristocracy only put up with Versailles’s miserable accommodation because the alternative meant being an outcast. They were little better than serfs in silk and, behind the bows and curtsies, was a deadly struggle for the King’s favour.

Since real power, meaning access to the King, lay not with the Queen but with the maitresse en titre, the whole of Versailles buzzed around the Royal Mistress like bees in a hive. During her tenure she was the focus of attention, constantly flattered, constantly importuned, and constantly in danger from her enemies. The rules governing Versailles were solipsistic and arcane. Like all closed societies, it thrived on nuances which are second nature to the initiated and hidden traps for the unwary. It was the height of bad manners, for example, to use the familiar ‘tu’ instead of the formal ‘vous’ in front of the King. Husbands and wives, siblings, old friends all had to address each other as if for the first time. Royal etiquette was so complicated that Mme de Pompadour’s presentation at Court required several months of preparation. The dress, the walk, the curtsey, even her choice of words: on every minute action teetered a lifetime of ridicule. Knowing this, she went to the country and practiced until she was ready.

However, it was not enough that the Maitresse know how to behave herself, it was vital that she understood Versailles’s pecking order and act accordingly. One of de Pompadour’s predecessors, Madame de Montespan, the most flamboyant of Louis XIVth’s mistresses, side stepped the problem entirely by treating all of Versailles as beneath her. While successful in its way, it had the affect of uniting all her enemies. They waited for her to become vulnerable and were rewarded by a sordid scandal involving witchcraft and rumours of poison. De Montespan was implicated – apparently she had tried to buy a potion which would make the Queen infertile – and the King was forced to dismiss her from Court.

Mme de Pompadour was not afraid to imitate de Montespan, although she exhibited a little more tact than her fiery predecessor. Instead of insisting that guests stand in her presence, for example, which was a custom reserved only for the King and Queen, she simply removed all the chairs. Just once did someone call her bluff. The Marquis de Souvré perched himself on the arm of her chair, remarking, ‘all the chairs appear to be missing.’ However, people forgave her these little displays of pomposity because she was the most good-natured and generous hearted mistresses Versailles had ever known. Even the Queen was fond of her. It took a great deal to make the Marquise show her claws. The banished Maurepas had tortured her for years before she finally executed swift revenge.

Where historians fault Mme de Pompadour is over her meddling in political affairs. It is said that she convinced Louis XVth to shift France’s alliance from Prussia to Austria, which precipitated the Seven Years’ war. While the shift was her idea, none will ever know quite where her persuasion ended and the King’s own sentiments began. The royal mistresses have always been credited with either too much influence or none at all. For a long time Madame de Maintenon, the only maitresse en titre who switched roles and became Louis XIVth’s wife, was accused of encouraging him to revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This ending of official toleration of Protestantism led to a mass exodus of Huguenots to Britain. However, the truth is that de Maintenon, who was herself born a Protestant, was guilty of quiescence rather than instigation. But what is not in dispute is that she had a system whereby the Ministers always visited her before they saw the King. Thus she could let them know her wishes so that the names or choices presented to Louis were already predetermined. The King had no idea and simply thought how fortunate he was to have a companion who agreed with him on every issue.

This sort of political interference was simply unknown in Britain. Two events, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had radically curtailed the power of the monarchy. Therefore there was little opportunity for a royal mistress to shine like her French counterparts. During the roughly one hundred and thirty years when Versailles was in its splendour and its maitresses at their peak, there is only one British royal mistress who is remembered today – Nell Gwynne.

The rest have left behind their portraits and some dukedoms, but little else. In general, they were either beautiful and greedy, like Charles II’s Louise de Keroualle and Barbara Villiers, or devoted and somewhat downtrodden like George II’s Countess of Suffolk. Some, either through circumstance or character were incapable of making their mark on British cultural life. George I’s mistresses, for example, known as the Elephant and Maypole because one was fat and the other was skinny, never learned to speak English properly. While dear Nell Gwynne, who did succeed in establishing the Chelsea Pensioners, was far too removed from the King’s world to have any influence on his ministers. The only woman who consciously tried to imitate the miatresse system was Louise de Keroualle, who engineered the downfall of the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. She also attempted to persuade Charles II to become a Catholic. However, once she realised that her influence went only so far, Louise concentrated on amassing a huge fortune instead. By the time Charles II had grown tired of her, Louise had accumulated a nest-egg of over £9 million in today’s money.

Although Napoleon restored the monarchy after the Revolution, the glorious era of the maitresse en titre never returned. While Britain’s royal mistresses arguably became more interesting in the 19th and 20th centuries, France’s declined into obscurity. Madame de Pompadour and her colleagues achieved extraordinary power at time when a single individual controlled the destiny of millions. They are proof of the old adage, that behind every great man, there is indeed a great woman.

Copyright© Amanda Foreman

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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman






A12h5zK8VzLAs one of the most flamboyant and influential women of the late 18th century, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was an icon of her time. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she married the fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774. She was thrust into public life at the age of sixteen, unprepared for the pressures that quickly followed and unsupported in a cold and loveless marriage. Though most of her contemporaries adored her because she seemed so natural and vibrant, only a few knew how tormented she was by self-doubt and loneliness. Georgiana was not content to lead the fashionable set nor merely to host soirées for the Whig party, instead she became an adept political campaigner and negotiator, respected by the Whigs and feared by her adversaries. She was the first woman to conduct a modern electoral campaign, going out into the streets to persuade ordinary people to vote for the Whigs. She took advantage of the country’s rapidly expanding newspaper trade to increase the popularity of the Whig party and succeeded in turning herself into a national celebrity. Georgiana was a patron of the arts, a novelist and writer, an amateur scientist and a musician. It was her tragedy that these successes were overshadowed by private and public misfortune. Ambitious for herself and her party, Georgiana was continually frustrated by restrictions imposed on Eighteenth-Century women. She was also a woman who needed to be loved, but the two people whom she loved most – Charles Grey and the Duke of Devonshire’s mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster – proved incapable of reciprocating her feelings in full measure. Georgiana’s unhappiness expressed itself destructively in her addiction to gambling, her early eating disorders, and her deliberate courting of risk. Her battle to overcome her problems was an achievement equal to the triumphs she enjoyed in her public life.

Cover painting of The Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) from the Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth; produced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

Read the Introduction to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire here.

Biographers are notorious for falling in love with their subjects. 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.

There are obvious, intellectual motives which drive a writer to spend years, and sometimes decades, researching the life of a person long vanished, but they often mask a less clear although equally powerful compulsion. Most biographers identify with their subjects. It can be unconscious and no more substantial than a shadow flitting across the page. At other times identification plays so central a role that the work becomes part autobiography as, famously, in Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1995).

In either case, once he commits himself to the task, the writer embarks on a journey that has no obvious route for a destination that is only partly known. He immerses himself in his subject’s life. The recorded impressions of contemporaries are read and re-read; letters, diaries, hastily scribbled notes, even discarded fragments are scrutinized for clues; and yet the truth remains maddeningly elusive. The subject’s own self-deception, mistaken recollections, and the hidden motives of witnesses conspire to make a complete picture impossible to assemble. Finally, it is intuition and a sympathy with the past which supply the last missing pieces. It is no wonder that biographers often confess to dreaming about their subjects. I remember the first time Georgiana appeared to me: I dreamt I switched on the radio and heard her reciting one of her poems. That was the closest she ever came to me; in later dreams she was always a vanishing figure, present but beyond my reach.

Such profound bonds have obvious dangers, not least in the disruption they can inflict upon a biographer’s life. Sometimes the work suffers; its integrity becomes jeopardised when, without realising it, a biographer mistakes his own feelings for the subject’s, ascribing characteristics that did not exist and motives that were never there. In his life of Charles James Fox, the Victorian historian George Trevelyan insisted that Fox held to a strict code of morality regarding the sexual conquest of aristocratic women; he only seduced courtesans. Trevelyan, perhaps, had such a code, but Fox did not. There is ample evidence to suggest that the Whig politician had several affairs with married women of quality, including Mrs Crewe and possibly Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her first biographer, Iris Palmer, was similarly wishful in her description of Georgiana as a ‘simple woman’ without ambition except in her desire to help others. Palmer also claimed, in the face of contrary evidence, that Georgiana was only unfaithful to her husband with one man, Charles Grey. Both biographers illustrate how easy it is to fall prey to the temptation to suppress or ignore unwelcome evidence.

Fortunately, the emotional distance required to construct a narrative from an incoherent collection of facts and suppositions provides a powerful counterbalance. By deciding which pieces of the puzzle are the most significant – not always an easy task – and thereby asserting their own interpretation, the biographer achieves a measure of separation. The demands of writing, of style, pace and clarity, also force a writer to be more objective. Numerous decisions have to be made about conflicting evidence, or where to place the correct emphasis between certain events. Having previously dominated the biographer’s waking and sleeping life, the subject gradually diminishes until he or she is contained on the page.

I discovered Georgiana in 1993, while researching a doctoral dissertation on English attitudes to race and colour in the late Eighteenth-Century. I was reading a biography of Charles Grey, later Earl Grey, by E.A. Smith, and came across one of her letters. I was already familiar with Georgiana’s career as a political hostess and as the duchess who once campaigned for Charles James Fox, but I had never read any of her writing, and knew little of her character. 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. I lost interest in my doctorate, and after six months I had read just one book on Eighteenth-Century racial attitudes. Whenever I did go to the library it was to look for biographies of Georgiana.

There have been three previous biographies about her, all of them remarkably similar. Iris Palmer’s The Face without a Frown, written in 1944, was a novelization of Georgiana’s early life. It made no claim to be a historical biography, although Palmer did quote from Georgiana’s letters. The other two, The two Duchesses, by Arthur Calder-Marshall (1978), and Georgiana, by Brian Masters (1981), also concentrated on her early life. Both Calder-Marshall and Masters were probably influenced by the edited selection of Georgiana’s letters,Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, published by the Earl of Bessborough in 1955. (It was only much later that I discovered the extent of Lord Bessborough’s editing for myself). None of the books, not even the Bessborough edition of her letters, portrayed the Georgiana whose voice I felt I had heard. Eventually, I realized I would never be satisfied until I had followed the trail to its source. Oxford accepted my explanation and graciously allowed me to start again and begin a new D.Phil. on Georgiana’s life and times. A short while later I decided to write her biography in addition to the doctorate.
As Georgiana’s letters are scattered around the country, I planned to be on the road for eighteen months and set off in the summer of 1994, having finally passed my driving test on the seventh attempt. My fears about starting a new project were subsumed by the act of driving on the motorway for the first time. I began my search at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, Georgiana’s home during her married life. Its archives, hidden away inside a subterranean labyrinth of corridors, contain over 1,000 of her letters. They revealed so much of her daily life that it seemed as though I were watching a play from the corner of the stage. The impression of being an invisible, perhaps even an uninvited, spectator remained with me throughout my research.

The “Stockholm Syndrome” came upon me suddenly, and I was caught even before I noticed it happening. One day in the Public Record Office at Kew, while reading a vicious letter from one of Georgiana’s rivals, I found myself becoming furious on her behalf. This was the beginning of my obsession with Georgiana, fuelled by frustration at the empty spaces in the Chatsworth archives where someone had either destroyed her letters or censored them with black ink. Itonly began to wane after I had filled in the missing days and months in Georgiana’s life from other sources: the archives at Castle Howard, private collections, the British Library, and libraries and record offices all over Britain.

By the time I had consigned Georgiana to the page a different picture of her had emerged. Previous accounts portrayed her as a charismatic but flighty woman; I see her as courageous and vulnerable. Georgiana indeed suffered from the instability which often accompanies intelligent and sensitive characters. She was thrust into public life at the age of sixteen, unprepared for the pressures that quickly followed and unsupported in a cold and loveless marriage. Though most of her contemporaries adored her because she seemed so natural and vibrant, only a few knew how tormented she was by self-doubt and loneliness. Georgiana was not content to lead the fashionable set nor merely to host soirées for the Whig party, instead she became an adept political campaigner and negotiator, respected by the Whigs and feared by her adversaries. She was the first woman to conduct a modern electoral campaign, going out into the streets to persuade ordinary people to vote for the Whigs. She took advantage of the country’s rapidly expanding newspaper trade to increase the popularity of the Whig party and succeeded in turning herself into a national celebrity. Georgiana was a patron of the arts, a novelist and writer, an amateur scientist and a musician. It was her tragedy that these successes were overshadowed by private and public misfortune. Ambitious for herself and her party, Georgiana was continually frustrated by restrictions imposed on Eighteenth-Century women. She was also a woman who needed to be loved, but the two people whom she loved most – Charles Grey and the Duke of Devonshire’s mistress Lady Elizabeth Foster – proved incapable of reciprocating her feelings in full measure. Georgiana’s unhappiness expressed itself destructively in her addiction to gambling, her early eating disorders, and her deliberate courting of risk. Her battle to overcome her problems was an achievement equal to the triumphs she enjoyed in her public life.

Georgiana’s relationships with men and women cannot be categorized by Twentieth-Century divisions between what is strictly heterosexual and homosexual. Nor did she think about the rights of women or entertain the same notions of equality that characterize modern feminism. It would be foolish to separate Georgiana from her era and call her a woman before her time; she was distinctly of her time. Yet her successful entry into the male-dominated world of politics, her relationship with the press, her struggle with addiction, and her determination to forge her own identity make her equally relevant to the lives of contemporary women.

In writing this book, I hope that her voice is heard once more, by a new generation.

Read an extract from Chapter 2: Fashion’s Favourite, pp. 33-37 here.

Georgiana and the Duke were naturally placed to become the leaders of society’s most select group, known as the ton or “the World” – the ultra-fashionable people who decided whether a play was a success, an artist a genius, or what colour would be “in” that season. Henry Fielding was only half-joking when he said that “Nobody” was “all the people in Great Britain, except about 1200.” The ton certainly believed this to be the case. The writer and reluctant courtier Fanny Burney made fun of its self-absorption in Cecilia: “Why, he’s the very head of the ton,” Miss Laroues says of Mr Matthews. ‘There’s nothing in the world so fashionable as taking no notice of things, and never seeing people, and saying nothing at all, and never hearing a word, and not knowing one’s own acquaintance, and always finding fault; all the ton do so.’

The social tyrants who made up the ton also considered it deeply unfashionable for a wife and husband to be seen too much in each other’s company. The Duke escorted Georgiana to the opera once and then resumed his habit of visiting Brooks’s, where he always ordered the same supper – a broiled blade-bone of mutton and played cards until five or six in the morning.” Occasionally they went to a party together but Georgiana was expected to make her own social arrangements. There was no shortage of invitations and she accepted everything routs, assemblies, card parties, promenades in the park in an effort to avoid sitting alone in Devonshire House.

With her instinctive ability to make an impression, Georgiana immediately caused a sensation. She always appeared natural, even when she was called upon to open a ball in front of 800 people. She could engage in friendly chatter with several people simultaneously, leaving each with the impression that it had been a memorable event. She was “so handsome, so agreeable, so obliging in her manner, that I am quite in love with her,” Mrs Delany burbled to a friend. “I can’t tell you all the civil things she said, and really they deserve a better name, which is kindness embellished by politeness. I hope she will illumine and reform her contemporaries!” Even cynics like Horace Walpole found their resistance worn down by Georgiana’s unforced charm and directness. Observing her transformation into a society figure, Walpole marvelled that this “lovely girl, natural, and full of grace” could retain these qualities and yet be so much on show. “The Duchess of Devonshire effaces all,” he wrote a few weeks after her arrival in London. She achieved it “without being a beauty; but her youth, figure, flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity, make her a phenomenon.”

The few voices raised in criticism of Georgiana were not heeded, except by Lady Spencer. “I think there is too much of her,” was one woman’s opinion. “She gives me the idea of being larger than life.” Lady Mary Coke thought Georgiana was making herself ridiculous and that her behaviour occasionally verged on hysteria. The Duchess went to visit Lady Harriet Foley, she wrote, just as her house and contents were being seized by the bailiffs, and “as her Grace’s misfortune is a very unnatural one, that of being too happy and of being delighted with everything she hears and sees, so the situation in which she found Lady Harriet was, in her Grace’s opinion, Charming; Lady Harriet told her she had no clothes, this was charming above measure.”

Occasionally Georgiana drank too much, especially when she was nervous, and showed off as a result: “nothing is talked of but the Duchess of Devonshire: and I am sorry to say not much in her favour,” wrote a society lady after Georgiana upset a dignified matron by pulling out her hair feathers. “Lady Mary Coke went to Ranelagh and was disgusted to see Georgiana and her new friends amusing themselves by puffing out their cheeks and popping them.” She could be persuaded to do anything: once she even appeared on stage at Hampton Court and danced in an opera organized by the fashionable wit and playwright Anthony Storer. Lady Spencer was worried when she saw how easily her daughter could be influenced: “when others draw you out of your own character, and make you assume one that is quite a stranger to you, it is difficult to distinguish you under the disguise,” she warned.” Mrs Delany feared that rather than reforming her contemporaries Georgiana was more likely to be corrupted by them: ‘This bitter reflection arises from what I hear everybody says of a great and handsome relation of ours just beginning her part; but I do hope she will be like the young actors and actresses, who begin with overacting when they first come upon the stage but I tremble for her.”

Lady Spencer could see that Georgiana was falling in with the fast set. The gambling in particular worried her: “let me entreat you to beware of it, and if [gambling] is mention’d to you any more, to decline the taking any part in it,” she begged. Gaming was to the aristocracy what gin was to the working classes: it caused the ruin of families and corrupted people’s lives. “A thousand meadows and cornfields are staked at every throw, and as many villages lost as in the earthquake that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii,” wrote Horace Walpole, who had seen men lose an entire estate in a single night. “Play at whist, commerce, backgammon, trictrac or chess,” Lady Spencer urged, “but never at quinze, Ion, brag, faro, hazard or any games of chance, and if you are pressed to play always make the fashionable excuse of being tied up not to play at such and such a game. In short I must beg you, my dearest girl, if you value my happiness to send me in writing a serious answer to this.” Lady Clermont, who had known the Spencer family for many years, counselled Lady Spencer against being too critical: “I hope you don’t talk to her too often about trifles, when she does any little thing that is not right … If we can but keep her out of the fire for a year or two, or rather from being burned, for in the fire she is, it will all be well.” But Lady Spencer was too worried to listen; instead she tried to frighten Georgiana into adopting a more mature exterior. “You must learn to respect yourself,” she wrote in April 1775, “and the world will soon follow your example; but while you herd only with the vicious and the profligate you will be like them, pert, familiar, noisy and indelicate, not to say indecent in their contempt for the censures of the grave, and their total disregard of the opinion of the world in general, you will be lost indeed past recovery.”

Georgiana as dependent on parental approval as ever felt guilty and went to even greater lengths to distract herself with frivolity. Her recklessness entranced society even as it caused disapproval. Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable. Women’s hair was already arranged high above the head, but Georgiana took the fashion a step further by creating the three-foot hair tower. She stuck pads of horse hair to her own hair using scented pomade and decorated the top with miniature ornaments. Sometimes she carried a ship in full sail, or an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds and waxed fruit, or even a pastoral tableau with little wooden trees and sheep. Even though the towers required the help of at least two hairdressers and took several hours to arrange, Georgiana’s designs inspired others to imitate her. “The Duchess of Devonshire is the most envied woman of the day in the Ton,” the newspapers reported. It was true; women competed with each other to construct the tallest head, ignoring the fact that it made quick movements impossible and the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor.

Another of Georgiana’s innovations was the drooping ostrich feather, which she attached in a wide arch across the front of her hair. In April Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, presented her with one that was four feet long. Overnight it became the most important accessory in a lady’s wardrobe, even though the tall nodding plumes were difficult to find and extremely expensive. The ton wore them with a smug arrogance which infuriated the less fortunate. The fashion generated resentment: it was too excessive and too exclusive. The Queen banned ostrich feathers from court, and according to Lady Louisa Stuart, the unfortunate feathers were insulted, mobbed, hissed, almost pelted wherever they appeared, abused in the newspapers, nay even preached at in the pulpits and pointed out as marks of reprobation.

In less than a year Georgiana had become a celebrity. Newspaper editors noticed that any report on the Duchess of Devonshire increased their sales. She brought glamour and style to a paper. A three-ring circus soon developed between newspapers who saw commercial value in her fame, ordinary readers who were fascinated by her, and Georgiana herself, who enjoyed the attention. The more editors printed stories about her, the more she obliged by playing up to them. Her arrival coincided with the flowering of the English press. A growing population, increased wealth, better roads, and an end to official censorship had resulted in a wider readership and more news to report. By the end of the 1770s there were nine daily newspapers, all based in London, and hundreds of bland triweekly provincial papers which reprinted the London news. For the first time national figures emerged, Georgiana among them, which the whole country read about and discussed, and with whom they could feel some sort of connection.

Read Georgiana’s medical file by I. G Schraibman here.

This article has been posted with the permission of Dr Schraibman

Lady Georgiana Spencer (1757 – 1806) was a lovely and much-loved child. She was pretty, intelligent and confident, but at the same time respectful and obedient. In 1774 she married the most eligible bachelor in the land, the fifth Duke of Devonshire. Her family was slightly lower in social status than the Devonshires, but, far from being intimidated, she blossomed, became her own person, and was eventually known and loved not only by those of her own class but by the people of England.

She was the fashion icon of her day, the leader of the bon ton, and her raiment was the subject of discussion and imitation in all fashionable circles. She used her intelligence and position to afford considerable support to Charles Fox and the Whigs. Her only known fault was gambling, in which she was joined by most of the aristocracy, including her friend, the Prince of Wales; at one stage, Georgiana was indebted to the tune of £6,000,000 at today’s values!

In late July 1796, at the height of her powers and in excellent health, she was stricken with a severe and agonizing illness, which was thought likely to kill her. However, she made a recovery to almost complete normality over the course of many months.

The Duchess’s Illness

She had suffered from “migraine” for years, but about 26 July she was forced to bed by a particularly severe headache. Her right eye swelled to the “size of an apricot”. Dr. Warren, her personal physician, summoned three of the most widely known medical luminaries of the time, including John Gumming, Senior Surgeon to the King. They were flummoxed, but this did not inhibit them from applying increasingly desperate measures; one worthy, in an attempt to increase blood flow to the head to counteract the inflammation, squeezed her neck, almost strangling her! The only effective measure they could supply was laudanum. Her children were dispatched elsewhere so they could not hear their mother’s screams.

Although she was usually a prolific letter writer, Georgiana was beyond such communication; neither are there letters from friends or the doctors. The only clear account available is by Lady Spencer, her mother, who wrote on 4 August, after a visit:

“the inflammation has been so great that the eye, the eyelids and the adjacent parts were swelled to the size of your hand doubled and projecting forwards from the face …. a small ulcer has formed on top of the cornea and has burst and as far as that reaches the injury is not to be recovered – if the inflammation should increase, the ulcer form again, and again burst, it would destroy the whole substance of the eye, which would then sink …… The eyelids are still much swelled and scarred with the leeches and the little opening between them is always filled with a thick white matter.”

She went on to praise her daughter’s stoicism, reporting that Georgiana “had prayed most earnestly for a perfect submission to God’s will”.

The Diagnosis

The dominant symptoms of severe headache followed byproptosis, chemosis of the eyelids and loss of vision suggested cavernous sinus thrombosis (CST). Differential diagnosis includes orbital cellulitis, orbital tumor, severe sinusitis and possibly carotid cavernous fistula. Orbital cellulitis does not cause proptosis. An orbital tumor is unlikely because of the almost complete recovery. She was not known to suffer from pre-existing sinus trouble and there is no record of any infective locus in the head and neck. A fistula is possible, as these often thrombose spontaneously, but there is no record of the characteristic pulsating exophthalmos, although this could have been missed.

Cavernous Sinus Thrombosis

The cavernous sinuses lie on each side of the pituitary fossa, connected by the intercavernous sinuses in front of and behind the pituitary stalk. they are connected to the other dural sinuses and drain into the internal jugular vein. Their extracranial connections are most important because they drain he face in the area supplied by the maxillary and ophthalmic divisions of the trigeminal nerve and communicate with the veins surround the ear via the pterygoid plexus. In the lateral wall of the cavernous sinus run the second, third and fourth cranial nerves and the maxillary division of the fifth; in the centre is the carotid artery, below which is the sixth cranial nerve, supplying the rectus externus. There must have been a lapse in evolutionary design to route the venous drainage of the most bacteria-ridden sites in the head and neck into the cranial cavity.

Clinical Course

The first symptom is unrelenting headache with vomiting. Proprosis and chemosis appear soon and abducens paralysis is invariably the first neurological sign, followed by ophthalmoplegia and corneal ulceration. If the interior can be visualized, papilloedema, venous congestion and haemorrhages can be seen. Thrombosis of the jugular veins may supervene, if the patient does not perish from septicaemia first. The causative organisms are Staphylococcus aureus, S. haemolyticus and pneumococci.

The condition was first reported at postmortem by Duncan in 1821 and in vivo by Vigla in 1839. An estimated 300 cases had been reported by 1918, 350 by 1931 and 40 by 1936. A distinction was made between fulminant and non-fulminant cases, with a better prognosis in the latter. The overall survival was said to be 7% but the range quoted from world literature was 5 – 16%, the majority of reports were under 10%. Fifty-eight recoveries were recorded up to the time of the 1936 review. Only eight cases were recorded in 6,250 general admissions; of these, plus four others, only one survived. Although a relatively rare condition, CST was rightly feared in pre-antibacterial days.

Cavernous Sinus Thrombosis – A Dead Disease

Medical students of 50 years ago were warned of the danger of interfering with minor infective lesions in the area of distribution of the maxillary and ophthalmic nerves (the “dangerous area of the face”), and this lesson is still carried in some anatomical texts but no longer in clinical ones. A symposium held at the Royal Society of Medicine, the proceedings of which were published in 1998, on the subject of cerebral thrombosis makes no mention of CST. It is not mentioned in four current textbooks of medicine (Oxford Textbook of Medicine, 1996; Rees and Williams, 1995; Principles of Internal Medicine, 1998; Internal Medicine, 1994). A survey of the Index Medicus throughout its years of publication (1879 – 1999) was carried out; it is very difficult to be precise as to the numbers of references to CST before 1918, but in that year 12 references are found, rising to 38 in 1930 but then falling to 20 in 1942, 14 in 1948, 6 in 1960, and only 1 in 1969; after this there are none at all.

The first antibacterial agent, Prontosil, was introduced in 1933, but it was toxic and was soon replaced with safer sulphanilamide, but even in 1940 only 5 of 12 cases were treated with this substance. The first recorded use of sulphanilamide in CST was in 1939 and the first use of penicillin was in 1944.

Since then, widespread use of antibiotics in the early stages of infectivity in the head and neck has eliminated CST from the medical lexicon, in parallel with the decline of severe middle-ear disease, mastoiitis and purulent sinusitis. A feared killer has been vanquished.


At the age of 35, Georgiana developed a serious and life-threatening condition of her right eye (the left was involved to a lesser degree), which, from the description provided by her mother and the knowledge subsequently accumulated, was most likely to be CST. In view of her survival against long odes, it must have been of the non-infective variety. This disease has disappeared from modern medical experience owing to the availability of antibiotics and their application at the early stage of infective conditions of the head and neck.

Acknowledgements: I would like to congratulate and thank Amanda Foreman for her superb biography of Georgiana, which first aroused my interest in this subject. I would like to thank the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement for permission to reproduce Figures 1 and 2 and Churchill Livingstone for Figures 3 and 4. Mr. Peter Blore of the Media Centre, Manchester University, exercised his considerable skills to help in producing the illustrations.


1. Foreman A. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. London: Harper Collins, 1998.

2. Lady Margaret Spancer, 1796, paper No. 1357, Chatsworth Collection, courtesy of the Trustees.

3. Duncan, A. Contribution to Morbid Anatomy. Edinburgh, 1821: 17,334.

4. Vigla EN. De la Morse Algue chez l’homme. Theses de l’Ecole de Medecine, Paris, 1839.

5. Smith D. Cavernous sinus thrombosis with notes of five cases. Arch Ophthalmol 1918;47;482-93.

6. Brown, WGS. Cavernous sinus thrombosis. Lancet 1931; 960-5.

7. Grove WE. Septic and aseptic types of cavernous sinus thrombosis. Arch Otolaryngol 1936; 24; 29 – 50.

8. Chisholme JJ, Watkins SS. Twelve cases of thrombosis of the cavernous sinus. Arch Surg 1920; 1; 483 – 512.

9. Pirkey WP. Thrombosis of the cavernous sinus. Arch Otolaryngol 1950;51; 917 – 24

10. Journal of Medical Biography


“Well written, extensively researched and highly readable”

Stella Tillyard, Daily Mail


“Not only a pungent, intimate blend of biography and history, but a provocative contribution to our understanding of women of the past”

Jenny Uglow, Independent


“Georgiana Devonshire was much the most fascinating woman of the age, and Foreman has written a biography to match her”

Ian Gilmour, London Review of Books


“Sumptuously produced, accurate and eminently readable”



“Georgiana bursts from the pages of Amanda Foreman’s dazzling biography like the force of nature she undoubtedly was passionate, political, addicted to gambling, and drunk on life. This is a stunning book about an astonishing woman.”

Simon Schama


“A most impressive debut. I predict a great future for Amanda Foreman. She is a scholar who matches her learning to a sense of adventure and writes with engaging vitality.”

Michael Holroyd


“A mesmerizing read …. The charm of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana is that it gives you all the fascinating detail you want …. and is at the same time a serious, scholarly work, based on exhaustive archival research.”

Antonia Fraser, Literary Review


“Stunning historical research plus feminine acuity yield a vivid portrait of a shrewd, seductive ancestor of Princess Diana’s in an age before democracy or contraception.”

Brenda Maddox, author of Yeats’s Ghosts and Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom


“I put this book down entranced by the woman. This is an outstanding debut by a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy, elegant writing style. She tells a tale that calls not only for our admiration but for our compassion.”

Roy Strong, London Sunday Times


“This is an accomplished and well written biography, remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected.”

Daily Telegraph


The Sunday Times – 18 May 1998
Hostess with the mostest
By Roy Strong

“Outstanding . . . a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy and elegant writing style.”


The Daily Telegraph – May 1998
Legendarily extravagant
By Philip Ziegler

“This is an accomplished and well-written biography; remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected.”


The Evening Standard – May 1998
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
By Roy Porter

“Georgiana is a capital biography and a splendid debut for Ms Foreman. Her writing has strength and pace, and her portrayal of the Georgian queen of hearts carries a conviction deriving from deep research into many a country-house archive. What a pity that Victorian prudes destroyed most of Georgiana’s love letters and cancelled out other intimate passages in the blackest of black inks. The evident shockingness of this courageous lady is commendation indeed of this engaging study.”

BBC Radio 4  – 30 July 2014
The Georgians: Restraint, Revolution and Reform: Part 2
In the final part of a series examining the political impact of the Georgian era, Amanda Foreman looks at politics on the ground as she considers the structures of British life that created both control and freedom. She asks why Britain experienced political evolution, not revolution.


BBC Radio 4 – 23 July 2014
The Georgians: Restraint, Revolution and Reform: Part 1
Amanda Foreman examines the formative years of British politics when the most important structures of British life – still valued and recognised today – were established in the shadow of revolution.


Secrets of the Manor House (PBS) – 14 July 2013
The Secrets of Chatsworth
In its 500-year history, Chatsworth has been home to some notable inhabitants, among them the 5th Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer, and Lady Elizabeth Foster, who lived together in a ménage à trois. King Edward VII enjoyed shooting parties on the estate and was often entertained by Duchess Louisa, one of Britain’s foremost political hostesses.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Cavendish, by Joshua Reynolds.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Georgiana Cavendish, by Joshua Reynolds.
Georgiana gave birth to Lady Georgiana. ‘Little G’, at Devonshire House in the summer of 1783. In 1804, Little G, by then a mother of two children, told Georgiana, ‘one cannot know until one has separated from you how different you are from everyone else, how superior to all mothers, even good ones.’

John 1st Earl Spencer, by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1763.

John 1st Earl Spencer, by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1763.

Lord Spencer ‘seems to be the man whose values few people know’,’ wrote Viscount Palmerston. “The bright side of his character appears in private and the dark side in public.”

Georgiana, Countess Spencer, by Pompeo Batoni c.1764.

Georgiana, Countess Spencer, by Pompeo Batoni c.1764.

Georgiana was waiting disconsolately in Amsterdam for her parents to return when this portarit was painted. It shows Lady Spencer surrounded by her interests: books, a musical instrument and classical ruins.

Lady Elizabeth Foster, 'Bess', by Reynolds, 1787

Lady Elizabeth Foster, ‘Bess’, by Reynolds, 1787

Painted after she had been with the Devonshires for six years.

Fifth Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni.

Fifth Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni.

The trip abroad failed to improve his manners: ‘To be sure the jewel has not been well polished,’ wrote Mrs Delaney. ‘Had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him.’