Amanda Foreman takes on the Duchess of Devonshire

Vogue: by Jean Nathan

“Moi biography” rang out from the first sentence of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire (Random House). “Biographers,” she writes, “are notorious for falling in love with their subjects.” Really? Those I know have told me it is more like going fifteen rounds. “Hopelessly enthralled” by Georgiana, Foreman gushes on, even sharing a few dreams, including one in which Georgiana (who died in 1806) recites poetry over Foreman’s radio.

Thankfully, right after her introduction, Foreman hauls herself out of the way and deploys her full energy and impressive command of the material to telling the story of Georgiana, and by the end we are exactly where she wants us: hopelessly enthralled.

Georgiana was first published in England, and the media had a field day portraying its subject, Princess Diana’s great-great-great-great-aunt, as Diana-esque. “She was a Spencer, adored by all but her husband,” trumpeted the London Sunday Times magazine in its four page spread on the book. Of course, the book flew off the shelves. It deserves to here as well.

This is a view of history at once scholarly and full of immediacy and daily life. Foreman’s evocation of Georgiana (pronounced “George-aina,” to rhyme with “rain-a”) and her eighteenth-century world is wonderfully detailed. Georgiana was an avid letter writer and diary keeper, and every public moment of the duchess’s life was chronicled by the press. Born into privilege in 1757 at Althorp, Lady Georgiana Spencer grew up in a sophisticated milieu of writers, politicians, and artists Laurence Sterne dedicated a section of Tristram Shandy to the Spencers. Her father’s great wealth brought political influence, and her mother was socially skilled, well educated, and a compulsive gambler an addiction that her daughter developed too.

Georgiana was charming and charismatic, an ‘It girl’ at the age of sixteen, when she met the Duke of Devonshire. For Georgiana, married life is misery from the beginning. Just days before their wedding, the Duke became a father by another woman.

Well aware that her chief purpose is to produce an heir, Georgiana seems to rebel, quickly falling in with a fast set, distinguishing herself as its chicest and most famous member. Within a year of her marriage, she’s a celebrity. Anxiety drives her to heavy drinking and to the gaming tables, leaving her dissipated and badly in debt. In periods of repentance, she starves herself, which trips off eating binges. Ever childless (after a series of tragic miscarriages), “she blots out her days with large doses of opiates.” Still, she manages to write a novel and to shine in the “ton”, as society’s most select group was called. A sincere love and acumen for politics and her immense attractiveness have politicians of the day swarming around her like bees. On a trip to bath, the glittering but loveless couple meet Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, and both Devonshires fall in love.

This relationship eventually evolves into a ménage à trois that continues throughout Georgiana’s life. (The three lived together, and Bess’s relations with the duke produced two children. Whether the two women were sexually or just deeply emotionally involved is uncertain.) Bess’s presence in their lives is alternately a source of anguish and comfort to Georgiana, but it seems to calm her sufficiently to enable her to carry several babies to term.

The almost unbelievable course of this 49-year life is quite a ride: her gambling, his threats of divorce as her debts skyrocket (up to $6 million at one point), her self-destructive binges, her love affairs, a seamstress bribed to reveal her latest dress designs, his and her legitimate and illegitimate children, and her political influence on everyone from George III’s son, the Prince of Wales to Whig leaders.

But Georgiana’s journey from flighty and empty young girl to solid, self-knowing woman, however tragic, is extraordinary to behold, and all the more so for being unexpected. In the end, I had to agree with her long-suffering mother, who shared the sentiments of the young Whig Thomas Pelham: “If the Duchess had been married to … any man who had shown her proper attention and done justice to her merits, she would have been one of the most perfect women in England.”

Without those difficulties, without the obstacle of the Duke to push against, she might have remained as she began and ended forgotten