Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire Amanda Foreman Reviewed by Roy Porter

Though her subject is the daughter of an earlier Earl Spencer, Amanda Foreman avoids the temptation to cash in on parallels with a later tragic heroine from that family. And rightly so. Her story of Georgiana Spencer stands squarely on its own two feet, a richly-documented and poignant tale of a remarkable lady.

Born just before George III came to the throne, Georgiana, pretty and naturally gracious, was perhaps the most eligible debutante of the age. Too bad she precipitately fell for William, Duke of Devonshire, the “first match” in England but a standoffish fellow always more at home among his cronies at hounds or in the clubs of St James’s.

For a while the marriage went well. Reigning over Chatsworth and Devonshire House in Mayfair, the young Duchess shone as a socialite, and the newspapers raved over her soirées and fashion innovations which included muslin aprons and droopy ostrich feathers. She also turned herself into a great political hostess, befriending and perhaps bedding Charles James Fox, the great Whig parliamentarian and “her favourite member”. In a daring and quite unprecedented move, Georgiana in effect became his campaign manager at the general elections of the 1780s, even canvassing in the streets – lewd cartoons depicted her trading votes for kisses among the shopkeepers of Westminster.

The marital magic wore off, however. The Duke took to philandering and the Duchess to flirting – her name was linked with the Prince of Wales. Above all, she plunged into the ruinously reckless gambling which was high society’s drug of choice. Translated into modern values, her debts ran into millions.

And in the end she became trapped in a ménage à trois which was singular even by the permissive standards of the day. For many years, Georgiana shared bed and board with her husband and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, herself married and the mother of a motley mix of infants. However crazy, the set-up worked as well as these things might, being built upon mutual needs: Bess and the Duke were passionate lovers; the Duke craved an heir by his wife; the Duchess for her part needed her spouse to pay off her gambling debts, while Georgiana and Bess were, despite everything, bosom buddies, paragons of female solidarity in a Byronic man’s world.

Once the son finally came along, all fell apart. Too long love-starved, Georgiana flung herself at Charles Grey, the rising star among the Whigs. Carrying his child, she was banished to a France just exploding in revolution and then, to avoid total ruin, was forced to renounce baby Eliza and her lover too. But if her later years were marred by misery and disaster, it is amazing how well her spirits held up, and how warm and charming she managed to remain.

Mirroring the account of the Lennox sisters in Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, Ms Foreman confirms how those early Romantic times produced women who, if spoilt and self-indulgent, were humane, generous and genuinely talented. Georgiana read Rousseau and published poems and a novel of her own. Ladies like her had to cope as best they could with the double standard in an era when lack of contraception always left the women holding the baby.

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.

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