Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman HarperCollins pp449 Roy Strong

Hostess with the mostest

This is the story of a daughter of the house of Spencer at Althorp who, at 17, found herself locked into a loveless marriage with a man with whom she had nothing in common. Distant and reserved, he saw her role as producing the male heir and unquestioningly acting the part into which her grand marriage had cast her. The girl in question, however, soon revealed herself as possessing a unique magnetism, attracting every eye in the room. She also set fashion. Left alone, emotionally unfulfilled, she inevitably took a lover . . . If this rings a bell, you would be right, but the person concerned is a far earlier Spencer girl, one who also epitomised the high glamour and style of an age: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

This saga is dominated by three great aristocratic dynasties, the Herveys, the Cavendishes (dukes of Devonshire) and Georgiana’s family, the earls Spencer. All three are still with us. “When God created the human race,” wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “he created men, women, and Herveys.” Lady Elizabeth Hervey, the Iago, if such she was, of this story, is a chip off the family block. The 5th Duke of Devonshire is a true Cavendish, intelligent and taciturn with a string of mistresses and a reluctantly compliant wife. As for Georgiana, there is much we would recognise as characteristic of Diana, Princess of Wales.

But Georgiana was not all surface. Her mother saw to it that she was educated, accomplished and, although attention-seeking, deeply lovable. That quality can be measured by her ability to subjugate even those who opposed her: “It is impossible to view . . . this celebrated woman,” wrote Fanny Burney, “without feeling the strongest disposition to like and admire her.”

In Amanda Foreman, the duchess has found her greatest advocate. In spite of the fact that Georgiana sank into a welter of debt, gambled recklessly and lived a life of utter prodigality, she remained irresistible. Georgiana had charisma. She was one of those women who lit up a room when she entered. Gainsborough, a good judge of women, adored her and tried several times to capture her magnetism on canvas. He gets nearer than anyone: she still lures us with her come-hither eyes and incipient smile, sporting the hat she invented, a vast broad-brimmed confection with an explosion of nodding ostrich plumes on its summit. Sheridan was to base Lady Teazle on her.

But what a marriage! The rules binding aristocratic behaviour in the 18th century are here vividly delineated. The husband could have a mistress, several, in fact, and illegitimate children who could be “accommodated” within the family. Wives were honour-bound to produce the male heir, after which they, too, could take lovers, but never, never become pregnant by them. The 5th duke lived up to his part, but the duchess broke the code, taking a lover before she produced the heir and, worse, having a child by one. Georgiana narrowly escaped divorce, but was instead banished to the Continent for two years. The child was taken into her lover, Charles Grey’s, family. Later, all evidence of the disgrace was removed from the ducal archives.

Georgiana was starved of affection and here we touch the crux; like Diana’s marriage, the Devonshires’ was “crowded”. The third party was Lady Elizabeth Foster, née Hervey. Somehow, in 1782, when the Devonshires were in Bath, Bess managed to insinuate her way into their lives, offering to both a never-ending stream of tea and sympathy. Bess was billed by Burney as possessing “all the wickedness of the Herveys”. She was deeply loathed, particularly by Georgiana’s children.

Yet all three lived together and eventually became dependent on each other. Once underway, the twists and turns in the relationship of these three people hold the reader in perpetual amazement. To the duke, Bess offered tender comfort and her bed (along with an illegitimate child); to Georgiana, who wrote to her as “my dearest, dearest, dearest angelic love”, seemingly permanent adoration. They never seemed to see through Bess, even though she, too, had a succession of lovers, working hard to become Duchess of Richmond. At root, she envied Georgiana. When the duchess died, Bess at last got what she probably wanted most, the duke. The Cavendish family was horrified to be landed with her. When the duke died, she moved to Rome, ending her days as a cardinal’s mistress. She emerges as extremely unattractive.

In the 18th century, sex, or la ronde, revolved in tandem with politics. And that only adds to the fascination of Georgiana. This is a society that was made up of about 1,200 people, le ton, members of the world of high politics and fashion. Admission to it was, in the main, by birth, but also through marriage, wealth and talent. Its political powerhouses were the newly built palaces of the aristocracy scattered in the area of St James’s, and Devonshire House was the stronghold of the Whigs.

Parliament was within the control of those lords who had seats in the Commons at their disposal; the Duke of Devonshire had 13 in his gift. Ministries came and went as each coterie under the control of a grandee aligned and realigned itself within the larger dance of politics. In such a power structure, family connections and dynastic alliances were important. The Devonshires’ marriage was that of two great Whig dynasties. So, too, was the ability to provide a social arena for politicians outside the House. In this context, the emergence of the great political hostess was almost inevitable, and nothing quite like Georgiana had been seen before.

Such figures no longer exist. The late Lady Hartwell, formerly Lady Pamela Berry, was the last, but even her fêtes had run their course by the mid-1970s, killed off by inflation. To occupy such a role demands large financial resources, a taste for intrigue and tittle-tattle, an unending fascination for people and their motives, and energy and style besides. Georgiana was the hostess with the mostest for three decades, reigning over balls, fêtes and dinners at Devonshire House, which the Whig political world used in much the same way that, after about 1820, they were to use the new gentlemen’s clubs.

From the age of 20, when she had first met the uncouth but alluring Charles James Fox, Georgiana was obsessed with politics. During the notorious 1784 Westminster election, she and other aristocratic ladies, attired in the blue and buff of the Whigs and with foxtails in their hair, manned the hustings. It was not approved, and the duchess was censured for her “masculine manner”. Foreman makes a strong case for the political importance of these social hostesses, but I get the feeling that Georgiana never really rose much above seeing politics in terms of personalities. Her role was to be a broker, a message-runner, a perpetual source of free food and drink, providing in Devonshire House a social ambience in which political men could make dialogue.

There is a sadness to this story; Georgiana lost the sight of one eye and that of the other became impaired. The operation to save her sight was horrendous, but she was a brave spirit. When she died at the age of 48, on March 30, 1806, everyone realised that a great light had been extinguished. 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 also for our compassion.

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