As a graduate student at Oxford I remember writing a throwaway sentence about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, being a dilettante much addicted to “unhelpful dabbling” in politics. That was the standard line on her then: rich, pretty, oversexed, undereducated and willing to trade kisses for votes on behalf of the Whig party. Naturally such a person was unworthy of any serious study, especially anything to do with politics or power. If I’m honest, I think I was rather embarrassed by her. Georgiana seemed to be the kind of woman who confirmed every male prejudice about our fitness for public life.
I never questioned my own opinions until I was deep into my PhD thesis on attitudes to race in 18th-century England. I was interested in learning more about Earl Grey, the prime minister who as a young man in 1806 had proposed a motion to abolish the slave trade. While delving into his life I discovered his affair with Georgiana and her private letters about it.
The first time I read them it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over my head. It was immediately apparent that everything I thought I knew about her was false. Worse, it was a vicious caricature of a brilliant, effective and tragic woman. I realised I had inadvertently colluded in the trashing of her reputation.