Guest Post: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – an 18th century story of style, politics and pain

Today I’m really excited to be publishing my first guest blog post, from Elizabeth Hill-Scott of Smart History Blogging! She’s written a fantastic post about a woman in history whom I am endlessly fascinated by, ever since seeing The Duchess movie when it came out in 2007 (and reading Amanda Foreman’s biography of her as a result). Here, Elizabeth delves deep into the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire…


GEORGIANA BY GAINSBOROUGH
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1785-1787. Public Domain.

Chatsworth House, England. Majestic. Stylish. Unforgettable. And, so too was one of its most famous occupants – Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Lady Georgiana Spencer, affectionately known as Gee, was born on 7 June 1757 in Althorp, Northamptonshire. On her 17th birthday, she would become a Duchess and thrown deeper into a world of power, wealth, politics and high-stakes.

Compared to the lot of poor hard-working women who’s lives could be unbearably cruel surely with all the grand houses – Devonshire, Chiswick and Chatsworth – jewels, travel and fine fashions she had it all – didn’t she?

The ‘perfect’ match. Well, on paper anyway.

In Georgian Britain, the landed aristocracy had enormous power. William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire was a descendant of the formidable Bess of Hardwick. He was one of the richest men in the country, like her father Earl Spencer and a serious catch.

Georgiana’s parents had turned down several offers of marriage for their eldest daughter and were no doubt ecstatic at the match (although the Duke always got what he wanted anyway). It was irrelevant if they were suited to one another. His job was to marry well and produce an heir. Her job was to make it a son and be dutiful at all times.

The match was so transactional Georgiana wasn’t even informed of her wedding day. To avoid crowds and gossip she woke one morning and was whisked off to Wimbledon Parish Church to be quickly married.

Despite her upbringing as the daughter of an Earl, she was unprepared for married life. It didn’t help her husband had a long-standing mistress with whom he had fathered a child (Georgiana would later raise her). But, they were wildly different people.

The Duke of Devonshire was born old and more comfortable around dogs than people. Despite wielding great political influence he had to be prodded and cajoled. The Devonshires did not exert (let’s face it, they didn’t need to) more than was necessary for either action or conversation. He was so laid back when woke to be told the house was on fire rolled over and said, “Well, someone had better put it out” whereas Gee was impulsive and warm.

Entertaining was a nightmare. The Duke had to talk and the Duchess ‘behave’ although it would seem according to Masters with

“merry abandon, she would embrace all the delights which life hurled at her.”

Georgiana’s personality was infectious and passionate, and although it is unclear whether they evolved into a romance, Georgiana could become infatuated with both men and women.

“There were three of us in this marriage”

Chiswick_House
Chiswick House. Public Domain.

As, Georgiana was the great, great, great, great aunt of the late Diana, Princess of Wales I couldn’t resist the familiar reference.

In 1782, Georgiana met Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as Bess, in the trendy high-society city of Bath. Lady Foster was in a perilous potentially penniless situation. She was estranged from her husband, cut-off from her children and ostracized by her family.

True to form, Gee plunged headfirst into her new friendship sympathizing with a woman mistreated by her powerful husband. She couldn’t possibly have predicted Lady Foster would become linked to her life, and her husband, forever.

Bess made herself indispensable to the Duke as his mistress and Georgiana as a friend and protector. The Duchess was able to share struggles with fertility, neglect and debt.

But, Bess did not have an easy time either. With the affair a secret (although Gee was pretty much the last one to work it out) she was sent away to Europe alone to have a baby. On her return, it was clear three people would now be living at Devonshire House.

It was not unusual for members of the British aristocracy to take mistresses and lovers. But, upon being introduced to the Duke, Bess would remarkably and blatantly stay in his affections, and therefore Georgiana’s life, for the next twenty-four years.

The humiliation of being an obvious trio in social circles affected the Duchess and plunged her into greater vices and to seek escape through excess. But, an incredibly strong bond had formed between the two women in Bath, and despite everything, it endured.

An overnight style sensation

With an absence of love at home – Georgiana found a flair for style and became the ‘influencer’ of her day. She was renowned for her captivating beauty, intelligence and the grandness being a Duchess bestowed. Her every word and move was reported in pamphlets, cartoons and poems. People were fascinated. Quite simply, she became a celebrity.

Georgiana’s style choices were lavish and inspiring to the masses. At one point she imported ostrich feathers from Paris to construct a three-foot headdress. According to Sotherbys, feathers were so scarce in England that fashionable women resorted to bribing undertakers for their horses’ plumage.

And, she knew how to keep them wanting more. There were absurd ‘hair towers’ within which she would create themed displays with miniature ornaments and products like ‘Devonshire hair powder.’

A high stakes life – politics and gambling

Although decided by her position, Georgiana’s magnetism, high fashion and profile made politics unavoidable.

Devonshire_House_from_The_Queen_s_London_(1896)
Devonshire House from The Queen’s London, 1896 (Public Domain)

Ironically, as a woman, she couldn’t vote but that didn’t stop her driving fear into the opposition. She vigorously campaigned for the Whig Party (yes, Whig) who’d become the natural political home for landed aristocracy after the 1688 Glorious Revolution.

People politics was on fire and she was a major asset. Crowds would turn out at hustings if only to see one of her famous headdresses. And, my goodness, there was plenty to get your political teeth into during Georgiana’s lifetime – war with France and the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, early industrialization, the first convict ships sent to Australia, the Regency Crisis of George III and the growing movement to abolish slavery.

At Devonshire House, London, it was fashionable to entertain long into the night movers and shakers of ‘The Devonshire Circle’ or ‘ton’ as the smart-set of society was called. The circle included George, The Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Charles James Fox.

A night with the Devonshires meant five-hour dinners (with heavy drinking), toast-filled speeches, (more drinking) and unfortunately for Georgiana, gambling tables till dawn. Letter after letter written by Gee to her mother or Bess was full of remorse for her latest loss at the table and how she couldn’t possibly keep it from the Duke. It’s clear she had a serious addiction, no doubt accelerated by unhappiness, but by 1789 she owed £60,000, roughly £8 million in today’s money.

Putting aside love and happiness for her children.

Aristocratic women in 18th Century Britain were still under pressure to produce a male heir.

Georgiana had given birth to two daughters, Little G and Harriet, but it wasn’t until sixteen years after their marriage, in 1790, ‘Hart’ William, Marquess of Hartington was born.

But, the next Duke of Devonshire would not be the Duchess’ last child. In 1792, she would be banished for two years and have a baby girl to a future British Prime Minister.

Charles Grey was a handsome Whig politician. He became Prime Minister between 1830-34 and saw through The Representation of the People Act, 1832 also known as ‘The Great Reform Act,’ which extended the vote and reformed the UK electoral system and abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

But, long before this, he was a dashing, young, passionate Member of Parliament, who made it into the inner circle of the Whig party. To Georgiana, he was the exact opposite of the Duke, and as their paths repeatedly crossed in The Devonshire Circle, an affair began.

Unofficially, it was accepted after you had done your duty and produced a male child a lover, on the quiet, could be taken. Yet, discretion went out of the window when the Duchess fell pregnant by Charles Grey. On discovery, she was forced to go to France.

Although believing she would die in childbirth, Georgiana gave birth to Eliza Courtney, who would be raised by Grey’s family.

The toll of being away from her children, and unimaginable strain of giving away the daughter of the man she truly loved, weighed heavy.

Although a blatant hypocrite, the Duke allowed Georgiana to return home to her children but only after she renounced her love for Charles Grey.

Although Grey went on to marry in 1794 there is everything to suggest their love was real. But, an affair between two people of such stature and ambition was always going to be tragic.

Death and legacy

chatsworth-house
Chatsworth House. From Pixabay.

After her exile in France, Georgiana was a changed woman. She drank heavily, suffered from stress and took medicines to help her get through the day and to sleep at night. Eventually, it caught up with her.

Georgiana died on 30 March 1806, aged 48, and with her blessing, Lady Elizabeth Foster became the next Duchess of Devonshire. The woman, with whom she had shared her husband with for decades, was moved to write:

“[Georgiana] was the constant charm of my life. She doubled every joy, lessened every grief. Her society had an attraction I never met with in any other being.”

The Duchess has become infamous with fashion, love triangles and glamour of a life of privilege. She was indeed adored but not uncommon for women of the aristocracy during this time there was trauma too.

So, when we look at Georgiana, The 5th Duchess of Devonshire, let’s make sure we see it all. The ill-suited cold marriage she wasn’t ready for, pressure to bear children and painful miscarriages, her husband’s repeated infidelity, being unable to love whomever she wanted, forced adoption of her daughter, addictions caused by suffering, the gossip and ridicule and a total lack of power or choices around her children and her own life.

References

Brian Masters, Georgiana. Allison & Busby Ltd, 1997.

Regency History – https://www.regencyhistory.net/

English Heritage –  https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/lgbtq-history/romantic-female-friendship/

The First Lady of Fashion – Sotherbys – https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/first-lady-of-fashion-georgiana-duchess-of-devonshire

BBC History.

All Things Georgian – https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/the-duchesses-of-devonshire-in-the-long-eighteenth-century/


Elizabeth Hill-Scott Profile (1)

Elizabeth teaches history bloggers smart ways to save time, grow traffic, make money and write about what they love.

You can find out more over at Smart History Blogging.

Find Elizabeth on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest


Thank you so much to Elizabeth for her contribution to the blog!

If you’re interested in proposing a guest post, please do get in touch with me here!

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