Wednesday 19 July 2023

Review: Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman


Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, is the biography of an extraordinary woman, both constrained and liberated by her social position as the leader of London fashion who navigated treacherous political waters and forged a life for herself. It could almost be read as a dark inverse of Cinderella, a woman who snares her Prince Charming, finds a place in high society and finds that beginning of her woes.

It’s a long book and Foreman goes into the psychologies of those involved. I know some people don’t like psychology in their historical biographies, how can a modern person know how someone long dead thought just by their letters and reports of them? I like it myself, because it provides a viewpoint to the book and enlivens it. There have been books where I didn’t agree with the psychology presented, but that disagreement enlivens the book also, and is far better than flat reportage.

As Foreman describes it, Georgiana was brought up to be anxious to please. Her education full of niceties and surfaces, and her inherent wish to be well-liked used to enforce ‘good’ behaviour. Foreman also suggests that most of her problems would stem from this same need; her depressions from an inability of finding internal success, and her desire to please making her easy to manipulate and weak against peer pressure - or should that be Peer pressure?

She married William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, a quiet man who was most expressive with his dogs. He later received the nickname Canis, and is referred in letters as ‘Can’ or ‘C’. Oddly Georgiana received the nickname Rat. William was very aware of his role as Duke, especially the expectation to carry on the family name. He also held up his duty of support for the Whig party, even though politics bored him.

Georgiana started well, steering her way through the astonishingly bitchy world of the ton. She became a leader in fashion, favouring extravagant headpieces, towering ostrich feathers and hair piled high on her head. Devonshire House became a headquarters for Whig politicians and a must-go destination for everyone of fashion. She even gave birth to children but, as the newspapers reported, “The happiness of this occasion is impinged by the sex of the infant”.

It was not a great time for the Whigs politically and they desperately a victory for Charles James Fox (nicknamed by Georgiana ‘The Eyebrow’) in Westminster. Women had long supported their husbands in politics, but Georgiana rustled up a posse of titled ladies to walk the streets of Westminster campaigning. They wore fox-tales on their clothes and would go up to punters on the street and argue politics. Of course, the anti-Whig newspapers were very shabby about the whole thing, making lewd comments about Georgiana caressing her ‘favourite member’ or ‘grasping the Fox’s tail’. I don’t think they’d be any less shabby now.

At home, things got complicated. She’d always had close female friends, getting on very well with Marie Antoinette in France. She met Lady Elizabeth Foster in Bath and had taken to her, inviting her to stay. She generally became Georgiana’s companion and then the lover of Georgiana’s husband. While a terrible shock at first, what emerged was a very strange relationship. Bess and Georgiana’s friendship only got stronger, and they found themselves a bargaining team against William when needed. What’s more, Georgiana and William were freer to relate to each other as people once Bess had entered the role of his lover. While I’m sure it was not an easy relationship, as Foreman portrays it, it really does work well most of the time, with each of the three drawing strength off each other. It certainly seems a healthier thrupple than the one in the previous book read for the Dr Johnson Reading Circle, about William Hamilton/Emma Hamilton and Nelson.

The real thorn in Georgiana’s side seems to be her debts. She run up huge gambling debts early on in her ‘career’ as Duchess and never really got them under control. Being a winning and likeable person she merely found more and more people to borrow from, taking from one to pay another. She also never really comprehended quite how much she owed to how many people, and she kept them a secret from everybody, tangling herself up in the process. The real crisis of Georgiana and William’s relationship was when her debts forced her to go into exile. She hugely missed her children but did gain an interest in geology.

Later in life, Georgiana’s complicated relationships grew more complicated, with a web of legitimate children and bastards between the three. Her money worries also never simplified and she also had an illness in her eye which she had to have extremely painful surgery. While not as public as before, she carried on her politics, forging alliances and becoming more powerful behind then scenes than she had before. She sounds like an 18th Century Malcolm Tucker, creating the media spin and shepherding the unruly politicians.

Halfway through reading the book, I watched the film adaptation The Duchess. Watching that made me realise what a remarkable book this is. The film is dour, bleak and mostly humourless, whereas Georgiana’s life in the book seems a thrilling succession of lows and highs. Yes, she was unfairly hampered by her sex, forced to accept situations that demeaned her, unable to claim all her children - but she also seemed to weave and dodge, making the most of what she could. She could be melancholy, even self-hating, but she was also loving, had a strong relationship with the children she could be near (and tried very hard with the ones she couldn’t). She was open to life and it’s experiences, flexing her creative, intellectual and social muscles and making impacts on the world she lived in. She just seems a bit mopey and pouty in the film.

Amanda Foreman presents a complex woman in a complicated situation, but presents her in the fall range of emotions. It’s very good (though a tad long).

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