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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman – A Review

May 4, 2013

One of the things I promised myself I would do this year was read more history, and learn about periods of time I seem to have omitted in previous studies. We never studied the Georgians or the Regency period at school; for some reason the syllabus of GCSE History involves bouncing straight from the Tudors into the Civil War, then on to the Victorians via a brief stop at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This is followed by a whistle-stop tour of the 20th Century, which revolves almost entirely around the two world wars and the rise of Nazi Germany.

I’ve seen the film The Duchess, which is based on this biography, several times and although I was quite aware that what I was seeing was an overall impression of her life with some artistic embellishments here and there, I was entranced by her and the world she lived in. If I was going to learn about the history of this country I missed at school, this seemed like a great place to start.

Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is impeccable. Far from obsessing over her subject, Foreman builds up a fabulous account where Georgiana acts as the central point around which the politics of the era, the behaviour of the aristocracy and even the French Revolution are arranged, with all events seen through Georgiana’s eyes as far as possible. I learnt a huge amount from reading this book, about the state of the monarchy in the late 18th century, the history of Whig politics, and much more. I also learnt a lot about Georgiana’s life that the film about her leaves out or does differently. I had no idea of the extent to which the Duchess was involved in politics and how vital her role became to the Whigs, hosting parties, relaying information confided in her, etc.. I also didn’t realise how popular gambling was among the aristocracy, and how heavily it featured in Georgiana’s life. She ran up debts amounting to hundreds upon hundreds of thousands even in those days – it’s remarkable that her gambling and never ending cycle of borrowing from friends to cover the debts she was racking up didn’t financially cripple the Cavendish family for all time. The film about Georgiana’s life doesn’t cover much after her return to exile, so you never learn how she dies. It was interesting to learn how she suffered from fragile health for a lot of her life, how it declined as she reached what was at that time middle age, and how her doctors treated her ailments and illnesses. Some of the treatments they subjected Georgiana to were tantamount to torture and it amazes me that medical professionals could ever believe that it would work.

There were also some surprises in this book for me, mostly around the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s relationship with Lady Elizabeth Foster. Foreman presents their relationship as a menage a trois, rather than an affair between Lady Elizabeth and the Duke that Georgiana discovered and had to learn to live with over the course of her life. Foreman gives no indication that Georgiana even harboured any negative sentiment towards their relationship. Lady Elizabeth spent much of the time she was attached to the Devonshires abroad, and apparently had several romantic involvements aside from her relationship with the Duke of Devonshire to the point where she wasn’t sure if one of the illegitimate children she bore was sired by the Duke, or one of her other lovers. Foreman portrays Lady Elizabeth as manipulative and self-serving, eternally jealous of Georgiana and her life, attempting to maintain the security of her position in Georgiana’s affection lest she should be forgotten while simultaneously desiring to usurp Georgiana’s position in society and with the Duke and in her own accounts of their friendship casting the Duchess of Devonshire in the worst light possible. I didn’t realise how ill-liked Lady Elizabeth was by Georgiana’s family and by the Cavendishes, and how little they approved of the friendship between the two women.

For anyone interested in late eighteenth century society, this book is an essential read to gain an insight into the aristocracy of the period. For something of quite a highbrow intellectual nature and with a section of notes and references at the back spanning 10 to 20 pages if not more, it’s remarkably readable and very compelling for a piece of non-fiction. A definite recommend.

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