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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

“Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire”, by Amanda Foreman

480 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0375502941

After finishing Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, I have come to the conclusion that the flaming youth of the 1770s-and-80s were just about as wild a bunch that could be. It seems that the generation of aristocrats who came of age in the decade-and-a-half immediately before the French Revolution liked to live life at the edge: fashions were extreme, homes were elaborate, fortunes were gambled blithely away, and traditional morals and religious practice – while given a public nod – were privately cast aside. The “sweetness of living”, as Talleyrand nostalgically referred to the Ancien Régime, was to be replaced by the wars and successive revolutions of the next two centuries. The decadent old world, which would soon be turned upside down, was in England presided over with glamor and opulence by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Foreman’s book gives a detailed account of the vast political influence wielded by ladies of high society in the days when women could not vote, and a wide assortment of characters depicted by Reynolds and Gainsborough are finally given personality for me in Foreman’s well-written biography. My trouble was with Georgiana herself, as I could not grasp why she was so psychologically needy, what with the drinking and all night parties and spending and inordinate attachments to her friends. She had come from a loving family, although they were not perfect, but at least they cared and actively intervened in her troubles. Her husband did not love her (clearly) but many women (and men) of her day and class were in loveless marriages. Unlike Marie-Antoinette, Georgiana could not seem to get her gambling under control. I do not understand why such a charming, intelligent and popular woman would be so insecure. Part of this is because I am so used to reading and writing about people who had extreme traumas and upheavals, such as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their immediate family. Most of poor Georgiana’s troubles were of her own making and completely avoidable. While she is a fascinating character, adored by the common folk for her ability to mingle, she is a bit puzzling.

For one thing, it was so odd for Georgiana to tolerate Bess Foster’s presence in the Duke of Devonshire’s bed for all those years. Georgiana was such a bottomless pit of emotional need that she insisted on keeping Bess as her friend no matter what. As for Bess, she wanted everything Georgiana had; she wanted to be Georgiana (in the end, she had her way, and became the Duchess of Devonshire, but she was never loved the way Georgiana was loved). The person I find to be most sympathetic in the biography about Georgiana is her long-suffering mother, Lady Spencer. I do not blame Lady Spencer one bit for having the governess as her spy; after all, she had to keep track of the various illegitimate children who were being smuggled into the Cavendish nursery after having been born and fostered out with utmost secrecy. Between Bess Foster and Georgiana’s sister Harriet, I lost track of which child belonged to whom. And then Georgiana herself, fleeing to France to give birth to little Eliza. At least the children were not abandoned or destroyed; each was given care and love. For Lady Spencer to try to supervise the situation, and attempt to have Bess thrown out, was basic prudence. She was the only responsible adult in the clan and how her daughters carried on must have broken her heart.

I wish I could have understood why Georgiana plunged into the affair with Charles Grey, Eliza’s father; her life was already a mess, what with the heavy drinking and gambling, and her involvement with Earl Grey served to further complicate matters. The affair seemed to come not so much from a great love but from sheer recklessness on the part of someone who had totally lost control of her life. However, the book does not capture any sense of passion. Perhaps that is because so many of Georgiana’s letters were censored or destroyed by her Victorian descendants, quite an editorial feat in itself. To Georgiana’s credit, she often displayed genuine remorse for her disordered ways and tried to amend her life. Her failing health eventually forced her into a simpler, calmer existence. Her oldest daughter wrote that she was the best of mothers. The Duchess was devoted to her family, no question about it, while struggling with so many addictive behaviors, so many demons. Tormented she was, without a doubt. I only wish I understood why.

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