Lady Georgiana Spencer, socialite and leading political hostess of the 18th century, held court over a circle of influence and fashion at Devonshire House in London. She was seventeen years old when she married the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1774. He was eleven years her senior and one of only a handful whose wealth exceeded the Spencers’. However, gossips questioned the match from the outset. The Duke was notoriously inhibited while Georgiana’s social aplomb had already made her a success in London and an intimate friend of Marie-Antoinette in France.
The Duke was world-weary and worldly-wise, with a mistress and an illegitimate child tucked away in the country. Georgiana was an ingénue who loved parties and believed in romantic love. She probably thought herself in love with the Duke because he bore a superficial similarity to her father. Lord Spencer was a shy man in public but adoring and tender to his wife in private. This apparently led Georgiana to assume that the Duke’s wooden reserve disguised a sensitive heart.
Thomas Gainsborough's celebrated portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, from the collection at Chatsworth.
Georgiana was an overnight sensation. The combination of intelligence, beauty and wealth made her endlessly fascinating to the public. She could not utter a word nor take a step without it being reported in every newspaper; her approval was enough to make an artist fashionable or play successful.
Georgiana’s extraordinary influence on fashion first became noticeable during the “feather headdress affair.” These were three-foot ostrich feather headdresses that which she imported from Paris. Feathers were so scarce in England that fashionable women resorted to bribing undertakers for their horses’ plumage. The following year, in 1775, Georgiana initiated the craze for extravagant hair towers of preposterous designs. One day she would appear sporting a pastoral tableau, complete with miniature wooden sheep; the next she might wear a nautical theme with storm-tossed ships and sailors artfully placed among the curls. Later on, she introduced the “picture hat” and, in 1783, again transformed women’s fashion with the free-flowing muslin dress that was simply tied by a ribbon around the waist. There was the “Devonshire brown,” a “Devonshire hair powder,” even a “Devonshire minuet” that Georgiana created with Vestris, the leading dancer of the day.
William Kent's 18th-century Devonshire House (left) was the centre of Georgiana's circle and justly famed for its stunning interiors. It was ultimately demolished in the 1920s and replaced by a block of luxury flats that retained the same name (right).
Situated near what is now the Ritz Hotel in London, Devonshire House commanded magnificent views over Green Park. The original house had burnt down in 1733 and the third Duke of Devonshire commissioned William Kent to rebuild it. Aesthetically it was a failure. The house was stark and devoid of architectural detail; the bottom windows were too large, the top windows too small. The whole building was enclosed behind a brick wall, which hid the ground floor from view and made the street unattractive to passersby. The London topography James Ralph wrote, “It is spacious, and so are the East India Company’s warehouses; and both are equally deserving of praise.” As well as attracting every graffiti writer within two miles, the brick wall ruined the architectural line of Piccadilly. One contemporary complained: “The Duke of Devonshire’s is one of those which present a horrid blank of wall, cheerless and unsociable by day, and terribly by night. Would it be credible that any man of taste, fashion, and figure would prefer the solitary grandeur of enclosing himself in a jail, to the enjoyment of the first view in Britain, which he might possess by throwing down this execrable brick screen?”
The Salon at Devonshire House in London's Piccadilly as shown in a watercolour by William Henry Hunt (1790–1864).
The chief attraction of Devonshire House was considered to be its public rooms, which were larger and more ornate than almost anything to be seen in London. A crowd of 12,000 could easily sweep through the house during a ball, a remarkable contrast to some great houses where the crush could lift a person of his feet and carry him from room to room. Guests entered the house by an outer staircase that took them directly to the first floor. Inside was a hall two storeys high – flanked on either side by two drawing rooms, several anterooms and the dining room. Some of the finest paintings in England adorned the walls, including Rembrandt’s Old Man in Turkish Dress and Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego. Yet, Georgiana was able to transform this somewhat forbidding home into a showcase for her talent and taste in interior design. She loved to commission new furniture, and was constantly improving and updating the rooms: James Wyatt carried out extensive repairs and decorations in 1776 and 1790.
The Ton, society’s elite, flocked to Devonshire House, making it the premiere house in London; and Georgiana’s friends and admirers became known as “The Devonshire House Circle.” But she was deeply unhappy – by the time Georgiana was 21, she was a drug addict, a bulimic, a gambling addict and mired in debt to every loan shark in town. Except for those who exploited her, few people were aware of her secret torment. The only obvious sign of strain between the Devonshires was the lack of children; every pregnancy ended in miscarriage.
The Ballroom at Devonshire House, circa 1900.
The couple had been married for eight childless years when Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster descended upon them. Georgiana was at the height of her social prowess. Yet the gnawing loneliness remained. “When I first came into the world, the novelty of the scene made me like everything,” she admitted to a friend. “However, now my heart feels only an emptiness in the beau monde which cannot be filled.”
“Poor little Bess,” as Lady Elizabeth styled herself, appeared to be the perfect friend. She demonstrated a seemingly unquenchable willingness to listen, fetch, carry, fix and take over anything Georgiana or the Duke preferred to ignore. Before anyone realized what had happened, she had become the guardian and gatekeeper to both Devonshires. Georgiana initially thrived on the friendship. Her health improved and she gave birth to two daughters in quick succession. Bess’s devotion gave her a confidence that had been lacking, and Georgiana decided to expand her empire beyond the world of fashion. She took her role as the premiere Whig hostess and turned it into much more than a matter of political dinners and the occasional recruitment of promising young men to the party. The Duke was already one of the chief financial backers of the Whig party. Pro-American, anti-slavery and more democratic-leaning than its Tory rivals, the Whigs were the party of youth and liberalism. Georgiana’s mass appeal made her the perfect weapon during election time. She shocked 18th-century society by taking to the hustings in London and leading the crowds to the election booths but she was always proud of the fact that she saved Charles James Fox’s seat for him during the 1784 Westminster election.
Within a short space of time, however, Bess turned the Devonshires’ marriage into a ménage à trois, with herself at the centre. Early on in the friendship, Georgiana did not suspect that Bess’s love was shaped by her gnawing desire to become the Duchess of Devonshire. Despite all the warnings from concerned friends, Georgiana only discovered the truth when Bess announced she was pregnant with the Duke’s child. For a brief moment, she almost entirely supplanted Georgiana in the Devonshire household. But the relationship between the three of them proved stronger than Bess realized. In spite of herself, she remained in her role as both the Duke’s mistress and Georgiana’s confidante, though her obvious scheming for power frequently made Georigana unhappy.
An Empire-style casket with a depiction of Georgiana and her daughter was included in
Chatsworth: The Attic Sale in October 2010.Georgiana’s tragedy was that she wanted both intellectual and emotional fulfillment. A number of shells from her collection give but a little window into her interests, which ranged from mineralogy to poetry. At the age of 34 she fell in love with a young politician seven years her junior, named Charles Grey. Deliriously happy for the first time since her marriage, she became pregnant with child. The unwelcome news caused the Duke to express his emotions for the first time in their marriage. Jealous and humiliated by Georgiana’s deception, he forced her to choose between him and their three children – or Grey and the unborn child. If she chose the latter, the Duke swore she would never see the other three again.
Georgiana sacrificed Grey and the baby. Despite knowing she would never love another man as she had loved Grey, she went abroad and secretly gave birth to a girl, called Eliza. The Due was slow to forgive and insisted she remain in exile for two years. Yet for all the damage Bess created and the lies she told, when forced to choose between Georgiana and the Duke, she chose her friend. Bess supported Georgiana throughout her exile, and the two of them survived many perilous adventures together during what was the height of the French Revolution. When Georgiana at last returned home, she was a total stranger to her four-year-old son. She was never able to reveal her true identity to Eliza, even though the girl was brought up by Grey’s extended family as a poor relation.
Georgiana lived for another twelve years after her return. In Victorian history books, Georgiana is portrayed as quietly slipping off to the country, a chastened and unhappy woman until her death. The truth is that these latter years were a time of redemption. The sorrows and regrets remained with her; but she finally overcame the self-destructive urges that had so marred her early life. Gradually, she re-entered the public and political fray. Shortly before her death, she helped to bring about the Fox-Grenville Coalition that saw the return of the Whig Party to power after two decades in the political wilderness.
For all Georgiana’s outward success and immense fame, she remained a devoted mother and was adored by her children. Little Georgiana, who is depicted embracing her mother on a 19th-century casket, wrote a day after Georgiana’s death:
“Oh my beloved, my adored departed mother. You whom I loved with such tenderness, you who were the best of mothers, adieu – I wanted to strew violets over her dying bed as she strewed sweets over my life, but they would not let me.”
Dr Amanda Foreman is a historian and author of the best-selling biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Her subsequent book, A World on Fire, explores the role of British volunteers in the American Civil War.