Svelte aristocrat with a head for politics

Georgiana Spencer: 18th-century power broker

GEORGIANA, DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE By Amanda Foreman Random House 454 pp., $29.95

On June 7, 1757, a little girl called Georgiana Spencer was born at Althorp Park in Northamptonshire, England. She was an engaging child and the darling of her family.

Seventeen years later, upon her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire, she became mistress of Chatsworth, one of England's greatest country mansions, and overnight one of the most talked about and written about women of her time.

Though initially this attention was due to her title, family connections and wealth, her personal charm, wit, style, and intelligence ensured that she remained a popular figure. And this is only the beginning of the story of "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire," by Amanda Foreman, winner of the coveted Whitbread Prize for Biography.

But the outward show of fashion and happiness cloaked a claustrophobic private life of disappointment, grief, and trouble, and constant pressure to provide a male heir.

Like many young women of the era, she and her sister married for position. Georgiana's husband was unfaithful, self-absorbed, indolent, and a hypochondriac with whom she had few or no common interests. She therefore sought consolation in intense friendships, in being an unrivaled society and political hostess, and in ruinous compulsive and obsessive gambling. She even lived alongside her husband's mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, (surely one of the most remarkable gold diggers in history) on terms of greatest friendship and trust.

All of this would be mere titillating scandal raking - two centuries old - if it were not for the significant impact Georgiana had on the world of politics.

In an age we often assume was male-dominated, she was an integral part of the Whig opposition, and as this biography reveals, she played a critical role in the Regency crisis of 1788 - the other side of the story told in the film, "The Madness of King George."

She also actively fought parliamentary elections, and helped to form later governments. Her close friends included many familiar names - the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Marie Antoinette, Charles James Fox, and of course, the Prince Regent, later George IV who referred to her as his "dearest sister" - making her an essential key in understanding this past age.

She was in France during the early months of the French Revolution and her eyewitness account paints a different picture from the one espoused by many apologist-historians. Equally, her close friendship with Marie Antoinette is touching, sympathetic, and revelatory.

Foreman has done a Herculean job of unearthing and piecing together the puzzle of Georgiana's life. Georgiana's unorthodox approach to politics, her infidelities, and her intelligence earned her the anathema of her Victorian descendants, and they ruthlessly edited, sanitized, or suppressed her letters and diaries because she so strayed from their concept of what a woman should be and do.

But despite the excellence of her research, Foreman, though always sympathetic to her subject, never quite gets inside Georgiana's skin, and she also lacks a thorough comprehension of 18th-century life. She fails to apprehend the inherent religiosity of the age, treating Georgiana's periodic fasting as a modern eating disorder, rather than placing it, as Georgiana would have done, within the context of religious atonement for sin - her gambling.

Nor does Foreman understand the morals of the age and place Georgiana's life properly within that context: When the Duke of Devonshire insisted on a separation from Georgiana and was considering divorce, it was not on the grounds of infidelity, but because of her crippling debts which threatened to impoverish the family.

Depressingly too, the text is liberally peppered with excerpts of criticizing letters from Georgiana's mother, Lady Spencer. Quite frankly, one such letter, with the note "Georgiana received one of these every day of her life" would have amply illustrated the deleterious effects of this constant censure. And Foreman suffers from "bad novelist syndrome" in that she generally tells us that thus and such was a success or was beautiful or a disaster, rather than describing the events, or even giving us full financial disclosure, so that we may see and judge for ourselves.

But despite these drawbacks, Georgiana was such an extraordinary woman, sparkling in every way, that I came away wishing I had known her and heard her laugh. But it is equally due to Amanda Foreman's pioneering achievement that I should so now wish I had.

*Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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