Magazine article The Spectator

By Mutual Arrangement

Magazine article The Spectator

By Mutual Arrangement

Article excerpt

By mutual arrangement David Nokes ELIZABETH AND GEORGIANA: THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE AND HIS TWO DUCHESSES by Caroline Chapman Murray, 19.99, pp. 288, ISBN 0719560446

This book portrays a world in which, as Lord Melbourne memorably described it, the 300 families that mattered were `all cousins'. It hardly seems to concern the authors, or for that matter the reader, that Elizabeth ('Bess') Hervey married John Thomas Foster when she was just 18, because, not being one of the 300, he scarcely figures in the narrative. Marrying him was a mistake; giving birth to his son Bess declared that she found all babies 'much alike'. On the whole she preferred dogs, giving her favourites, Lilli and Ting, Latin epitaphs and burial places close to Virgil's tomb.

All this changed following a visit that the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire paid Bess, to such an extent that Caroline Chapman suggests it may have been `the hand of Fate' at work. The Devonshires, their marriage already growing stale, were fatigued and fractious; Bess, having left her husband, was (relatively) poor and bored. Apart, they were three lifeless individuals; together they became a trio of infinite variety. The inevitable charge of lesbianism between Bess and Georgiana (the Duchess) remains unproven, though certainly they derived an emotional charge merely from being together. With the Duke the matter was more straightforward, though secret, for Georgiana had been incapable of producing an heir. When Bess became pregnant by the Duke she left England and travelled to Naples where she had her baby in a shabby 'seraglio', attended by coarse and vulgar servants. Three years later she went abroad again in similar circumstances; but whereas her legitimate babies were a chore, these 'secret' babies were a real delight, suckled tenderly and looked after for at least a month, before being left with the most caring foster-- parents. The Duke, less keen on so much secrecy, went along with it because, it seems, Bess insisted. Contraceptives, a somewhat rare and confoundedly expensive expedient (nine inches of sheep gut) might be had at Devonshire House, but in the wilds of Derbyshire it was another matter. He was certain, he wrote, that if he explained the situation to Georgiana `she would not think you had been to blame'. If Georgiana knew of these extramarital adventures, she took a remarkably civilised view of them and the three of them lived together most contentedly. They visited France at the time of the Revolution, when Bess remarked tartly on the `insatiable desires' of the Third Estate; but it was Georgiana's losses at cards which threatened to disturb their calm. …

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