Magazine article The Spectator

Great Whig Glamour Puss

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Whig Glamour Puss

Article excerpt


by Amanda Foreman

HarperCollins, L19.99, pp. 463

Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is a skilful telling of the life of the most glamorous grande dame of the age of Whig oligarchy; no longer is the woman, who married her duke in 1774 and appropriately died within a year of England's two titans, Fox and Pitt, merely a purveyor of new fashions and illegitimate children by various fathers. Miss Foreman recreates her as a tormented, highly intelligent woman who had a genius for friendships with brilliant men and a talent for political intrigue but who was also emotionally needy, self-absorbed and a tragic gambling addict. Her narrative of this feverish life is cool, magisterial and mature: this will be the definitive work.

Lady Georgiana Spencer was born to one great Whig house, the Spencers, and married into an even greater one, the Cavendishes. From the moment she took on her dour, inexpressive duke and his mansions, she was at once a star: in some ways, this was inevitable. The Duchess of Devonshire was always bound to be a queen of political entertaining and fashionable clothing in the age when England was still dominated by a handful of political land-owning dynasties. But as Amanda Foreman shows, Georgiana soon became the Duchess, adored by men, envied by women, whose every flirtation and fashion was amplified, often invented, by London's vicious, lively newspapers. This sounds very familiar to today's reader.

But the arranged marriages, the omnipresent adventurers, the vast wealth of the landed grandees, the universal addiction to gambling and the sexual licence soon remind us that we are in the 18th century of Charles James Fox and the future Prince Regent, both of whom may or may not have had affairs with Georgiana. Soon she is the leading hostess of the divided, chaotic Whigs; a friend of Marie Antoinette; lover of that Lothario, the Duke of Dorset, and the young future premier, Charles Grey. She becomes passionate friends with a gorgeous, manipulative woman called Lady Elisabeth Foster, with whom she may have had a lesbian affair. Bess Foster certainly becomes her husband's mistress. Georgiana famously campaigns for Fox at the Westminster election and loses the equivalent of 3 million in a year's gambling while all the time setting the fashions for everything. Miss Foreman reveals that this glamour puss was in fact often unhappy, unconfident, confused: she is patient, sometimes too patient with Georgiana's games. …

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