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Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

4.0 26
by Amanda Foreman

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The winner of Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize and a bestseller there for months, this wonderfully readable biography offers a rich, rollicking picture of late-eighteenth-century British aristocracy and the intimate story of a woman who for a time was its undisputed leader.

Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of


The winner of Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize and a bestseller there for months, this wonderfully readable biography offers a rich, rollicking picture of late-eighteenth-century British aristocracy and the intimate story of a woman who for a time was its undisputed leader.

Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, and was nearly as famous in her day. In 1774, at the age of seventeen, Georgiana achieved immediate celebrity by marrying one of England's richest and most influential aristocrats, the Duke of Devonshire. Launched into a world of wealth and power, she quickly became the queen of fashionable society, adored by the Prince of Wales, a dear friend of Marie-Antoinette, and leader of the most important salon of her time. Not content with the role of society hostess, she used her connections to enter politics, eventually becoming more influential than most of the men who held office.

Her good works and social exploits made her loved by the multitudes, but Georgiana's public success, like Diana's, concealed a personal life that was fraught with suffering. The Duke of Devonshire was unimpressed by his wife's legendary charms, preferring instead those of her closest friend, a woman with whom Georgiana herself was rumored to be on intimate terms. For over twenty years, the three lived together in a jealous and uneasy ménage à trois, during which time both women bore the Duke's children—as well as those of other men.

Foreman's descriptions of Georgiana's uncontrollable gambling, all- night drinking, drug taking, and love affairs with the leading politicians of the day give us fascinating insightinto the lives of the British aristocracy in the era of the madness of King George III, the American and French revolutions, and the defeat of Napoleon.

A gifted young historian whom critics are already likening to Antonia Fraser, Amanda Foreman draws on a wealth of fresh research and writes colorfully and penetratingly about the fascinating Georgiana, whose struggle against her own weaknesses, whose great beauty and flamboyance, and whose determination to play a part in the affairs of the world make her a vibrant, astonishingly contemporary figure.

Editorial Reviews

Ned Crabb
[Georgiana] is an elegantly written winner of Britain's Whitbread Prize for biography by a young scholar who did an immense amount of work on a ton of primary source material, plus an impressive list of secondary-source books.... Ms. Foreman's intelligent insights on domestic, social and political aspects of the time and her judicious psychological interpretations of her subjects' behavior flow smoothly, and with no pontificating, into the story.

....The duchess is fortunate in having her reincarnation, in the pages of a book, fall into the hands of Ms. Foreman, who, like a superb actor who cannot be seen "acting," re-creates a world without intruding herself into it.
The Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HShe was the most prominent British woman of her day. Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable, and her parties were the ones to attend. Royals, aristocrats and politicians sought her opinion, for she was as influential as she was beautiful. Princess Diana? No, her great-great-great-great-aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). A bestseller in the U.K. and the winner of the 1999 Whitbread Prize for Best Biography, Foreman's debut is captivating not just because of Georgiana--whose insecurity, demented love life and gambling addiction made her personal life even more dismal than Diana's--but also because Foreman's portrayal of high society in late-18th-century Britain and France is so remarkably vivid. Foreman gives readers the aristocracy fighting for control over Parliament, King George slowly losing his mind, his love-struck son ill-prepared to take the throne, and more bed-hopping than on a TV soap opera. Georgiana, who bore an out-of-wedlock child with politician Charles Grey, knew that her best friend was her husband's mistress, but that was the least of her problems. Prone to drinking, drug-taking and eating disorders, she also racked up gambling debts equal to $6 million in today's dollars. Foreman's combination of exhaustive research and storytelling skill make Georgiana's story at once lurid, sensational and touching. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Sex! Politics! Intrigue! This Whitbread Prize-winning biography has all that and more; if it were fiction it would be a best seller. Georgiana (1757-1806) was the most accomplished social hostess of her day and a formidable, if behind the scenes, force in Whig politics. She and the Duke shared their life with Lady Elizabeth Foster in a m nage trois, the intricacies of which can only be guessed at. Together they raised a variety of children resulting from a number of liaisons. In addition to her work as a patron of the arts, Georgiana also wrote fiction, poetry, and a play, some of which was published in her lifetime. Brian Masters's previously published biography of the same title (now out of print) focuses mostly on her social activities. On the contrary, Foreman (a recent Ph.D. and researcher at Oxford) brings Georgiana's political savvy and influence into play against the backdrop of the American Revolution and the hostility between George III and the Prince of Wales. The names and titles tend to get confusing at times, but this well-written, well-researched book is finally a pleasure to read. For all libraries.--Julie Still, Rutgers Univ., Camden, NJ Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Francine Du Plessix Gray
...riveting...scholarly, serious, and marvelously diverting...Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had her misfortunes, but reading about her life might make many twenty-first-century Americans feel like sad little Puritans who've missed out on a great deal of fun. Surely Georgiana's intelligence, wit, and angelic magnanimity make her amply deserving of every ounce of fun she had.
The New Yorker
Patricia T. O'Connor
...penetrating and enormously entertaining...Foreman, a researcher at Oxford University, combed libraries, archives and personal collections across England to find missing pieces of Georgiana's story, and the result, the author's first book, is biography at its best. Georgiana, winner of Britain's 1998 Whitbread Prize for biography, seamlessly merges a life and its times, capturing not just an individual but an age, a world entire.
The New York Times
Antonia Fraser
A mesmerizing read... The charm of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana is that it gives you all the fascinating details you want... And is at the same time a serious, scholarly work, based on exhaustive archival research.
Literary Review
From the Publisher
"Georgiana bursts from the pages of Amanda Foreman's dazzling biography like the force of nature she undoubtedly was — passionate, political, addicted to gambling, and drunk on life. This is a stunning book about an astonishing woman."
— Simon Schama

"A most impressive début. I predict a great future for Amanda Foreman. She is a scholar who matches her learning to a sense of adventure and writes with engaging vitality."
— Michael Holroyd

"A mesmerizing read. . . . The charm of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana is that it gives you all the fascinating detail you want . . . and is at the same time a serious, scholarly work, based on exhaustive archival research."
— Antonia Fraser, Literary Review

"Stunning historical research plus feminine acuity yield a vivid portrait of a shrewd, seductive ancestor of Princess Diana's in an age before democracy or contraception."
— Brenda Maddox, author of Yeats' Ghosts and
Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom

"I put this book down entranced by the woman. This is an outstanding début by a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy, elegant writing style. She tells a tale that calls not only for our admiration but for our compassion."
— Roy Strong, London Sunday Times

"This is an accomplished and well-written biography, remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected."
Daily Telegraph

Library Journal - BookSmack!
Sharing with Schiff a deft hand at description, Foreman brings 18th-century Britain to life as she traces the lush story of Georgiana Spencer. Spencer was apparently wild, her life saturated with drugs, gambling, and sex, but she was also powerful, helping to shape the high-stakes political fights of her times. Life Schiff, Foreman focuses on unveiling the real and powerful woman behind the caricature and crafts a biography that is both story rich and firmly planted in its time and place. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 11/4/10

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.59(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.52(d)

Read an Excerpt

Georgiana was only 14 when people began to speculate on her choice of husband. Lady Spencer thought it would be a dreadful mistake if she married too young. "I hope not to part with her till 18 at the soonest," she told a friend in 1771. Her daughter's outward sophistication led many to think that she was more mature than her years. In 1772 the family embarked upon another grand tour, this time with all three children in tow. The rapturous reception which greeted Georgiana in Paris confirmed Lady Spencer's fears. According to a fellow English traveller, "Lady Georgiana Spencer has been very highly admired. She has, I believe, an exceedingly good disposition of her own, and is happy in an education which it is to be hoped will counteract any ill effect from what may too naturally turn her head."

Georgiana combined a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval in the artificial and mannered atmosphere of the French court. Wherever Georgiana accompanied Lady Spencer people marvelled at the way in which she seemed so natural and yet also conscious of being on show. Many were daunted by the complex and highly choreographed set-pieces which passed for social discourse in French salons. "It was no ordinary science," reminisced a retired courtier, "to know how to enter with grace and assurance a salon where thirty men and women were seated in a circle round the fire, to penetrate this circle while bowing slightly to everyone, to advance straight to the mistress of the house, and to retire with honour, without clumsily disarranging one's fine clothes, lace ruffles, [and] head-dress of thirty-six curls powdered like rime...."

The family travelled around France for a few months and then moved on to Spa, where Georgiana celebrated her 16th birthday, in the summer of 1773. They found many friends already there, including the 24-year-old Duke of Devonshire. His family had always been regular visitors: it was at Spa that his father the fourth Duke had died in 1764, aged 44, worn out after his short but harrowing stint as Prime Minister in 1756. The Devonshires ranked among the first families of England and commanded a special place in British history. They had been involved in politics since the reign of Henry VIII, when Sir William Cavendish oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir William was the second husband of four to the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, the richest woman in England after Elizabeth I and the most prolific builder of her age. He was the only one whom she married for love, and when she died all her accumulated wealth went to her Cavendish sons. The eldest, William, used his mother's fortune to purchase the earldom of Devonshire from James I for 10,000. His descendants followed his example and devoted their lives to increasing the family's wealth and power.

Georgiana's future husband was only sixteen when he came into an income that was twice Lord Spencer's; by one account it amounted to more than 60,000 a year. His property included not only the magnificent Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Devonshire House in London, but five other estates of comparable grandeur: Lismore Castle in Ireland, Hardwick House and Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and Chiswick House and Burlington House in London. He was one of the most sought-after bachelors in London -- although Mrs. Delany was mystified as to the reason why. "The Duke's intimate friends say he has sense, and does not want merit," she wrote. But in her opinion he was boring and gauche: "To be sure the jewell has not been well polished: had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed less graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him." As one newspaper delicately put it, "His Grace is an amiable and respectable character, but dancing is not his forte."

Superficially, the Duke's character seemed not unlike Lord Spencer's; however, behind a shy exterior Georgiana's father concealed strong feelings. One of his few surviving letters to Georgiana, written after her marriage, bears eloquent witness to his warm heart: "But indeed my Dearest Georgiana, I did not know till lately how much I loved you; I miss you every day and every hour." The 24-year-old Duke had no such hidden sweetness, although Georgiana thought he did. Knowing how awkward her father could be in public, she assumed that the Duke masked his true nature from all but his closest confidants. The fact that her parents treated him so respectfully also elevated the Duke in her eyes. The Spencers were extremely gratified by the interest he showed in their eldest daughter, and it did not escape Georgiana's notice that she was being watched; she knew that her parents wanted her to succeed.

By the end of summer, having danced with the Duke on several occasions and sat near him at numerous dinners, Georgiana had fallen in love with the idea of marrying him. His return home upset her greatly; she feared that he would make his choice before she was grown up. "I have not heard that the Duke of Devonshire is talked of for anybody," her cousin reassured her after receiving an enquiry about a rumour linking him with Lady Betty Hamilton. "Indeed I have heard very little of him this Winter." Lady Spencer, on the other hand, was relieved that the Duke had not made a formal offer. Even though there could be no more illustrious a match, she did not want her daughter to be a child-bride. Georgiana "is indeed a lovely young woman," she confided to a friend, "very pleasing in her figure, but infinitely more so from her character and disposition; my dread is that she will be snatched from me before her age and experience make her by any means fit for the serious duties of a wife, a mother, or the mistress of a family."

In fact the Duke had already made up his mind to marry Georgiana. She was an obvious choice: socially the Spencers were almost equal to the Cavendishes, she had a large dowry, she seemed likely to be popular, and, most important, she was young and malleable. Despite Lady Spencer's reservations, discussions between the two families began in earnest while the Spencers were still abroad, and were concluded after they returned to England in the spring of 1774. By now Georgiana was almost 17 and preparing to make her entrance into society. Hers was not to be an arranged marriage in the sense of those common a generation before. She was not exchanged in lieu of gambling debts, nor thrown in as part of a political alliance. However, it cannot be said that Georgiana had been free to make a proper choice. Unlike her mother she had not been out for several seasons before her marriage, and she had not accepted the Duke because she loved him "above all men upon Earth." She would go to any lengths to please her parents, and that included thinking herself in love with a man she hardly knew. But her happiness at his proposal convinced the Spencers that they were facilitating a love-match.

In 1719 the Duke of Richmond, finding himself unable to meet his obligations, paid off his debts by agreeing to have his 18-year-old heir married to the 13-year-old daughter of the Earl of Cadogan. The ceremony took place almost immediately, after which the girl was returned to the nursery and did not see her husband again until she was 16.

As the marriage approached, Georgiana's faults became an obsession with her mother, who feared that her daughter did not understand the responsibilities which would come with her new role as a society wife and political hostess: "I had flatter'd myself I should have had more time to have improv'd her understanding and, with God's assistance to have strengthened her principles, and enabled her to avoid the many snares that vice and folly will throw in her way. She is amiable, innocent and benevolent, but she is giddy, idle and fond of dissipation." Whenever they were apart, Lady Spencer criticized Georgiana's behaviour in long letters filled with "hints to form your own conduct...when you are so near entering into a world abounding with dissipation, vice and folly." In one, she included a list of rules governing a married woman's behavior on Sundays. Georgiana would have to rise early, pray, instruct the children or servants, then read an improving book, and above all "make it a rule to be among the first [to church], and to shew by my good humour and attention to everybody that I saw nothing in religion or a Sunday to make people silent, ill-bred or uncomfortable...." Flirting and gossip were to be absolutely avoided on this day. Most observers shared Lady Spencer's disquiet, although not for the same reason.

We drank tea in the Spring Gardens [recorded Mary Hamilton in her diary]: Lady Spencer and daughter, Lady Georgiana, and the Duke of Devonshire joined us: he walked between Lady Georgiana and I, we were very Chatty, but not one word spoke the Duke to his betrothed nor did one smile grace his dull visage. -- Notwithstanding his rank and fortune I would not marry him--they say he is sensible and has good qualities -- it is a pity he is not more ostensibly agreeable, dear charming Lady Georgiana will not be well matched.
Mrs. Delany had come to a similar conclusion. She happened to be at a ball in May where Georgiana danced for so long that she fainted from the heat and the constriction of her dress -- "Which of course made a little bustle," she informed her friend. "His (philosophical) Grace was at the other end of the room and ask'd 'what's that?' They told him and he replied with his usual demureness (alias dullness), 'I thought the noise -- was -- among -- the -- women.' " He did not even make a pretence of going over to where Georgianna lay to see how she was.

Meanwhile the Spencers assembled a trousseau more lavish than those of many princesses on the Continent. In three months they spent a total of 1,486 on hundreds of items: sixty-five pairs of shoes filled one trunk, forty-eight pairs of stockings and twenty-six "and a half" pairs of gloves filled another. They bought hats, feathers, and trimmings; morning dresses, walking dresses, riding habits, and ball gowns. There was her wedding dress to be made, her court dress, her first visiting dress, as well as cloaks, shawls, and wraps. The prospect of a union between two such wealthy and powerful families naturally caught the attention of the press -- there had been no Duchess of Devonshire for over two decades. People described the marriage as the wedding of the year and anticipated that the new Duchess of Devonshire would revive the former splendour of Devonshire House. The Whig grandees also looked upon the match with favour, hoping that the married state would have a beneficial effect on the Duke.

The wedding took place on June 7, 1774, two days earlier than the official date. There had been so much publicity about the marriage that the Spencers feared the church would be mobbed with curious onlookers. They persuaded the Duke to leave the comfort of his home temporarily and stay with them at Wimbledon Park, so that the marriage could take place in the peace and quiet of the local parish church. According to Mrs. Delany, Georgiana knew nothing of their plans until the morning of the ceremony. She did not mind at all; a secret marriage appealed to her. "She is so peculiarly happy as to think his Grace very agreeable" and, to Mrs. Delany's surprise, "had not the least regret" about anything. She wore a white and gold dress, with silver slippers on her feet and pearl drops in her hair. Eighteenth-century weddings were small, private occasions. There were only five people present at Georgiana's: the Duke's brother Lord Richard Cavendish and his sister Dorothy, who had married the Duke of Portland, and on Georgiana's side only her parents and paternal grandmother, Lady Cowper. George and Harriet remained at Wimbledon, waiting for the wedding party to return.

Georgiana's feelings clearly showed on her face, while the Duke appeared inscrutable. His new wife may have occupied his thoughts, although they may well have turned to another Spencer. Not very far away in a rented villa, on a discreet road where a carriage could come and go unseen, Charlotte Spencer, formerly a milliner and no relation to the Spencers, was nursing a newborn baby: his -- their -- daughter Charlotte.

Excerpted from Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. Copyright 1999 by Amanda Foreman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Simon Schama
Georgiana bursts from the pages of Amanda Foreman's dazzling biography like the force of nature she undoubtedly was - passionate, political, addicted to gambling and drunk on life. This is a stunning book about an astonishing woman.
Michael Holroyd
A most impressive debut. I predict a great future for Amanda Foreman. She is a scholar who matches her learning to a sense of adventure and writes with engaging vitality.
Brenda Maddox
Stunning historical research plus feminine acuity yield a vivid portrait of a shrewd, seductive ancestor of Princess Diana in an age before democracy or contraception.
— Brenda Maddox, author of Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom

Meet the Author

Amanda Foreman, born in London in 1968, was educated at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, and Oxford University, where she received a Ph.D. in history. A freelance journalist and until recently a researcher at Oxford, she has, since the immensely successful publication of Georgiana in the United Kingdom, made numerous television and radio appearances there, including the presentation of a Channel 4 documentary on the life of her subject. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire is her first book. She lives in New York City and London.

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Georgiana 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
auntie_amy More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for a graduate class on European Biographies and I'm glad I did. It was an extremely interesting book. Well worth the time it took to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautifully written biography of an incredibly interesting woman. The author obviously came to love her subject but without being blind to her faults... the perfect recipe for a wonderful history book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is about a woman who is born with every good fortune life can bestow including wealth, high birth, beauty, talent and intelligence. She then marries the richest man in England and becomes the most famous, the most popular, the most powerful woman of the day. And yet she is so lonely, so miserable, that she embarks on a course towards total self-destruction. However, unlike most biographies of famous-but-flawed people, this one is about destruction followed by regeneration. What I enjoyed most in 'Georgiana' was reading about her successful struggle to overcome her problems (which included gambling, drug addiction and bullimia)and her re-entry into society as a reformed and happy woman.
just_another_book_lover More than 1 year ago
I bought this book without realizing there was a movie out based on it, and I am so glad I read the book first. The story of the Duchess as told by Ms.Foreman is very full and rich. The character development is excellent, and the detail of the events of Georgiana's life are excellent. I had some background in 18th century English history, so some of the names in the book such as Fox and Pitt are familiar, but this knowledge is not absolutely necessary to a successful reading of the book. The book does an excellent job of recreating the world of the late 18th century, touching on events such as the American and French revolutions and the rise of Napoleon, and Georgiana had a front row seat for it all. I did however, always feel as though she was just out of reach, that I could almost step in her shoes, but not quite. I would highly recommend this book. If you think you may be even remotely interested in reading it, do so, you won't regret it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amanda Foreman never loses you. The book flows perfectly through the many scandals and heart-felts. Factual without being a textbook.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An excellent biography -- it deserves every award it's garnered, and presents a fabulous look at the celebrity that Georgiana was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you saw the movie and liked it, or have any inclination to know more about Georgiana, then read this book! I absolutely fell in love with her. Amanda Foreman not only chronicles Georgiana's life, but everything political and societal concerning her as well. The fact that it's a biography may seem daunting to some, but Foreman's writing combined with such a fascinating life makes it read more like a novel. I will definitely be rereading this!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written and researched. The subject is an interesting person, certainly, though finding a likeable character in this book was difficult-to-nearly-impossible. Reading a long treatise of people who repeat their same mistakes over and over ... quite trying. The author makes assumptions that one is familiar with several society figures of the day, introducing them into the text little to no reference nor context in some cases. A good social history. Not light reading.
Penned-in-Ink More than 1 year ago
I enjoy learning about historical figures, but most biographies manage to turn into a laundry list of circumstances and events which may set the subject firmly in time but do little to give one the sense of the subject as a person. Happily, the author has avoided this pitfall. (An upfront disclaimer: I have not finished reading "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire." At this point I'm about one third of the way through.) From her birth, her future was destined by the constraints and expectations of the aristocracy which, at the time, limited a woman's life to providing a male heir (preferably an heir and a "spare") and maintaining a social presence that upheld her husband's standing in society. In other words, she was basically a tool - used by her spouse to meet his expectations and further his causes. That's just the way it was. It's easy to fall into a predictable, sympathetic telling that puts the subject in an "oh, poor _____" mode. Again, the author avoids this. Georgiana was a complex woman who developed a backbone, left the social confines of a wretched marriage, and became an icon of fashion and high society. Women wanted to be her, men wanted her. And everyone wanted to be on her guest list. Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire was a larger-than-life personality and the talk of her time. This biography serves her well.
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Foreman paints an incredibly vivd portrait in the mind's eye of this amazing woman and her life. It was like Foreman was there and took notes on what she saw! SO SO SSOO happy I bought this book and have the pleasure of having it in my bookcase.
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for the reader, if hellish for the subject. Really fascinating and evocative of the time. Way better than the movie.
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AshWednesday More than 1 year ago
It's a good suppliment to other books written about that same timeframe but it lacks background information about the times.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Could barely get past the first 100 pages. Very disappointing; too much impersonal information. This was a very dry read and not at all what had been expected.
LostInMyBook More than 1 year ago
I was looking forward to reading this book cause I really liked the movie and I thought she had a interesting life but the book was kinda boring and I didn't finish it I got half way through it and had to stop.