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Georgiana was only fourteen 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 1771.37 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 sixteenth birthday, in the summer of 1773. They found many friends already there, including the twenty-four-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 forty-four, 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 ú10,000. His descendants followed his example and devoted their lives to increasing the family's wealth and power.
* Political life had not suited the reserved and honest Duke. But for the rivalry between Henry Fox and William Pitt, neither of whom would support a government with the other as its leader, George II would not have chosen this "amiable, straightforward man," who was noted "for common sense rather than statesmanship." The Duke shared with Lord
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 ú60,000 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 les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him."43 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."45 The twenty-four-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."46 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 seventeen 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 eighteen-year-old heir married to the thirteen-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 sixteen.
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 behaviour 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 Georgiana 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 ú1,486 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.
By now, three months into her marriage, Georgiana could not help but suspect the true nature of the Duke's feelings towards her. He was kind in a distant sort of way, but he was naturally reticent and she soon realized that they had little in common. Her innocence bored him and Georgiana was too acute not to notice his lack of interest in her. She told her mother that she was secretly making an effort to be more attractive to him. Since he was so much more worldly than she, she read Lord Chesterfield's Letters to His Son; and knowing of his interest in history and the classics, she began several books on ancient Greece and on the reign of Louis XIV, "for as those two periods are so distant there will be no danger of their interfering so as to puzzle me."
At first Lady Spencer tried to reassure her that the Duke "was no less happy than herself." She also supplied her daughter with advice on how to please him, suggesting that she should curb any thoughts of independence and show her submission by anticipating his desires:
But where a husband's delicacy and indulgence is so great that he will not say what he likes, the task becomes more difficult, and a wife must use all possible delicacy and ingenuity in trying to find out his inclinations, and the utmost readiness in conforming to them. You have this difficult task to perform, my dearest Georgiana, for the Duke of D., from a mistaken tenderness, persists in not dictating to you the things he wishes you to do, and not contradicting you in anything however disagreeable to him. This should engage you by a thousand additional motives of duty and gratitude to try to know his sentiments upon even the most trifling subjects, and especially not to enter into any engagements or form any plans without consulting him. . . .
Unwilling to disappoint her mother, Georgiana made sincere efforts to appear cheerful, sending her carefully composed accounts of her life. Lady Spencer was particularly delighted when Georgiana wrote her letters in French and interspersed her news with little poems or religious reflections. Since she had been told that she ought to be content, Georgiana asserted that she was: "I have been so happy in marrying a Man I so sincerely lov'd, and experience Dayly so much of his goodness to me, that it is impossible I should not feel to the greatest degree that mutual happyness you speak of." But she could not help adding anxiously, "My only wish is to deserve it and my greatest pleasure the thought of being in any manner able to add to His Happyness." She was quite sure that she did not add to his happiness in the slightest degree.
Georgiana had entered into marriage thinking that, like her mother, she would be a wife and companion. She soon discovered that her chief role was to produce children and carry out her social obligations. The Duke was used to his bachelor life: love he received from his mistress, companionship from his friends; from his wife he expected loyalty, support, and commitment to the family's interests. His was an old-fashioned view, greatly out of step with an age which celebrated romantic sentiment and openly shed tears over Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa. The Duke did not know how to be romantic; never having experienced tenderness himself he was incapable of showing it to Georgiana. He did not mean to hurt her, but there was a nine-year age difference between them and a gulf of misunderstanding and misplaced expectations.
They left Chatsworth in January, much to Georgiana's relief. In London she would be surrounded by her own family and friends and no longer reliant on the monosyllabic Duke or his critical relations. The caravan of carriages and coaches, piled high with boxes of plate and linens, set off once more. Most of the servants joined the back of the train to take up their duties at Devonshire House, leaving behind a skeleton staff until the family's return in the summer.
Devonshire House lay in London's western end, known as the "polite" end, encompassing Piccadilly, St. James's, and Hyde Park. Before the eighteenth century the grand nobility lived in private palaces along the Strand, overlooking the river Thames, but after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when William and Mary, the Protestant rulers of Holland, sailed to England at the Whig party's request and helped to depose the Catholic King James II, the nature of political life changed. Parliament no longer met at the King's command but according to a set calendar, while the court resided permanently at St. James's Palace when Parliament was in session. The aristocracy had to be in London for much longer periods of time, and in a location convenient for both the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and the Palace of St. James's nearby. The concentration of so much wealth and power transformed the city. By the mid-eighteenth century one in ten Englishmen had lived in London at some point in his life. There was a frenzy of building as the capital spread out westwards. Speculators widened country lanes into streets, turned fields into smart squares, and built shops, arcades, and churches on previously empty spaces. By the 1770s modern London was envied throughout Europe for its glass-fronted shops and spacious roads that easily accommodated two lanes of traffic.
The aristocratic "season" came into existence not only to further the marriage market but to entertain the upper classes while they carried out their political duties. The season followed the rhythm of Parliament: it began in late October with the opening of the new session, and ended in June with the summer recess. The two most popular nights of the week were Wednesday and Saturday, when Parliament was not in session and the men's attendance could be assured. A completely new form of public architecture appeared, the sole purpose of which was to facilitate social intercourse. Coffee houses—where men of all classes gathered during the day to read newspapers and discuss politics—sprang up. White's, the first of the London clubs, opened in St. James's in 1697; Almack's, Boodles, and Brooks's followed half a century later. For evening entertainment people went to Covent Garden or to the Italian Opera House in the Haymarket to hear Handel, or to Drury Lane to watch David Garrick. Afterwards they could amuse themselves at the commercial gardens of Ranelagh, or visit its riverside competitor, Vauxhall, to dance at a masquerade, attend a concert, or watch the fireworks.
With her instinctive ability to make an impression, Georgiana immediately caused a sensation. She always appeared natural, even when she was called upon to open a ball in front of 800 people. She could engage in friendly chatter with several people simultaneously, leaving each with the impression that it had been a memorable event. She was "so handsome, so agreeable, so obliging in her manner, that I am quite in love with her," Mrs. Delany burbled to a friend. "I can't tell you all the civil things she said, and really they deserve a better name, which is kindness embellished by politeness. I hope she will illumine and reform her contemporaries!" Even cynics like Horace Walpole found their resistance worn down by Georgiana's unforced charm and directness. Observing her transformation into a society figure, Walpole marvelled that this "lovely girl, natural, and full of grace" could retain these qualities and yet be so much on show. "The Duchess of Devonshire effaces all," he wrote a few weeks after her arrival in London. She achieved it "without being a beauty; but her youth, figure, flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity, make her a phenomenon."
Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable. Women's hair was already arranged high above the head, but Georgiana took the fashion a step further by creating the three-foot hair tower. She stuck pads of horse hair to her own hair using scented pomade and decorated the top with miniature ornaments. Sometimes she carried a ship in full sail, or an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds and waxed fruit, or even a pastoral tableau with little wooden trees and sheep. Even though the towers required the help of at least two hairdressers and took several hours to arrange, Georgiana's designs inspired others to imitate her. "The Duchess of Devonshire is the most envied woman of the day in the Ton," the newspapers reported. It was true; women competed with each other to construct the tallest head, ignoring the fact that it made quick movements impossible and the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor.
Another of Georgiana's innovations was the drooping ostrich feather, which she attached in a wide arch across the front of her hair. In April Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, presented her with one that was four feet long. Overnight it became the most important accessory in a lady's wardrobe, even though the tall nodding plumes were difficult to find and extremely expensive. The ton wore them with a smug arrogance which infuriated the less fortunate. The fashion generated resentment: it was too excessive and too exclusive. The Queen banned ostrich feathers from court, and according to Lady Louisa Stuart, "the unfortunate feathers were insulted, mobbed, hissed, almost pelted wherever they appeared, abused in the newspapers, nay even preached at in the pulpits and pointed out as marks of reprobation."
In less than a year Georgiana had become a celebrity. Newspaper editors noticed that any report on the Duchess of Devonshire increased their sales. She brought glamour and style to a paper. A three-ring circus soon developed between newspapers who saw commercial value in her fame, ordinary readers who were fascinated by her, and Georgiana herself, who enjoyed the attention. The more editors printed stories about her, the more she obliged by playing up to them. Her arrival coincided with the flowering of the English press. A growing population, increased wealth, better roads, and an end to official censorship had resulted in a wider readership and more news to report. By the end of the 1770s there were nine daily newspapers, all based in London, and hundreds of bi- and tri-weekly provincial papers which reprinted the London news. For the first time national figures emerged, Georgiana among them, which the whole country read about and discussed, and with whom they could feel some sort of connection.