|Georgiana Cavendish in the "picture hat"|
after Thomas Gainsborough c1785-7
from The Two Duchesses,
Family Correspondence (1898)
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 - 30 March 1806), was a leading member of late Georgian society, famous for her extrovert personality, her extravagant fashions and her championing of the Whigs led by Charles James Fox. She lived in a notorious “ménage à trois” with her husband and his mistress, and had an affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, which almost ruined her.
Born to privilege
Lady Georgiana Spencer was born in Althorp, Northamptonshire, on 7 June 1757. She was the eldest daughter of John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer, one of the richest men in England, and Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. She had two siblings, George and Henrietta, known as Harriet, later Lady Bessborough.
|Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire|
and her sister Harriet, Countess of Bessborough
from Lord Granville Leveson Gower's
private correspondence 1781-1821 (1916)
An illustrious marriage
Georgiana married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, on 7 June 1774, her 17th birthday. The Duke was extremely reserved and ill-matched to the emotionally demonstrative Georgiana.
|William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire|
after Sir Joshua Reynolds
stipple engraving pubd 1808
NPG D13723 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen of fashion
Starved of the affection she craved, Georgiana threw herself into the fashionable world. The Duchess became the darling of the Beau Monde. Where Georgiana led, the ton followed. She set the fashions, whether for three foot high ostrich feathers or tall towers of hair with elaborate decorations or, later, the penchant for free-flowing muslin dresses tied simply with ribbon round the waist.
Georgiana enthusiastically embraced her husband’s politics and became “a zealous advocate of the Whigs”(1). Devonshire House became the hub of the Whig party and Georgiana their leading hostess.
In 1780, Georgiana appeared on the hustings for the general election beside Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig party. In 1784, when Fox was struggling to keep his seat in the Westminster election, Georgiana and her sister went amongst the electorate, canvassing for votes for Fox. Their actions were successful and Fox held his seat, but the press was humiliating, accusing Georgiana of exchanging kisses for votes and forcing her to take a less visible role in the future.
|Charles James Fox|
from The History of White's
by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
The Devonshire House Circle
The Devonshire House Circle was a wild set with loose morals that drank heavily and played deeply. It included Charles James Fox, the Prince of Wales, the Countess of Jersey and Viscountess Melbourne who became Georgiana’s intimate friends.
|George, Prince of Wales|
from La Belle Assemblée (1830)
Debts, debts and more debts
Georgiana was extravagant and gave the most splendid parties. But her real downfall was her addiction to gambling, resulting in ever-increasing debts which she did her best to hide from the Duke, placing a constant strain on her life. When she eventually confessed to her debts, it seemed for a while as if the Duke would divorce her, but instead he treated her with great forbearance.
In 1782, the Duke and Duchess went to Bath, where they met the fascinating Lady Elizabeth Foster. She was separated from her husband and living in restricted circumstances and eagerly seized the opportunity to improve her situation. Lady Elizabeth, known as Bess, attached herself to Georgiana and was invited to return home with them.
|Lady Elizabeth Foster|
from La Belle Assemblée (1810)
Bess bore the Duke two illegitimate children, Caroline St Jules and Augustus Clifford, and became the Duchess of Devonshire after Georgiana’s death.
A devoted mother
Finally, in 1783, Georgiana, known as Little G, was born. Her sister, Harriet, known as Harryo, followed two years later, but it was not until 1790, when the hope of her ever producing an heir had almost disappeared, that William, Marquess of Hartington, known as Hart, was born.
The love of Georgiana’s life
The true love of Georgiana’s life was the handsome young Whig politician, Charles Grey. She embarked upon an affair, but in 1791 she faced the worst crisis of her life when she discovered that she was carrying his child. The Duke gave her an ultimatum: give up Grey and the child or she would never see her three children again. Grey was furious when she chose her children over him.
|Charles Grey |
by Thomas Lawrence 1828
from The History of White's
by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
Georgiana fled abroad giving birth to Eliza Courtney in January 1792 and then handing her over to Grey’s parents to be brought up. She was never able to openly acknowledge her motherhood, although she did visit her daughter.
Eventually, the Duke sent word that she could return and in the autumn of 1793, she arrived in England after a two year absence.
For several years following her exile, Georgiana lived a quiet life. She suffered a severe eye infection, possibly a tumour, which left her blind in one eye and her face scarred from the primitive treatment that she had received.
|Chatsworth House, country seat of the Duke of Devonshire, |
from The Lady's Magazine (1789)
|Chatsworth House today|
Georgiana is usually associated with her extravagant behaviour, but there is a different side to her which is often overlooked. She was both a writer and a scientist.
In 1779 (2), she published a satire, The Sylph, and she also wrote a number of poems, including The Passage of the Mountain of St Gothard and verses to accompany the bust of Charles James Fox at Woburn.
Whilst in exile abroad, Georgiana met the scientist Charles Blagden and developed a keen interest in chemistry. She also built a mineral collection at Chatsworth.
|The library at Chatsworth House|
Georgiana died on 30 March 1806 from a liver complaint. She was buried in the family vault at St Stephen’s Church, Derby, on 8 April, and all society mourned her passing.
"There is no part of the world, I believe, where the angelic Duchess will not be deeply regretted; her kindness and beneficence were wound up with the happiness of so many."(3)
Find out the plot of Georgiana's novel in my Regency History guide to The Sylph.
Read about what The Sylph can tell us about Georgiana's life and feelings.
(1) From La Belle Assemblée (1806).
(2) A newspaper report quoted in Amanda Foreman's biography suggests that The Sylph may have been published in December 1778 rather than in 1779.
(3) From a letter to Lady Elizabeth Foster from her son Augustus 28 May 1806, from The Two Duchesses, Family Correspondence (1898).
Sources used include:
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (John Bell, 1806, 1810, London)
|Bourke, Hon. Algernon, The History of White's (1892)|
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins, 1998, London)
Hibbert, Christopher, George IV (1972, Longmans, 1973, Allen Lane, London)
McCalman, Iain, Devonshire, Duchess of, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (OUP 2009 Oxford Reference Online, accessed 14 November 2011)
All photographs © Andrew Knowles - www.flickr.com/photos/dragontomato