|Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire|
from Posthumous memoirs of his own time
by NW Wraxall (1836)
The Sylph is a partly autobiographical novel attributed to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. It was published anonymously in two volumes by Thomas Lowndes and offered for sale at the price of “5s sewed, or 6s bound” in December 1778. (1)
Although Georgiana refused to publicly acknowledge that she was the “young lady” who had written The Sylph, the authorship was soon surmised because of the intimate knowledge of the ton that the book displayed and the names and situations of the characters.
For example, Lady Besford, one of the heroine’s worldly-wise advisors, was generally believed to have been modelled on Georgiana’s friend, Lady Melbourne. Similarly, the heroine had a beloved younger sister, just like Georgiana’s sister Harriet.
from In Whig Society, correspondence
ed by Mabell, Countess of Airlie (1921)
Like other novels of the time, such as Fanny Burney’s Evelina, The Sylph was written as a series of letters. It tells the story of Julia Grenville, a virtuous young lady from the country who is beguiled into marriage with the dissipated Sir William Stanley.
The heroine’s family
Julia, Lady Stanley, the virtuous heroine
Sir William Stanley, Julia’s dissipated husband
Louisa Grenville, Julia’s much-loved sister. Most of the letters in the book are correspondence between Julia and Louisa.
Mr Grenville, Julia’s father
The worldly characters
Lord Biddulph, Julia’s unwanted admirer
Colonel Jack Montague, Lord Biddulph’s corrupt friend
Lady Besford, one of the ladies of fashion that Sir William appoints as Julia’s protector
Lady Anne Parker, the other lady of fashion that Sir William appoints as Julia’s protector
The virtuous characters
The Sylph – Julia’s self-appointed guardian angel, who gives her advice on how she should behave
Henry Woodley, Julia’s childhood neighbour who is secretly in love with her
James Spencer, Woodley’s long-term friend
Baron Ton-hausen, an honourable man in London society who is a complete contrast to Sir William
Maria Finch, the most pleasant of Julia’s London acquaintances
Lady Melford, an old friend who offers Julia wise counsel
Edward Stanley, Sir William’s uncle
Sir George Brudenel, another honourable man
An unequal marriage
Sir William Stanley visits Wales and becomes infatuated with the young and innocent Julia Grenville. Believing Sir William to be sincere in his attachment, Mr Grenville agrees to the couple’s marriage. Sir William whisks Julia off to London to take her place in the ton.
Meanwhile, having inherited a fortune, Henry Woodley returns to England to declare his love for Julia, his childhood sweetheart, to find that she has just got married. Woodley’s friend James Spencer writes to warn him that Julia’s husband is not a man of good character.
The influence of the ton
Julia knows little of the world and finds she does not know how to behave. Sir William introduces her to two ladies, Lady Besford and Lady Anne Parker, to help acquaint her with the ways of the world and be her “protectors in public”. Lady Besford is concerned with helping Julia to make “a fashionable appearance”. Lady Anne Parker “has more artifice” and Julia later discovers she is Sir William’s mistress.
Julia finds herself being sucked into the ways of the ton and is desperately in need of guidance. An old acquaintance, Lady Melford, offers some sage counsel, but when she leaves London, Julia is bereft.
Sir William views his wife as something for others to admire as if she was a possession and ceases to care for her. Julia is at the theatre when the ceiling collapses and she is rescued by the Baron Ton-hausen. Sir William is angry that this causes Julia to have a miscarriage and shows no concern for her safety.
Julia is surrounded by admirers. She dislikes the attentions of Lord Biddulph, who is secretly planning to seduce her, but finds herself drawn to the kindly Baron Ton-hausen.
Julia receives a letter from a gentleman calling himself the Sylph. He proposes to watch over her and offer her advice which she willingly accepts. The Sylph warns Julia against the Baron because his integrity is more attractive to Julia than Lord Biddulph’s unwanted attentions. Julia discovers a love of gambling, but the Sylph urges her to give it up. He quotes a salutary tale of how a lady was forced into compromising her virtue because of her love of gambling.
|Card playing at Kew Palace|
Julia’s friend Miss Finch relates a story that confirms the integrity of the Baron and the treachery of Lord Biddulph’s friend, Colonel Montague. Julia confesses to the Sylph that she favours the Baron but declares that she will take “this fatal preference with me to the grave”. Julia meets the Sylph at a masquerade and the Pantheon. She agrees that if ever her circumstances changed and she became free to make another choice, she would ask the Sylph’s advice.
|The Pantheon from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)|
After the masquerade, Julia goes home with her husband, still masked. He tries to make love to her, but his mask falls off and she discovers that it is Lord Biddulph disguised as her husband. Lord Biddulph says he should have masqueraded as the Baron instead. Lady Anne Parker is slandering Julia about the Baron, forcing the Baron to leave London to protect her reputation. Miss Finch urges her appearance in public as proof that she is not devastated at the Baron’s departure.
Sir William’s perfidy
Sir William is greatly in debt and Julia gives him part of her settlements in order to please him. The Sylph advises her against giving away any more, but she eventually yields to pressure, unwilling to bear the guilt of refusing if Sir William should commit suicide in his desperation.
Distressed for money, Sir William forges his uncle’s signature in order to sell some property in Julia’s settlement in which she only has a life interest. The purchaser, Sir George Brudenel, and his uncle discover the crime and come to London to confront Sir William.
In order to raise the funds he needs to repay Sir George, Sir William agrees to sign over his rights to his wife to Lord Biddulph. Julia refuses Lord Biddulph and runs away to Maria Finch’s house.
When Sir William discovers that Julia has gone, he knows that he is ruined and goes to an inn and shoots himself.
A happy ending
Edward Stanley is distressed that his nephew was driven to such a drastic course of action. He recognises Julia’s virtues and makes financial provision for her. The Sylph relinquishes his post as his guidance is no longer necessary.
There are happy endings all round. Maria Finch marries Sir George Brudenel. Louisa marries James Spencer. Spencer confesses that his friend Woodley has long cherished a passion for Julia, but Julia is still in love with Baron Ton-hausen and refuses to meet Woodley. Julia receives a note from the Sylph saying that he will reveal himself “under a semblance not expected”. Julia discovers that the Sylph is none other than Baron Ton-hausen. The Baron is also her childhood sweetheart Henry Woodley, who inherited the foreign title with his fortune.
Read more about the author, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.
Read about what The Sylph can tell us about Georgiana.
(1) Amanda Foreman’s biography quoted the London Chronicle dated 26 November 1778 which promised the publication of The Sylph: A Novel on “Tuesday next”. This suggests a publication date of 1 December 1778 rather than 1779 which is often given.
Although published anonymously by “a young lady”, the printer, Thomas Lowndes, advertised The Sylph alongside Fanny Burney’s already successful Evelina in a way that suggested that Fanny Burney was also the author of The Sylph. Foreman stated that the Burneys complained about the implied authorship of The Sylph as it might damage Fanny Burney’s reputation.
(2) All quotes are from The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1778).
Sources used include:
Cavendish, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph (1778)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1998)