Dearest Bess: The
Life and Times of
Lady Elizabeth Foster afterwards Duchess of Devonshire
from Her Unpublished Journals and Correspondence
By Dorothy Margaret Stuart
The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses
By Caroline Chapman in collaboration with
Review by Cheryl Bolen
Dearest Bess: The Life and Times of Lady Elizabeth Foster
afterwards Duchess of Devonshire from Her Unpublished Journals and
By Dorothy Margaret Stuart
Methuen & Co Ltd., London, 1955
Elizabeth and Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses
By Caroline Chapman in collaboration with Jane Dormer
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002
Like most biographies written in the 1950's or earlier, Stuartís
work colors her subject not only favorably but so utterly positively
that the present-day reader wonders if "Dearest Bess" (Lady Elizabeth
Foster, later Duchess of Devonshire) was Stuartís ancestor.
In the case of Chapmanís 2002 book, there is no doubt that Chapman
is completely indebted to Lady Elizabeth Fosterís
great-great-granddaughter, Jane Dormer, who allowed Chapman full use of
the family archives that included journals, correspondence, sketch
books, and scrap books.
Quite naturally, Chapman presented Lady Elizabeth Foster
sympathetically, despite that she abandoned her first husband and two
sons, slept with her dearest friendís husband and bore him two
Both authors will have the reader believe that Bess only loved one
man Ė the fifth Duke of Devonshire Ė despite that other sources claim
she had many lovers.
The title of Chapmanís work is a bit misleading because this is
clearly Bessís book. Yet it is impossible to write about Bess and not
write about the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his first wife, Georgiana,
who Ė together with Bess Ė comprised the most infamous menage a trois
Both authors tell an entertaining story about a fascinating
subject, Lady Elizabeth.
She was born in 1758 to the clergyman third son of the Earl of
Bristol and lived modestly throughout her childhood. Due to his
brotherís influence, her father was later named a bishop in Ireland.
There he encouraged Bess to marry a little known member of the Irish
The marriage was not a success. Shortly after marrying John
Foster, Bessís father succeeded his brother as Earl of Bristol. As the
daughter of a wealthy earl, she now could be called Lady Elizabeth. Did
she perceive that she had married beneath her station?
She chose to leave her husband and return to England, even though
that meant leaving her two young sons. Shortly after arriving in England
she met the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his engaging wife, Georgiana.
The attraction between the three of them was intense and instantaneous.
A few months later Bess (the name they called her) was living with them.
She would live with them for the rest of their lives.
Within two years, she was pregnant by the duke and went to the
continent to give birth in secret. Georgiana did not know her best
friend was her husbandís mistress. Bessís journal entries at this time
are wrenching. She was consumed with shame and fear and sympathy for the
child she bore in a run-down Sicilian brothel.
Unlike most bastards born at this time, Bessís bastards profited
by their motherís tenacity to give them every advantage she could
possibly wrangle. What a paradoxical mother she was! While she had been
content to give up her two Irish sons to free herself from a man she did
not love, she would never turn her back on the illegitimate children
fathered by the powerful Duke of Devonshire.
And what a paradoxical lover was the Duke of Devonshire! Both his
wife and mistress bore him daughters three weeks apart.
Three years later Bess would trot off to the continent once again
to give birth in stealth. This time she bore a son, Augustus Clifford.
While there she would get to see her daughter, Caroline St. Jules, who
was almost three. What a sad irony that Georgiana still had not borne
her husband an heir. (It would be two more years before she would.)
A test of Bess and Georgianaís friendship came when Georgiana got
pregnant by her lover, Whig politician Charles Grey, after Georgiana had
delivered the duke an heir. The duke banished his wife to the continent
for the birth of her illegitimate child and insisted she use her ailing
sister as an excuse to hide her true reason for going. He told Bess she
could stay with him. She chose to accompany Georgiana.
Two and a half years later, the duke allowed them to return. Bess
had gotten her daughter from her foster home and at that time
incorporated her little girl into the Devonshire nursery where she would
be raised alongside her half-sisters, who did not know of the
relationship. No one knows how, but a few years later, Bess managed to
foist her illegitimate son into the Devonshire nursery, too.
When her son was twelve, Bess used her considerable influence to
get him a post in the Royal Navy, and for the next several years cajoled
higher-ups, including Lord Nelson and the Prince Regent, to promote her
son. At age 23 he became master and commander at the instigation of the
regent, and he eventually made admiral.
In 1806, at age 49, Georgiana died. Bess and the duke were
distraught. Georgiana appointed Bess to oversee her papers, a means of
keeping Bess under the dukeís roof. Three and a half years later, Bess
married the duke. They were only married for 21 months when the duke
The almost inconsolable Bess was suddenly turned away from her
home by the dukeís son and heir, who was generous to Bess and to his
half-siblings. It was at this time the illegitimate children were told
of their parentage. They had not even known Bess, who doted on both of
them, was their mother.
With her hefty £6,000 pounds a year from the sixth duke, Bess
eventually moved to Rome and became a much-loved patroness of artists,
scholars and of excavating and preserving the cityís vanishing
antiquities. She also developed a deep love for Cardinal Ercole Consalvi,
the Vatican secretary of state, though her biographers maintain that
their relationship was "pure." In all, she used the title Duchess of
Devonshire for 13 years, until her 1824 death. She died on the exact day
that Georgiana had died 18 years earlier and wore a piece of jewelry
with Georgianaís hair when she died.
--This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in November 2006.