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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

By Cheryl Bolen

Married to one of the richest peers in England when she was seventeen, the beautiful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, came to symbolize the Georgian age with all of its glittering decadence. Her closest friends included the future English regent and Queen Marie Antoinette. She was governed by passion: passion for politics, for gambling, for her children, for her best friend who shared her husband's bed, and for the statesman for whom she would bear a secret love child. Yet despite all these trappings of hedonism, Georgiana is one of the most interesting, complex, and warmest women ever chronicled in English history.

Georgiana's parents, Earl and Countess Spencer, were something of a novelty in their age. They married for love. Georgiana, born in 1757, was the first of their three children. The others were Harriet (later Lady Bessborough, mother of Caroline Lamb) and George, who would succeed his father as Earl Spencer. One of the richest men in England, Lord Spencer built lavish Spencer House in St. James, adjacent to Green Park, where his children were raised in harmony. (The Spencers owned several other residences, including Althorp.) There is no record of Lord or Lady Spencer ever conducting an extramarital affair, as was the accepted practice of the day among aristocrats. Throughout her life, Lady Spencer would remain extremely close to Georgiana, writing her nearly every day. Many of their letters survive.

Despite her parents' reluctance to lose her, they allowed her to marry the 24-year-old Duke of Devonshire as soon as she turned seventeen. Shortly after her marriage, her father wrote, "My Dearest Georgiana, I did not know till lately how much I loved you; I miss you more every day and every hour."

Historians have maligned Georgiana's husband for his absence of the tender feelings such as her father possessed. At the age of sixteen he had become the Fifth Duke of Devonshire, head of the Cavendish family, and leader of Whig society. His staggering wealth was twice that of the fabulously wealthy Lord Spencer.

Georgiana's trousseau, costing almost fifteen hundred pounds, included sixty-five pairs of shoes, forty-eight pairs of stockings, and twenty-six pairs of gloves. Morning dresses, walking dresses, riding habits, ball gowns, and a presentation dress were also bought along with hats, cloaks, shawls, and wraps.

Only five people attended the wedding: Georgiana's parents, her maternal grandmother (Lady Cowper), the duke's brother (Lord Cavendish), and his sister (Duchess of Portland).

At the same time he was betrothed to Georgiana, the duke was conducting an affair with a former milliner, Charlotte Spencer, who bore him a daughter.

From the start of their marriage, the Devonshires were seldom in each other's pockets. The duke preferred to spend his nights at Brook's, where he played cards until five in the morning. Unimpeded by lack of her husband's escort, Georgiana stormed into London society. Because of her exalted rank, enormous fortune, and youthful beauty, she caught the public's fancy. For the next couple of decades, the newspapers would be full of accounts of her, of what she wore, of her every activity, and of her passion for Whig politics. Like her friend Marie Antoinette had done in France, Georgiana made fashionable in London the completely exaggerated three-foot pompadours. Sticking pads of horse hair beneath her own, Georgiana's hair was so tall the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor--which must have excluded any other passengers, given the full skirts of Georgian dresses.

Like most aristocrats of the day, Georgiana developed an obsession for gambling. Early in her marriage she ran up debts that exceeded the generous four-thousand pounds annual pin money given her by the duke. Her mother's didactic letters to her daughter never failed to admonish her for her gambling debts. "Play at whist, commerce, backgammon, trictrac or chess," Lady Spencer wrote, "but never at quinze, lou, brag, faro, hazard or any games of chance." The advice went unheeded.

The first time Georgiana tallied debts of three-thousand pounds ($297,000 in today's money), she begged her parents for a loan. They complied, but insisted that she tell her husband. When the duke found out, he repaid her parents. For the next several years she would continue to be hounded by ever-amassing gambling debts and would continue hiding the extent of them from her husband. Even when she would own up to an exorbitant sum, it was always less than what she really owed. Despite that she was married to one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, she was constantly borrowing money from her friends, from the Prince of Wales, and would flatter the wealthy banker Thomas Coutts with her friendship in exchange for his settling some of her debts.

Georgiana's other obsession was for Whig politics. The anti-crown creed of this group was to represent liberty against tyranny. Hated by King George III, the Whigs were headed by the duke's Cavendish family, the Spencers, and the Portlands, and because of Georgiana's natural flair for the limelight, it fell to her to be the Whig's chief hostess. She enjoyed surrounding herself by brilliant young radicals, and her dinners at Devonshire House became legendary.

At this time the Prince of Wales, always wishing to be a thorn in his father's side, took up with the clever young Whigs, whose chief leaders in Parliament were Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan. (Georgiana's newest biographer, Amanda Foreman, says this of Fox: "Eighteenth-century England was full of wits, connoisseurs, orators, historians, drinkers, gamblers, rakes, and pranksters, but only Fox embodied all these things.")

Because of her close friendship with Fox, there were rumors that he became Georgiana's lover, but there is no evidence of this, nor is there evidence that she was lover to the Prince of Wales, as was her friend, Lady Melbourne, whose son George was said to have been fathered by the prince.

When the Prince of Wales attempted to kill himself in order to win Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert's affection, Mrs. Fitzherbert refused to go to his bedside unless Georgiana accompanied her. Georgiana was somewhat surprised because she and Mrs. Fitzherbert were not close, but she nevertheless went. It is believed Georgiana produced the ring Mrs. Fitzherbert donned to seal her fate with the prince's that night.

A century before her time, Georgiana led an arduous door-to-door campaign in the Westminster election of 1784 and is credited with bringing Fox and Lord Hood victory. The opposition Whigs dressed in the blue and buff of the American rebels and carried fox tails--a manner of dress Georgiana was only too happy to adopt. Her "canvassing" resulted in a flagrant rumors and political cartoons that intimated she exchanged sexual favors--as well as money--for votes. Despite pleas from her mother to quit holding herself up to public ridicule, Georgiana ceded to the Whig's argument that they could not win without her notoriety. Georgiana refused to stay in her carriage but walked the streets until she had blisters on her feet and met the commoners face to face as an equal.

Georgiana's failures were in reproduction. She had difficulty conceiving, suffered miscarriages, and was married for nine years before she gave birth in 1783 to her first child, Georgiana, who was called Little G. During the years in which she was unable to carry a child to full term, she embraced the duke's illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Williams, who came to live with them in 1780 following her mother's death. (One wonders, if the duke were as inhumane as historians have portrayed him, why he cared where the child lived.) It was the custom of the day that the illegitimate child should take its surname from the father's Christian name. The Duke's name was William.

Despite that Georgiana was "vastly pleased" with her husband's illegitimate daughter, Lady Spencer was not. "I hope you have not talk'd of her to people," she admonished her daughter. Georgiana countered by telling her mother, "She is the best humored little thing you ever saw."

These strong maternal instincts were finally fully exercised when Little G was born. Despite the aristocratic practice of having wet nurses for their babies, Georgiana insisted on nursing her babies herself.

While Georgiana had difficulty conceiving, this was not the case with her dearest friend, Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster, who bore the Duke of Devonshire two illegitimate children while living with Georgiana and the duke (though she would actually disappear to the continent for the births). Separated from her husband (some say because of her possible infidelity) and their two sons, Lady Foster was financially destitute when Georgiana brought her into their home. A natural coquette, she soon had the duke under her spell, but Georgiana seemed not to mind.

Earlier, in 1778, while commanding his militia in extensive military maneuvers, the duke made no secret of the fact Lady (Frances) Jersey was sharing his tent.

The first of Bess's two illegitimate children, a little girl who would be called Caroline St. Jules, was born after Georgiana gave birth to Little G. During Bess's very unpleasant stay near Naples, she received letters from Georgiana and the duke. "I am terribly in want of you here, Mrs. Bess," the duke wrote, "and am every minute reminded of the misfortune of your not being here."

Bess left her daughter behind in France--after persuading the aging Comte St. Jules to give the little girl his name. Eventually, little Caroline would come to live at Devonshire House and be treated the same as the duke's legitimate children.

It is not clear if Georgiana knew at this time that her husband and best friend were lovers. What is clear is that Georgiana would always love Bess with the tenderness of a lover. Foreman has even speculated that they may have had a lesbian relationship. One of Georgiana's letters suggests this: "My dear Bess, Do you hear the voice of my heart crying to you? Do you feel what it is for me to be separated from you?"

The duke was growing ever more dissatisfied with his wife. Her staggering gambling debts sucked up all his money, and he was unable to mortgage his estates until he produced an heir--another blight on Georgiana.

It was the custom of the times that a woman of the ton not take lovers until she produced an heir in order to guarantee the lineage. Therefore, there is no evidence of Georgiana taking a lover until she produced a son, a feat that did not occur until she had been married for sixteen years. During that sixteen years the duke asked to be separated from Georgiana because of her massive debts. This was a matter of grave concern to her family, now headed by her brother, who had succeeded as second Earl Spencer after her father's 1783 death. (Ironically, by the time Georgiana's brother succeeded, their mother, despite her many cautions to her daughter, had gambled away most of her late husband's fortune.)

Eventually, Georgiana and the duke ironed out their problems and began to live together again as man and wife, albeit still in a menage a trois. A second daughter, Harriet, was born in 1785. Her birth coincided with that of Caroline St. Jules's.

Three years later, Bess became pregnant again. This time she and the duke told Georgiana immediately. There is no evidence that Georgiana was angered by the revelation. Again, Bess trotted off to the continent to bear the child in secrecy, only this time Georgiana and the duke ensured her every comfort. A son, Augustus Clifford, was born in 1788, two years before Georgiana would finally give birth to her long sought-after son. Bess's illegitimate son was always called Clifford, which was one of the Cavendish titles.

As the time of her son's birth drew near, Bess was suffering from worry that the child might not be the duke's because she had also been intimate with the married Duke of Richmond. Had the child come later, he would clearly have been sired by Richmond. When he came earlier, she could rest the paternity on the Duke of Devonshire. Her journal at the time reads, "What will the Duke [of Devonshire] think? That is the last day I was with him, and did not return till I was above two months gone."

Proof of Georgiana's lack of jealousy toward Bess is in a letter she sent to her friend while she was in France delivering Clifford. "Dr Bess, I know you are safe and therefore not hurt, always write to him if you have not time for both."

Bess's alliances--likely sexual--with many men have been documented. It's no wonder Lady Spencer detested her. It is to Bess's credit, though, that she never relented in her plan to take her children from their foster homes and raise them in the Duke of Devonshire's household. At this she succeeded.

Two years after Clifford was born, Georgiana gave birth in 1790 to the future Duke of Devonshire, Hartington. With that duty dispatched, she felt herself free to take on lovers. It was thought she had an affair with the unmarried Duke of Dorset.

Many women of this era participated in adulterous affairs under their husband's noses, notably Emma, Lady Hamilton, who carried on a torrid affair with Lord Nelson, and Lady (Frances) Jersey and Lady Melbourne, who conducted many extramarital affairs. Not all husbands were willing to turn a blind eye. Georgiana's sister, Harriet, herself in a wretched marriage, fell in love with Sheridan, who was also married, but her husband was not amenable to the connection.

Nor was the Duke of Devonshire when Georgiana became pregnant by Charles Grey, later to be the second Earl Gray and a prime minister. She was forced to leave her children and travel to France to deliver the baby girl, Eliza, who was born less than two years after Georgiana's son. (The girl was raised by Gray's parents.) Convinced she would die in childbirth, Georgiana wrote this to her baby son: "As soon as you are old enough to understand this letter it will be given to you. It contains the only present I can make you--my blessing, written in my blood...Alas, I am gone before you could know me, but I lov'd you, I nurs'd you nine months at my breast. I love you dearly."

During her long absence, Georgiana missed her children dreadfully, and despite that she was very much in love with Grey, who was seven years her junior, she agreed to renounce Grey in order to return to her children. Still, it was more than two years before the duke relented and allowed her to return. One of her letters to her eldest child at that time reads, "Your letter dated the 1st of Nov was delightful to me tho' it made me very melancholy my Dearest Child. This year has been the most painful of my life. . . when I do return to you, never leave you I hope again--it will be too great a happyness for me Dear Dear Georgiana & it will have been purchased by many days of regret--indeed ev'ry hour I pass away from you, I regret you; if I amuse myself or see anything I admire I long to share the happyness with you--if on the contrary I am out of spirits I wish for your presence which alone would do me good."

Though the references to the reason for Georgian's exile have been purged from letters and journals in the Devonshire family records, Foreman was able to determine that Georgiana's children were informed of the true reason for their mother's absence. And though Georgiana was never able to publicly acknowledge Eliza, their relationship was common knowledge. While the truth of her parentage was withheld from Eliza, the highlights of the little girl's dreary childhood came when Georgiana visited her, bringing presents and showing the child the genuine affection her paternal grandparents withheld.

Georgiana's sister, now Lady Bessborough, would twice secretly give birth to children of her long affair with Granville Leveson Gower, a man eleven years her junior.

The Georgiana who returned after her exile was a changed woman. She spent many hours at home nursing her gout-ridden husband, and the relationship between them obviously softened because she suffered a miscarriage at this time. She concentrated her efforts on scientific experiments and eventually came to befriend the woman Grey took for his wife. A talented writer, Georgiana privately published poetry that was very well received and wrote a song for one of Sheridan's plays that became an instant success.

Early in her marriage she had anonymously published an autobiographical novel titled The Sylph, which was a creditable success, going into four printings. Though never publicly acknowledging her authorship, she had admitted it in private. The Sylph, about an aristocratic bride seduced into wickedness by the ton, was written during one of the many low periods in her life when she was attempting to reform from her gambling vice and fast lifestyle. Unfortunately, she never really managed to reform, though she took long hiatuses from games of chance.

The year 1796 brought Georgiana distress while bringing Bess good fortune. Georgiana's precarious health declined, and she was afflicted with an malady that would cause her loss of sight and sightliness of one eye. For Bess, three fortunate occurrences were precipitated by the death of her estranged husband. She received a handsome widow's jointure, and her two sons from Ireland were restored to her. But most importantly, she was free to remarry. She immediately fancied herself a duchess because the Duke of Richmond's wife died, and the duke had always been in love with Bess. As she and Richmond marked a year of mourning for their spouses, though, the duke changed his mind, rejecting a humiliated Bess.

Georgiana devoted 1800 to the come-out of Little G. The next year Little G married Lord Morph, the son of the Earl Carlisle. This was the only one of her children she would see get married.

The last several years of Georgian's life were marked with health problems. When her mother received a letter begging a hundred pounds and complaining of jaundice, Lady Spencer assumed Georgiana had once again made herself sick over gambling debts. But this time Georgiana really was sick. It was later discovered that she had an abscess on her liver.

Though she had suffered from ill health, those around her sensed she was truly ill this time and persuaded her mother to come. On March 30, 1806, Georgiana, aged forty-eight, died at three-thirty in the morning. Until almost the very end she was surrounded by her mother, the duke, her sister, Bess, and Little G., who was eight months pregnant. All of them were said to be nearly inconsolable. One friend wrote that, "The Duke has been most deeply affected and has shown more feeling than anyone thought possible--indeed every individual in the family are in a dreadful state of affliction."

She was mourned by thousands of Londoners who streamed into Piccadilly (where Devonshire House was located) to pay their respects. Fox wept bitterly. The Prince of Wales said, "The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone."

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Georgiana was penned by Little G.: "Oh my beloved, my adored departed mother, are you indeed forever parted from me--Shall I see no more that angelic countenance or that blessed voice--You whom I loved with such tenderness, you who were the . . . best of mothers, Adieu--I wanted to strew violets over her dying bed as she strewed sweets over my life but they would not let me."

The year after Georgiana died her second daughter, always called Harryo, married Granvile Leveson Gower, who was her aunt's lover.

Three years after Georgiana died the duke married Bess. Georgiana's children were not happy. All three of them had always hated Bess, a matter that had caused Georgiana consternation. She never failed to beg that they love Bess as she did.

Bess must have secretly gloated when the duke gave her daughter thirty-thousand pounds when she married George Lamb, but only gave his legitimate daughter Harryo ten thousand when she married.

The matter was rectified when the duke died in 1811. When Georgiana's son became duke he insisted on raising his (legitimate) sister's marriage portion. He also worked on settling many of his mother's old debts, and he was kind and helpful to Bess's children, eventually helping Clifford to become a baronet.

Bess fought to keep Chiswick and other property she was not entitled to, and she insisted Clifford had the right to bear the Cavendish crest. In her wrath, she went public with the paternity of her illegitimate children. There were many hard feelings in the Cavendish family, and the new duke eventually gave Bess a generous bribe to leave. Surprisingly, Georgiana's and Bess's children continued to get along well.

Georgiana's son would never marry and would be known as the Bachelor Duke. Because of his close friendships with men, there has been speculation that he may have been homosexual, but no evidence has ever been offered.

Bess spent most of the rest of her life in Rome, where she had a torrid affair with a cardinal. She died eighteen years to the day after Georgiana, and when she died she wore about her neck a locket bearing one of Georgiana's reddish-gold curls, and a bracelet made of Georgiana's hair was beside her bed. She was interned in England next to Georgiana and the duke.

Over one thousand of Georgiana's letter remain. Many of them are packed away in the labyrinth of corridors that runs beneath Chatsworth, the Devonshire seat in Derbyshire. And at Chatsworth today, if one stands in the dining room, Georgiana looks down from her Gainsborough portrait.

This article was first published in The Regency Plume in the September/October 2005 issue.

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