Review by Cheryl Bolen
Piety and Wit: A Biography of Harriet Countess Granville
A Second Self: The Letters of Harriet Granville 1810-1845
Virginia Surtees, Editor
Michael Russell, 1990, £14.95, 320 pgs.
A woman of the twenty-first century might be perplexed that
Harriet Granville merited not only one book but several on her life and
letters. For in addition to the two reviewed here, there is another
volume of her letters, and she was recently one of the featured
personalities in Katie Hickmanís work on wives of English ambassadors.
So this woman who never made artistic contributions, never gave birth to
future prime ministers or distinguished poets, whose husbandís only
achievement was an unremarkable ambassadorship to Paris, became the
subject of four books in the century after her death.
What made her life so interesting to historians? The seeds for
Harrietís claim to fame were likely sewn before her birth. Her parents,
the fifth Duke of Devonshire and his glamorous duchess, Georgiana, were
among the wealthiest, most famous peers of their day.
Born in 1785, Harriet Cavendish (the Devonshire family name) was
the second Devonshire daughter, the first having been her beloved
sister, "G," to whom almost all the letters in the Second Self
book are addressed. Her parents, trying desperately for a son and heir,
must have been extremely disappointed she was not a male, but her mother
compensated by being affectionate throughout her daughterís childhood.
The Devonshire heir, the sixth duke, was born when Harriet was five, and
she was close to him throughout her life.
Though she was said to be close to her mother, Harriet avoids
mentioning her in the posts written after her motherís 1806 death.
It would have been impossible for a daughter to have been more
unlike her mother than Harriet. For starters, Harriet was unattractive.
And because of the influence of her evangelical governess, Harriet never
indulged in the vices that distinguished her motherís hedonistic
lifestyle: adultery and addictive gambling that nearly bankrupt one the
kingdomís wealthiest estates. Most especially, Harriet was a prude.
The governess Miss Trimmer (selected by Lady Spencer, the
duchessís mother) had done her job well, especially given that Harriet
was raised with a bevy of illegitimates. Her father sired three
illegitimate children; her mother was forced to leave her legitimate
children for more that two years while she gave birth to an illegitimate
daughter; her motherís sister, Lady Bessborough, gave birth to two
natural children by her longtime lover, Granville Leveson Gower. And
if all that wasnít enough, both her parents loved their live-in friend,
Lady Elizabeth Foster, the mother of two of the dukeís illegitimate
When her father announced his intention of marrying his mistress
after the first duchessís death, the spinster Harriet must of have been
at the lowest point in her life. Her adored sister was living far away
at Castle Howard with her husband and growing family. No man had offered
for her. And she could not live under her fatherís roof when he
remarried the woman she loathed.
It was at this time her motherís sister put her own feelings aside
and encouraged her adored lover to marry her niece. Lady Bessborough and
Granville had been lovers for seventeen years. Because he was the
younger son of the Marquis of Stafford, Granville needed to marry a
woman with a generous dowery.
He offered, and Harriet was only to happy to accept. The letters
in Surteesí book commence at her marriage, and it is doubtful any bride
was ever happier or more completely in love with her husband than
Harriet was with Granville. Not just during the honeymoon. Her devotion
never ceased. She even writes of him as "adored Granville."
Her letters drip with affection for her adored Granville, her
beloved sister and cherished brother. She speaks kindly of Miss Trimmer,
too. But few others mentioned in the letters escape Harrietís scathing
tongue. Had she known these private letters to her sister would be
revealed to thousands, she probably would not have written with such a
high degree of critical arrogance.
The mean-spiritedness of the letters, though, is well compensated
by the one action which cannot fail to endear Harriet Granville to
ensuing generations. Though she gave birth to five children, she allowed
Granvilleís two illegitimate children by her aunt (whom Harriet did
not like) to come live with her. Not only that, she came to love
these children, Harriet Stewart and George Stewart.
Though Harriet Cavendish had been raised in a state of opulence
that can never be revived, she would never as a married woman ever live
in splendor. She adjusted admirably to her reduced circumstances, and
one feels that she was not bothered by it in the least. She had
obviously been closer in temperament to Miss Trimmer than she was to her
Named a viscount in 1815, Granville served altogether for 15 years
as ambassador to Paris, leaving the post in 1841. In 1833 he was
elevated to an earldom, after voting for the Reform Bill in the House of
Lords. Two years after returning from France, he suffered a massive
stroke. He died in 1846, the year Surtees selected to end her volume of
letters. Harriet spent much time with her daughters and her brother, the
bachelor duke, after Granvilleís death.
Askwith pens an excellent biography of Harriet, incorporating much
fresh archival research. Both books are recommended. Surtees limits the
letters to the years of Harrietís marriage. They are an especially rich
source of information on house parties of the era. The Granvilles were
guests at some of Englandís most spectacular estates. An earlier edition
of Harrietís letters spans the years prior to her marriage.
This review first appeared in The Quizzing Glass in