Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire: literature and politics

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire Reynolds

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire Reynolds

Georgiana writes – anonymously – a novel titled The Sylph. It depicts the depraved mores of the British aristocracy from an insider’s point of view. For the contemporaries the identity of the author is an open secret. The Sylph is an instant commercial success and goes through four print runs. Amanda Foreman herself does not doubt Georgiana’s authorship, though it has apparently been disputed by other scholars.

What is undisputed, though, is that Georgiana’s life is taking a new turn. She is still the queen of the ton, but writing proves to be cathartic for her (an experience I have certainly shared.)

This is the time in Georgiana’s life when she becomes seriously involved in politics, not only as a society hostess, but also as a campaigner. An ardent supporter of young, brilliant and eccentric M.P. Charles Fox, she wholeheartedly puts her talents and popularity in the service of the Whig Party, of which the house of Devonshire has always been a stalwart.

Until then, British electoral campaigns had been brutal, disgraceful affairs, where the true and tried way of getting votes was to ply the voters with beer and spirits, and where street fights between supporters of rival candidates were the norm. Hogarth, that great painter and critic of 18th century English life, depicts (below) an electoral banquet.

Georgiana changes all this: she appears at what we would call rallies, dressed with her usual panache in the buff and blue colors of the Whig Party. She uses her personal charm and wit to woo cheering crowds. And it works! The Whigs win a decisive victory and seize control of the government.

As noted in my initial review, Amanda Foreman brilliantly brings to life the details of British aristocratic life aand succeeds in giving us an understanding of the politics of the time. This could be dry, uninspiring, boring, and in fact turns out to be fascinating.

So far, if I were to point out the main weakness in Amanda Foreman’s book, it would be the failure to fully flesh out Georgiana. There is no real physical description of her. We have to be content with a hint here and there whenever I meet other characters: she has russet hair like her father, she is taller and stouter than her bosom friend and rival Lady Elizabeth Foster (more about Bess soon…)

It doesn’t help that various portraits of Georgiana don’t really look like each other. Since I can’t bring myself to associate her with the photograph of Keira Knightley on the cover of my copy either, I have no mental image of Georgiana.

I feel that there has to be far more to Georgiana  than what I am reading. Why else would she have been so charismatic? She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, well beyond the confines her social circle. She was a warm, kind, bright, passionate person.

Yet here she somehow comes out flat. I have the same feeling with the Duke, though it is less problematic since he is not the subject of the biography.

Amanda Foreman says in her introduction that “biographers are notorious for falling in love with their subjects.” True, but I can’t help wishing she hadn’t tried so hard to detach herself from Georgiana.

Hogarth Election banquet

Hogarth Election banquet

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9 Comments to “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire: literature and politics”

  1. Melinda says:

    Also you dont need to come from a loveless family or a family experience with trauma to develop alcohol addiction or addiction generally. You can accidently drift into alcoholism and gambling or drugs. And hey didn’t they stick into the grog in those days. Partying seemed to be her job so alcohol was constantly in her face. Im wondering if she used alcohol to cope with nerves as alot of alcoholics claim to do in the early stages. mmmmm I should go on Oprah

  2. Melinda says:

    Hey Im a social worker so Im going to offer some ‘possible’ clues for Georgiana’s instability. She clearly had an addiction issues. ie. gambling which would emotionally take her on intense highs and lows in cycles. Amanda Foreman suggests that she died of liver disease. Do u know of any alcoholics who didn’t die of liver disease. Not many!! So she probably had Substance Abuse Disorder, which often keeps you emotionally immature eg.needy. And she was expected to lived without love. Loveless marraiges are the pits – especially when your best friend claims to be your friend but is knocking off your husband!
    That would send me to the bottle any day….And remember when she got addicted to laudanaum or something after an illness and had to detox. Her mum said it was a ‘false tranquility’.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Elena, there is no possible comparison between the levels of childhood trauma experienced by Marie-Therese-Charlotte and Georgiana.

    With Amanda Foreman’s biography, I have the feeling that the true Georgiana was a more interesting, stronger person than the character on the page. I would love to compare reviews with you once we are done!

  4. I guess part of it is because I am so used to reading and writing about people like Marie-Therese-Charlotte of France, who had such extreme traumas and upheavals as a youngster, and then many disappointments as an adult. So many of poor Georgiana’s troubles were of her own making and completely avoidable. While she is a fun and fascinating character, she is a bit puzzling.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    “Insecure” is the word for it, Elena. I don’t quite “buy” Amanda Foster’s theory that Georgiana was traumatized for life when her parents left her with her (loving and beloved) grandmother for an extended trip. If anything, by the standards of the times, she had devoted and caring parents.
    I too have trouble fathoming Georgiana…

  6. I am enjoying the book, although I must say that I am having trouble understanding Georgiana herself. I don’t grasp why she was so emotionally needy, what with the drinking and all night parties and spending and inordinate attachments to her friends. She had come from a loving family, although they were not perfect, but at least they cared. Her husband did not love her, clearly, but many women were in loveless marriages. Unlike Marie-Antoinette, Georgiana could not seem to get her gambling under control. I don’t understand why such a charming, intelligent and popular woman would be so insecure.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Sarah! The Sylph will be on my reading list after I finish Georgiana’s biography.

  8. I found that reading The Sylph gave considerable insight into Georgiana’s mindset in the early years of her marriage. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I first picked it up (it was sent to me for review), but her intelligence and wit shine through; those who believe she was merely an attractive socialite will be taken by surprise after reading it. I kept having to remind myself that she was only 22 when she wrote it.

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