The Duchess, by Amanda Foreman: first impressions

I want to finish Amanda Foreman‘s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, before watching the upcoming film starring Keira Knightley. I will post a series of mini-reviews on the book as I read it.

First I should note that Ms. Foreman shines in her depiction of the ton, a French word that designates the world of the most fashionable tier of the British aristocracy in the 18th century. Here the distant ladies painted by Reynolds and Gainsborough come to life. We see it all: the obsession with fashion and appearances, the wit, the backbiting, the intrigues, the rivalries, the compulsive gambling, the adultery that constitute the background of Georgiana’s life.

We meet Georgiana as a high-strung, bright little girl. The traumas of her childhood (death of siblings in infancy, extended separation from her parents) were the norm, not the exception, in the 18th century, a point that maybe should have been made more clearly in the book. Certainly for Georgiana and her family all of this was tragic, but sadly it was commonplace tragedy, and it does not explain what would later make Georgiana so uniquely Georgiana.

Duke of DevonshireIf anything, her parents cared deeply for her and she received, by the standards of her times and for a young woman, a careful education. Jane Austen fans will remember the discussion between Darcy, Bingley Caroline and Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice as to what makes a young lady “accomplished.” Lady Georgiana Spencer was accomplished.

At seventeen she is eager to marry the Duke of Devonshire, the best “catch” of the day. Forced marriages were not socially acceptable in England as they were in France at the time. As Amanda Foreman puts it, Georgiana may not have been in love with the Duke himself, but she was with the idea of marrying him.

He remains an enigmatic figure, and at this point in the book I find him more interesting than his young bride. He already has a steady mistress, by whom he has a little girl. Oddly enough, this other woman, though no relation of Georgiana, is also called Spencer. What would Freud have made of that?

In any case, His Grace has no intention of relinquishing that other Spencer woman for Georgiana’s sake. But why is he so cold in his demeanor to his bride? What makes this man tick? I wish Ms. Foreman would tell us more about him. All we know is that he marries for two reasons: produce a son and heir, and have a socially brilliant wife as his Duchess.

On the second point, Georgiana exceeds his and everyone else’s expectations. She has an uncanny sense of fashion and public relations, and immediately after her marriage becomes the queen of the ton. But, like many of her new friends, she indulges in heavy drinking, drug abuse, binge eating followed by insane dieting, and round-the-clock partying. Obviously not the best way to carry a pregnancy to term.

Georgiana suffers a series of miscarriages. The Duke pays her enormous gambling debts without a word of reproach, but he is becoming frustrated by her inability to present him with an heir. He withdraws further into his own world, and she becomes distraught, trying a charlatan’s “remedies” instead of settling down to a more quiet lifestyle. To say that it is not a healthy marriage is an understatement. But there is far more to come.

Amanda Foreman’s depiction of the friendship between Marie-Antoinette and Georgiana, though very cursory (so far it is limited to two pages) deserves its own review in the next post in this series. More later…

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