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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8 Comments to “The Duchess, by Amanda Foreman: first impressions”

  1. Otha Jiang says:

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  2. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Lauren, and I agree that Georgiana is a fascinating woman!
    I am at the point where she has written The Sylph and is getting involved in politics. But then Bess has also appeared…

  3. Lauren says:

    I am so happy Elena and yourself are enjoying this book – she is such a fascinating woman and the MA connection is a wonderful bonus. The Duchesse de Polignac also appears later in the piece. I agree with much of what you’ve written so far, and I look forward to further reflections!

  4. Ah, yes, you are right, Catherine. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    It is both an interesting and a sad story, Eva, but wait, this is only the beginning.
    Georgiana goes on to become a novelist, a poet, and deeply involved in politics. I am beginning to get in that new phase of her life now. Stay tuned!

  6. Eva says:

    This sounds interesting but sad. The limitations placed on women throughout most of history-brilliant women who might otherwise have become statesmen or businessmen or world travellers-is just so upsetting.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Glad to hear we are – literally – on the same page, Elena!

    I believe that French society was indeed less open. For one thing, you had the royal censorship. Granted, it wasn’t very efficient, as arrested by the huge number of pamphlets aimed at Marie-Antoinette, and the instant success of Les noces de Figaro in Paris in spite of it being officially banned.

    Also, as far as the conduct of French society ladies was concerned, their husbands had the very real threat of a “lettre de cachet” to have them locked up. So any misconduct, at least on the female side, tended to be more discreet than across the Channel.

  8. Catherine, your thoughts pretty much mirror my own so far as I also continue to read and enjoy the same biography. I am struck by the decadence of Georgiana’s set. While French high society of the ancien regime is usually portrayed as being the pinnacle of decadence and corruption, it seems that English “ton” was not too different. Perhaps the English were more concerned with keeping up appearances than the French, whereas the French society was more open (less hypocritical). On the other hand, I recall reading somewhere that there were many English plays that were banned in France at the time, since they were considered too bawdy for the general public. What do you think?

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