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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