The first wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire has been firmly stamped into history by the sordid stains of her shocking affairs, peculiar marriage arrangement – in which she lived with her sometime-confidante turned husband’s mistress, in a ménage-a-trois for twenty five years – and notorious addiction to gambling. Such antics are not too dissimilar from those carried out by certain WAGS and reality television celebrities today, but in their defence one might add that they were not born the daughters of the 1st Earl Spencer, nor are ancestors of Princess Diana (great-great grand niece) or the Duchess of York, and so we can hardly expect better. However, to Georgiana’s credit, neither were they married off on their seventeenth birthdays to a man ten years their senior who preferred the company of his dogs to that of his charming young wife.
Georgiana Cavendish was born Georgiana Spencer on the 7 June 1757, the eldest child of John, Earl of Spencer, and his wife Georgiana Poyntz. She became something of a socialite, celebrated for her beauty and wit, and ingratiated herself among literary and political figures – notably, she was a supporter of the ‘Whig’ party, who were in favour of radical liberalism, and opposers of the ‘Tories’, who backed monarchism; Devonshire house was a popular venue for the Whig party to meet socially, and it was in these meetings that Georgiana developed a political mind quite out of place in woman of the 18th century.
Whilst her flirtatious and wanton circle of acquaintances had a rather damaging effect on her reputation in the history books and in modern culture, she was in fact influential in her time, something of a Regency Victoria Beckham – the Devonshire House group came up with their own ‘slanguage’, known as the ‘Devonshire Drawl’, and had a range of nicknames for their friends and rivals. She was adored and admired by the nation, and during the 1784 general election was rumoured to have traded kisses for votes in favour of Charles Fox; this was satirised by Thomas Rowlandson in his print “THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes”.
Her presence alone brought hordes of supporters that were simply there to catch a glimpse of the Devonshire beauty, and she even caught the eye of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds; so much so that she was painted several times by each. One Gainsborough’s painting was in fact stolen in 1876 (and was returned to its home in Chatsworth 200 years later) – clearly, it was an impressive portrait. She is also somewhat famous for her gambling addiction; at the time of her death in March 1806, aged 48, she had racked up an equivalent of £3,720,000 in today’s currency, evidently theresult of more than the odd poker night in the drawing room.
The most notorious of her misdeeds, however, is perhaps her affair with Charles Grey, then a young recruit to the House of Commons, and who would have frequented the Whig party meetings at Georgiana’s home in Devonshire. He was plainly attracted to more than the promise of political conversation, and pursued the Duchess rather ardently until she lavished her attentions upon him – by 1791, she was pregnant, but refused to abandon her husband after he delivered the ultimatum that to leave him would be to never see her children again. She had by this time two daughters, Georgiana (1783) and Harriet (1785) – affectionately nicknamed Harryo – and the anxiously anticipated male heir, William (1790), in addition to the Duke’s illegitimate daughter Charlotte, who she raised as her own. She bore Eliza Courtney in 1792, but was forced to hand her to Grey’s family, where she was raised as his sister. Charles Grey pursued his political career after the skirmish, which conveniently helped to secure his place in the Whig party; he became the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland in November 1830, issued the Reform Act in 1832, but most importantly, gave his name to Earl Grey tea.
Despite such abominable attributions to her life story, Georgiana was in fact an influential woman in her own right. Amanda Foreman, historian and author of ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’, writes: “Georgiana should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity for public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.” She was the public figurehead for the Whigs, and an active member, whose advice was sought and opinions were valued.
She rescued Fox from political defeat during the Westminster elections of 1784 by conducting powerful campaigns, for which she was highly disapproved of for her ‘masculine manner’, and during the wilderness years before and after the 1789 Regency crisis, Georgiana’s irresistible charm and personality meant that she successfully recruited new blood to the party, greatly alleviating the flow of desertions, and she played a significant part in persuading the Prince not to desert the Whigs. Foreman continues: “No other woman – indeed, very few men, achieved as much influence as Georgiana wielded during her lifetime”. She overcame personal strife with dignity that is often overlooked, accepting that her close friend Lady Elizabeth Foster, known as ‘Bess’, became the Duke William’s mistress and bore him a son, Augustus, and daughter, Caroline Rosalie, and after Georgiana’s death married and become the second Duchess of Devonshire. They lived in this obscure way for 25 years, an admirable achievement, and Georgiana bore the hardships of a loveless marriage with more grace than she is credited for. She was a remarkably active political campaigner in an age when women’s suffrage was still over a century away, and supported early campaigns to abolish slavery.
The Duchess’s achievements are commonly eclipsed by the more entertaining, salacious gossip that circulated at the time, but her political accomplishments are certainly worthy of as much attention as her less admirable escapades. As Amanda Foreman writes; “She is remarkable for being a successful politician whose actions brought about national events; for attaining great prominence in spite of the fact she was a woman in a society which favoured men; and for achieving success while enduring great personal suffering in her search for self fulfilment.” The Duchess of Devonshire was rather more than a coquettish young flirt, and it is perhaps time that her reputation was lifted from its current position amongst footballers’ wives and historical hussies.