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Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire Paperback – January 16, 2001
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Georgiana Spencer was, in a sense, an 18th-century It Girl. She came from one of England's richest and most landed families (the late Princess Diana was a Spencer too) and married into another. She was beautiful, sensitive, and extravagant--drugs, drink, high-profile love affairs, and even gambling counted among her favorite leisure-time activities. Nonetheless, she quickly moved from a world dominated by social parties to one focused on political parties. The duchess was an intimate of ministers and princes, and she canvassed assiduously for the Whig cause, most famously in the Westminster election of 1784. By turns she was caricatured and fawned on by the press, and she provided the inspiration for the character of Lady Teazle in Richard Sheridan's famous play The School for Scandal. But her weaknesses marked the last part of her life. By 1784, for one, Georgiana owed "many, many, many thousands," and her creditors dogged her until her death.
Biographer Amanda Foreman describes astutely the mess that surrounded the personal relationships of the aristocratic subculture (Georgiana and the duke engaged for many years in a ménage à trois with Lady Elizabeth Fraser, who inveigled her way into the duke's bed and the duchess's heart). Foreman is, by her own admission, a little in love with her subject, which can lead to occasional lapses of perspective, but generally it adds zest to a narrative built on, rather than burdened by, scholarship, that is at once accessible and learned. An impressive debut, in every sense. --David Vincent, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
HShe was the most prominent British woman of her day. Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable, and her parties were the ones to attend. Royals, aristocrats and politicians sought her opinion, for she was as influential as she was beautiful. Princess Diana? No, her great-great-great-great-aunt, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). A bestseller in the U.K. and the winner of the 1999 Whitbread Prize for Best Biography, Foreman's debut is captivating not just because of Georgiana--whose insecurity, demented love life and gambling addiction made her personal life even more dismal than Diana's--but also because Foreman's portrayal of high society in late-18th-century Britain and France is so remarkably vivid. Foreman gives readers the aristocracy fighting for control over Parliament, King George slowly losing his mind, his love-struck son ill-prepared to take the throne, and more bed-hopping than on a TV soap opera. Georgiana, who bore an out-of-wedlock child with politician Charles Grey, knew that her best friend was her husband's mistress, but that was the least of her problems. Prone to drinking, drug-taking and eating disorders, she also racked up gambling debts equal to $6 million in today's dollars. Foreman's combination of exhaustive research and storytelling skill make Georgiana's story at once lurid, sensational and touching. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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My other issue with the writing of this book is that it trivializes a lot of really juicy topics that could have been expanded upon. One example was in the paragraph in which Foreman explains that Georgiana's correspondences about discovering the affair between Bess and the Duke had been lost/destroyed. Foreman then quickly jumps into the next chronological event in their lives instead of writing a paragraph about Foreman's expectations as to how she expected Georgiana to have reacted based on all the evidence gathered. We also don't get much information about the more scandalous, behind-hidden-doors lifestyle of Georgiana - her affair with Grey lived and died within two pages. I didn't even get the sense there was a single private meeting between the two until it was revealed that she was pregnant. Such was the chore in reading this book. Georgiana is an intriguing person, and that's to the credit of Georgiana and less so the author.
I did enjoy the author's depiction of the Whig and Tory rivalry, but I agree with some others that it sometimes went overboard with the details. I found the side characters to be much more real and interesting: Prince Charles, Marie Antoinette, Lady Spencer. I particularly enjoyed the section about Georgiana's visit to France during the French Revolution. What a fascinating time to be a fly on the wall.
Lastly, the editing is poor. It was as if someone finished their dissertation and let it be published. There are spelling mistakes, and more importantly, incorrect spacing that makes it confusing as to whether you were reading text or a correspondence.
Georgiana lived between 1757 and 1806 and her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire at the age of 17 made her part of one of the wealthiest families in England. She was at the center of a group of wealthy, fashionable and influential people known as the Devonshire House Circle, named after her town house in London (Chatsworth was one of several of her country houses). From her high position in society she was able to influence trends in fashion, politics, literature and theater.
While the story of her social life is of great interest for the way it touches on so many aspects of eighteenth century England, her private life was no less interesting. Her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire was not completely happy, she endured extreme pressure to produce an heir, she had difficulties with her in-laws and she suffered from a gambling addiction which caused her to lose astronomical amounts of money throughout her life. Foreman is able to describe in detail many of these travails by using the rich trove of letters and diaries left behind by many characters in the book. Indeed, she’s able to show how these problems are woven together throughout Georgina’s life. For example, after her gambling debts piled up beyond what she could pay, the pressure on her to produce an heir increased even more in light of the fact that the terms of the Duke’s estate barred him from borrowing money to pay off the debts until he had an heir. The whole biography is full of this type of detail, giving it the feel of a Bronte or Austen novel.
What makes this book such a pleasure to read is the near total reconstruction of the life and times of the Duchess through the available written evidence of letters, diaries, receipts and newspapers articles. She corresponded extensively with members of her family including her mother, siblings and friends and she was written about widely by the press and in the diaries and letters of her contemporaries. Foreman has assimilated this vast body of material and quotes from it extensively giving a nearly three hundred and sixty degree portrait of the Duchess. We can hear her tell much of her story in her own voice supplemented by all sorts of gossip and news and different perspectives gleaned from the diaries and letters of others. Many personalities and events are described from multiple perspectives. It’s really quite amazing what Foreman’s able to get out of this material, at one point even describing the peculiar manner the Duchess and her friends had of pronouncing certain words.
Foreman supplements this first person period detail with many brief descriptions of customs and events of the time. There’s a description of the introduction of debutantes to the Court, how to play faro, how to curtsy and some of the medical practices of the time with leeches and all. There’s also capsule histories of historical events like the French and American revolutions.
This biography gives an extremely detailed portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire through her own words and the words of others. But it’s not just a fascinating portrayal of her but of her age and her world. Set against the background of an expanding London and geopolitical events like the French revolution and war with France, this biography perfectly weds the personal history of Georgiana with the history of her time and place which was such a part of her.