by Amanda Foreman
Review by Cathleen Myers
This is Amanda Foreman’s first book and she’s chosen a wonderful subject: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was one of the most fascinating women in history - the first great political hostess, a remarkable (if unconventional) beauty painted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman, and every other major artist of her time, a fashion innovator, brilliant harpist, woman of letters, and patroness of virtually every distinguished performing artist and rising liberal politician of her time. She was also the center of one of the most unusual menage á trois in history, living as best friends with her husband’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster. The 20th century soap opera of Charles, Di, and Camilla simply palls in comparison!
Born Lady Georgiana Spencer (at Althorpe), she was, coincidentally, the sister of an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, whose blonde beauty, sweetness, commitment to charitable causes, elegant fashion sense, and occasional cluelessness she shared. Georgiana also suffered acutely from bulimia - before it was even fashionable - under the joint pressure to be both the perfect daugther tor her adoring parents and the perfect Duchess to her immensely powerful and equally clueless husband, whom she accepted at 16 to please her family. Devonshire - England’s richest duke, the master of the palatial Chatsworth, and a central patron of the Whig party, which would eventually grow into the Liberals - was the catch of the Century. Like Diana, Georgiana would live to regret her choice but found consolation first as a fashion queen, then in political activism and lovers. She would eventually become both the darling of the popular press and its victim.
Foreman’s readable, well-researched bio is an excellent introduction to late 18th century political and social history - as its heroine was at the center of both. If you’ve ever wondered how the English Regency got that way, read this book! Much of what we know about the great Regency crisis prompted by the Madness of King George III and his charming but ruthless son, the future Prince Regent, comes from Georgiana’s diary (since, of course, none of the politicians involved in this top secret crisis actually described it in writing!). As feminist history, Georgiana’s story is also invaluable since it tells of a time period in history in which women really were movers and shakers in politics. What happened to that movement, by the way?
Costumers will adore this book with its lavish illustrations and its detailed descriptions of Georgiana’s contribution to fashion history. At first championing the artificial extremes of 1770’s fashion, with its absurdly towering headdresses, she eventually persuaded Society to accept the simple, natural muslin gowns and natural, unaffected coiffures that would develop into the so-called Regency style. She was the first English lady to wear the comfortable Chemise de la Reine gown with its draw-string neckline, and the adorable Duchess of Devonshire Hat.
The book has a few historical inaccuracies. Ms. Foreman is an industrious researcher but there are some gaps in her knowledge of 18th century social history. She rather astonishingly describes "thinness" as the 18th century ideal. Foreman obviously hasn’t looked closely at either the art or the corsets of the period. (The late 18th century corset is designed to give a rounded, not a slim silhouette.) She also accepts at face value the story that the Devonshire circle created their own dialect with eccentric pronunciations ("Cowcumber" instead of "Cucumber," "Yaller" instead of "Yellow," "oo" for "you:). Linguists have observed that this is merely a local dialect - which the liberal Devonshire circle adopted as their own. Foreman is also a bit naive about the realities of an 18th century aristocratic marriage: While Georgiana as a 17 year old bride may not have realized that her marriage was not a love match and that her husband had chosen her for her abilities as a hostess and "breeder," she was unusually naive to have believed she would find love within such a marriage. The Man of Feeling may have been the ideal of late 18th century fiction but few 18th century peers were interested in talking about their relationships, and Devonshire, who already had a mistress and natural daughter at the time of his marriage, was no exception. Nor would most of his peers have expected him to behave like a sensitive New Age husband!
On the other hand, Foreman handles the great controversy of Georgiana’s life very sensibly: Were she and Elizabeth Foster actually lovers and was their menage á trois a "modern" threesome? Foreman presents the evidence - much of it first hand descriptions from the Duchess’ liberal correspondence - and sensibly lets the reader decide.
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