Beauty and Brains
Duchess had a gift for publicity and politics
by Ellen Moorhouse
Originally published on November 12, 2008
The Duchess of Devonshire is credited with the invention of the sweeping “Picture Hats” that became a fashion craze in the 18th century. Pictured: Keira Knightley as the Duchess and Hayley Atwell as her friend Bess.
The costumes and sets in the The Duchess easily convey the lavish lifestyle of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. But it took biographer Amanda Foreman 400 pages plus notes to portray the complexities of this remarkable woman, who died in 1806 at the age of 48.
She was an irresistible combination, whose celebrity coincided with the flowering of the English press. By 1780 there were nine London dailies, and the Duchess was popular fodder.
Played by Keira Knightley, Georgiana was unconventionally beautiful, a style icon and an excellent writer – at 21 she anonymously published a racy semiautobiographical novel.
Charismatic and charming, she became a skilled political force among Whigs, who served as opposition to the King and his government. She was also a good friend of French queen Marie Antoinette.
When Georgiana on her 17th birthday married Lord Devonshire (William Cavendish), played by Ralph Fiennes, he already had a mistress who had borne him a daughter. When the child’s mother died, the then childless Duchess welcomed her into the household.
Cavendish owned seven estates, including Chatsworth and had an annual income of £60,000 (a gentleman could live on 300). Orphaned young, he and his siblings were raised by their uncles in what Foreman describes as “cold splendour.” He was an expert on Shakespeare and the classics, but painfully reserved.
Isolated with an uncommunicative husband nine years her senior, Georgiana plunged into a fast-paced society. She dictated fashion, pushing hairstyles to new heights and popularizing four-foot ostrich feathers. She became a reckless gambler, forever struggling under ruinous debt, which she tried to conceal from her husband. At one point she owed one man £100,000.
After his mistress died, Cavendish took up with Georgiana’s friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess). Separated from her husband and poor, Bess ingratiated herself with the Devonshires, joining their household and ultimately providing the Duke with feminine companionship.
Georgiana also sought extra-marital solace. She had a liaison with the Duke of Dorset; had a profound friendship and possibly brief fling with politician and fop Charles Fox, who ignited her interest in politics; and a love affair with another Whig, the young Charles Grey. She gave birth to his daughter when she was 34. Cavendish ordered her to give the child up for adoption and renounce Grey, or face divorce.
Victorian heirs tended to destroy the letters of female relatives, and much information about Georgiana’s political activities has been lost. She was, for many years, however, the Doyenne of the Whig party and the first woman to run a modern-style electoral campaign. She also served as liaison between the Prince of Wales and politicians when his father, King George III, teetered on the brink of madness.
The Duke and Duchess’ London house was a gathering place for Whigs. They developed their own dialect called the Devonshire House Drawl: “part baby-talk, part refined affectation,” according to Foreman. By the mid-19th century, the Whigs had made the drawl their in-group patois. The Duchess suffered a severe eye infection when she was 39, as a result of excruciating medical procedures that “were appalling even by 18th century standards,” Foreman writes. Her eyelid swelled to the size of a fist. Later, she was subjected to electric shock to “galvanize” her damaged eyes. A liver ailment finally took her life.