The society star and Whig activist

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire

October 2, 1998

It is nice to be wrong. Invited to review this book, I was first sent the cover blurb, informing me that Georgiana was "at varying times" the chief negotiator, propagandist, fundraiser and manager "of the Whigs", who "inspired fear and dislike in George III and ... Pitt", and eventually became "one of (the) most respected politicians of the age". As I did not recognise that description from the research for my monograph on 1783-93, I felt that the book was not likely to be scholarly. Lavish praise by Roy Strong in a review in The Sunday Times underlined my fears: my experience of such books in the past suggest that Strong and I have different views on scholarship. Lastly, I began the book by reading the epilogue and was perturbed by the sweeping nature of the criticism of "the rigidity of modern academic fashion" with its negative portrayal of "most political historians" and "most feminist historians". Here, I thought, was a work I would not enjoy.

It is therefore pleasant to record that Amanda Foreman's book is far better than I expected. First, unlike most biographies of this type, it is based on extensive archival work - 22 archives are listed and text, and footnotes reveal that they have been used fully and thoughtfully. Particularly good use has been made of Chatsworth material and of relevant holdings in the British Library, which now include the Althorp papers, but other collections employed effectively include the Carlisle papers at Castle Howard. In addition, the press of the period has been studied, and there is an up-to-date knowledge of the secondary literature, including, for example, the last volume of John Ehrman's Younger Pitt.

Thanks in large part to its research, this biography is far more useful than the three earlier biographies on the subject.

There is a sensitive account of Georgiana's personality, one that interprets the period in terms that make sense to the modern age without doing violence to the former.

The supporting cast is also ably sketched, although at times Foreman's assumptions can grate: "Eighteenth-century society was rarely bothered by the occasional eruptions of the lower orders: the establishment ignored them and the fracas would die down of its own accord. But this mob, intoxicated by drink and whipped up by a crazed demagogue, was more dangerous than the usual over-excited rabble." This description of the Gordon riots illustrates one of the limitations of Foreman's scholarship. More generally, her focus on aristocratic society and mores is related to a misunderstanding of the politics of the period, as in the exaggeration of the electoral influence of the aristocracy.

Yet this is biography not history. The number of questionable judgements, let alone errors, are sufficiently few that the reader can confidently accept Foreman's contextualisation and, instead, consider the person.

The daughter of Earl Spencer, married at 17 to the fifth duke of Devonshire, Georgiana was charismatic, a personality who impressed and impresses. She can be presented as a victim - loveless marriage, selfish lovers, the two combining when she became pregnant by Charles Grey and was sent abroad by her husband, who himself had a string of lovers, including Lady Elizabeth Foster, Georgiana's best friend.

She also suffered from the demographics of the period. Dead at 48, her sufferings included kidney stones, then excruciating. Chronic cystitis was another problem. Yet what emerges from the biography is a life lived to the full, and sometimes, as in her gambling, way beyond that. Georgiana's interest in politics reflected her alert intelligence and her treatment of the world as an extension of the ton: high society. She took an active role in electoral canvassing, although Foreman exaggerates her political awareness as well as her importance. The problem with biography is not, as Foreman suggests with her comparison to the "Stockholm syndrome", that biographers fall in love with their subjects, but rather that they exaggerate their role. Georgiana was a social star and an interesting individual, but it is unclear that she bears the political and academic weight this able biography seeks to place upon her.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire

Author - Amanda Foreman
ISBN - 0 00 255668 50
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 463

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