Today is the birthday of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who was born on June 7th 1757. She was the eldest child of the first Earl Spencer and, like her mother before her, was married at seventeen. She met her future husband on a Grand Tour of Europe, where she also visited the French Royal Court and met the ill-fated Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. On her seventeenth birthday, she married probably the most eligible bachelor in the country, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. Georgiana thought the Duke was marrying her for love. He wasn’t.
Georgiana would achieve fame as political campaigner, as a fashion icon and for her unusual marital arrangements. William already had at least one mistress. In fact, she had given birth to their daughter, Charlotte, shortly before the wedding. He already had companionship amongst his friends. What he wanted from Georgiana was a pretty accessory to show off in public, that and an heir.
Her husband’s attitude to her, and general demeanour, turned out to be rather cold and distant. Georgiana was just the opposite and she was much admired in her public life. She became a fierce campaigner on behalf of the Whig party and became the first woman to appear on political platforms, more than a hundred years before the women’s suffrage movement. In the elections of 1784 she was accused of trading kisses for votes. Here she is on the left, in a satirical cartoon of the time, kissing a butcher in exchange for his vote. She seems to have been very much loved and admired by all sorts of people. An Irish dustman once said to her “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!” which, frankly, sounds a bit weird to me, but apparently she liked it. Afterwards she said “After the dustman’s compliment, all others are insipid.” Though, I do like the idea of a woman who was equally content in the company of Marie-Antoinette and a dustman.
People admired her so much that they imitated her. Whatever she wore became fashionable. There was already a bit of trend for tall hairstyles which had made its way over from France. But Georgiana began to style her hair even higher. Using pads made from horsehair, she swept it up into a tower three feet high. And everyone else started to do the same. Then, she began to ornament it with stuffed birds, with little ships, I even found mention of small trees and sheep. Soon, the only way ladies could travel in a carriage, was if they sat on the floor. Then, she stopped doing that and started decorating her hair with huge ostrich feathers. That became so ridiculously popular that the Queen banned them.
Georgiana’s private life was less than sparkling. She had difficulty providing the heir that was required. She suffered several miscarriages. She and the Duke were two of the customers of Dr Graham and his incredible ‘Celestial Bed‘ that I mentioned the other day. And maybe it worked because, after nine years of marriage, their first child was born in 1783. They had three children together, two daughters and a son, but she also raised the Duke’s illegitimate daughter, who was born before their marriage.
But, I promised you unusual marital arrangements, here’s what happened: In 1782, in Bath, the couple met Lady Elizabeth Foster. Elizabeth had an unhappy past. She had been married and had two sons, but her husband had thrown her out after he fell in love with a maid. He had kept custody of their children. Georgiana and Elizabeth became close friends and soon., she moved in with the Duke and Duchess. But then, she also began an affair with the Duke. They all lived together for almost 25 years and Elizabeth bore two illegitimate children. I don’t really know how Georgiana felt about this arrangement but she began an affair herself, with the 2nd Earl Grey (the one who had a tea named after him). She became pregnant and there was a most terrible fuss when she had to tell the Duke she was carrying someone else’s child. Georgiana was expected to raise her husband’s illegitimate progeny in her own household. But she was forced to give up her own daughter by Earl Grey or else face divorce and lose the right to any contact with her other children. She had to travel to France, have the child in secret and then give her away to her paternal grandparents.
Georgiana wrote a novel called ‘The Sylph’ which is about a woman who leaves her simple county life to marry into high society. It clearly has some autobiographical elements. It is about a woman who has a disappointing marriage to a distant husband and she is guided through a terribly complicated love life by a the mysterious Sylph of the title. The husband is addicted to gambling and eventually kills himself to escape his debts, so ultimately, she is free. Sadly, it was Georgiana herself that was addicted to gambling. Also, unlike her heroine, she was never free of her husband. She died at the age of 48, heavily in debt. He lived for a further five years and married Elizabeth Foster.
I’m sorry Georgiana didn’t get what she expected from life. But which of us does really? She seems to have wished, on some level, that her husband would just die. But life as a suicide widow might not have been what she imagined. One might, for example, devote an enormous amount of time to writing a blog to prove that life is good and that amazing and wonderful things happen every day. Still, it’s better that writing misery-lit isn’t it? I’ll be back tomorrow, probably to tell you some stuff about oceans…