Regency England lost one of its brightest lights on 30 March 1806, when Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, the 5th Duchess of Devonshire, passed away from what is suspected to have been liver disease at age 48. Although her life had seen its share of misfortune and unhappiness, she was well and truly mourned by her family, friends, and even acquaintances. A direct ancestress of Lady Diana Spencer’s, their lives took a very similar path (almost eerily so), and they were both the focus cultural fascination and luminaires of fashion and charity during their lives, as well as a source of public grief after their deaths.
Georgiana, a beautiful, accomplished, intelligent, and wealthy peeress, married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire on her 17th birthday, 7 June 1774. The groom was the catch of the season, and his being only 25 and not bad to look at made him that much more of a matrimonial coup for the Spencer family. However, the duke was also spoiled beyond belief and weirder than anyone had an inkling of.
Their union was strange and often tumultuous, filled with persistent affairs on his side and at least one extreme lapse on her part, but nonetheless it was not unhappy. It was also, scandalously, a ménage à trois, (probably platonic in the duchesses corner). The duke was emotionally very cold and distant, and in 1782 Georgiana became friends with the warm and loving Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, who soon began to met the duchesses emotional needs. There is, in spite of speculation, no evidence the two were in a sexual relationship. Bess was, however, without doubt in a sexual relationship with the duke. She also enjoyed dalliances with other men. Neither the duke or the duchess minded their friend’s exuberantly lusty ways, and all three of them lived together contentedly. The stresses in the relationship between William and Georgiana were the result of his hard-hearted personality and her unfortunate miscarriages during the first decade of their marriage, not the duke’s affairs. Bess seems to have made these stresses more bearable for both parties when she became a fixed part of their marriage.
Another thing that should have caused problems in Devonshires’ marriage, but didn’t, was the duke’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Williams. The little girl was the fruit of the duke’s liaison with a milliner, and he honorably provided upkeep for his offspring and her mother. When Charlotte’s mother died, the child came to live with the duke and his wife. Even though the duchess had been wracked by miscarriages and could have understandably been reluctant to have proof of her husband’s virility rubbed in her face, she did not resent Charlotte’s presence one tiny jot. Instead, Georgiana welcomed the tot with open arms and loved her as a daughter. When Georgiana’s own mother complained of the child’s presence, and told her daughter to not let people know about Charlotte, the duchess merely praised her semi-adopted daughter and went on her merry, nurturing way.
The duchess was just as loving toward Bess’s children by the duke, Caroline Rosalie St Jules and Augustus Clifford.
Georgiana’s sweet nature, good humor, and stunning looks made her immensely popular, and she was almost universally adored.
Newspapers chronicled her every appearance and activity, She was called a “phenomenon” by Horace Walpole who proclaimed, “[she] effaces all without being a beauty; but her youthful figure, flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity make her a phenomenon” Madame d’Arblay, who had a preference for acquaintances of talent, found that her appeal was not generally for her beauty but for far more which included fine “manner, politeness, and gentle quiet.” Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall stated that her success as an individual lay “in the amenity and graces of her deportment, in her irresistible manners, and the seduction of her society.” Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed: “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!” Then after, whenever others would compliment her, the duchess would retort, “After the dustman’s compliment, all others are insipid.”
She wasn’t just a pretty face; she was a gifted author. She wrote Emma; Or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel in 1773, and then anonymously published The Sylph in 1778. The Sylph was a huge hit, and is thought to be a semi-autobiographical tale of how she went from a promising young bride to a jaded matron no longer capable of being shocked by any depravity committed by a member the peerage.
The duchess was also a badass political campaigner and full-on progressive. She was a hard-core Whig, and she supported Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and what we would now call labour reform and human rights.
Using her influence as a leading socialite and fashion/style icon, she contributed to politics, science, and literature. As part of her illustrious social engagements, she would gather around her a large salon of literary and political figures. Among her major acquaintances were the most influential figures of her time including the Prince of Wales (later King George IV); Marie Antoinette of France and her favorite in court, the Duchess of Polignac; Charles Grey (later Earl Grey and British Prime Minister); and Lady Melbourne … Having begun her involvement in politics in 1778 (when she inspired a mass of women to promote the Whig party), she relished Enlightenment and Whig party ideals and took it upon herself to campaign — particularly for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox, who was chief party leader alongside Richard Sheridan — for Whig policies which were anti-crown and advocated for liberty against tyranny. At the time of her involvement, King George III (who detested the Whigs) and his ministers had a direct influence over the House of Commons, principally through their power of patronage. The Prince of Wales, who always relished going against the grain with his father, joined the Whig party at the time his friend, the duchess, became involved. She was renowned for hosting dinners that became political meetings and she took joy in cultivating the company of brilliant radicals.
Of course, she paid for her political activities by being slut shamed. How dare this woman have political influence! Rumors were spread by the Tories that the duchess was using sexual favors to turn the political tide in the Whig favor; after all, she couldn’t have just been using reason and intellect to influence people! Women didn’t use their brains. Women could only use their vagina.
Her mother begged her to stop campaigning, because of the incessant slut shaming Georgian was enduring. Nevertheless, she persisted. The duchess actually walked the streets of London before the election, and she was a critical factor in the Whig gains in parliament.
In my book, Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford is a progressive Whig and a lover of poetry as well … and as such she idolized the memory of Georgiana Cavendish. It seems a shame to think the duchess is remembered more for her unorthodox marriage and love-life than for her literary accomplishments and her sociopolitical expertise.
Georgiana was eventually able to carry a pregnancy to term, and she was (to no one’s surprise) a profoundly devoted mother. Her first daughter, Lady Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish, was born on 12 July 1783. The duchess called her namesake “Little G”, and breastfed her newborn rather than allowing a wet nurse to be brought in. Georgiana simply adored Little G, and her daughter was the sun around which the duchess revolved.
The first successful pregnancy must have brought good luck, because on 29 August 1785, Georgiana gave birth to another daughter. The baby was named Lady Harriet Elizabeth Cavendish, but was called called “Harryo” by her family. Then, on 21 May 1790, the duchess gave birth to the duke’s heir, William George Spencer Cavendish. The little boy was nicknamed “Hart”, possibly because he kicked like a deer. Georgiana’s love for her children made it very easy for her husband to manipulate her, since they were, by law, HIS property and he could forbid her access to them on a whim.
Through her political activities on behalf of the Whigs, she met and fell in love with Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. They began their affair in 1791, and Grey begged her to leave the duke and marry him instead. She knew she would never see her children again if she did that, so she had to refuse him. When the news of their relationship became too public, the duke, while continuing to sleep with Bess and any other woman who’d have him, called Georgina to heel and used their children to blackmail her into giving Grey up. Georgiana left Grey for the sake of her children in 1792, but by then she was pregnant with Grey’s child. Although she had welcomed several of the duke’s illegitimate children into her home and raised them, the duke forced her to go to France to have Grey’s daughter in secret, and then forced her to give the child to Grey’s parents.
Her letters to her children while she was away in France were heartbreaking. She wrote to her eldest daughter, “”Your letter dated the 1st of Nov was delightful to me tho’ it made me very melancholy my Dearest Child. This year has been the most painful of my life. . . when I do return to you, never leave you I hope again–it will be too great a happiness for me Dear Dear Georgiana & it will have been purchased by many days of regret – indeed ev’ry hour I pass away from you, I regret you; if I amuse myself or see anything I admire I long to share the happiness with you – if on the contrary I am out of spirits I wish for your presence which alone would do me good.” She also left a letter for her infant son, in case she died in childbirth and never saw him again, in which she declared, “As soon as you are old enough to understand this letter it will be given to you. It contains the only present I can make you–my blessing, written in my blood…Alas, I am gone before you could know me, but I lov’d you, I nurs’d you nine months at my breast. I love you dearly.”
Georgiana was devastated when she had to turn over her daughter, Eliza Courtney, to Grey’s parents. The duchess wrote several poems to her illegitimate daughter, and you can positively wring the anguish from them. In one poem she compares Eliza to a secret flower she cannot see but constantly remembers and yearns to hold again:
And yet remote from public view / flower there is of timid hue,
Beneath a sacred shade it grows / But sweet in native fragrance blows.
From storms secure, from tempests free / But ah! too seldom seen by me.
For scarce permitted to behold / With longing eyes each grace unfold.
My bosom struggles with its pain / And checks the wishes form’d in vain;
Yet when I perchance supremely blest / I hold the floweret to my breast,
Enraptur’d watch its purple glow / And blessings (all I have) bestow.
The gentle fragrance soothes my care / And fervent is my humble prayer
That no dread evil may beset / My sweet but hidden violet.
Unhappy child of indiscretion,
poor slumberer on a breast forlorn
pledge of reproof of past transgression
Dear tho’ unfortunate to be born
Although Georgiana forgave her husband, assuming (like other women of her time) that it was his right to treat her that way and to have full ownership of her children, her spirit was broken by the relinquishment of Eliza Courtney. Her health began to decline, and she became a gambling addict.
She didn’t let her personal grief and illnesses prevent her from spending the last decade of her life productively, though. She was still able write two significant pieces of work before her death, Memorandums of the Face of the Country in Switzerland in 1799, and in 1802 an epic poem that she dedicated to her children entitled The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard. The poem was a hit with both critics and the public both at home and abroad, and was translated into French, German, and Italian. Additionally, she became interested in science, supporting the work of pioneering chemist with Thomas Beddoes and amassing an impressive geological collection at Chatsworth. As if all these accomplishments were not enough, she threw herself back into Whig politics at home, taking strides to rejuvenate the party despite the long-term Tory domination of parliament. She also had the pleasure of seeing her daughter Little G come out into society, and make an excellent marriage to George Howard, Viscount Morpeth, the eldest son and heir 5th Earl of Carlisle.
Sadly, Georgiana would die before seeing her first grandchild. The duchess slipped away after a long illness,
surrounded by her husband, the 5th Duke of Devonshire; her mother, Countess Spencer; her sister, Countess of Bessborough; her eldest daughter, Lady Morph (who was eight months pregnant); and Lady Elizabeth Foster. They were all said to have been inconsolable over her death. For the first time, the duke showed moving emotion towards his late wife, as a contemporary wrote, “The Duke has been most deeply affected and has shown more feeling than anyone thought possible–indeed every individual in the family are in a dreadful state of affliction.” The late duchess’s eldest daughter furthermore poured out her feelings, “Oh my beloved, my adored departed mother, are you indeed forever parted from me–Shall I see no more that angelic countenance or that blessed voice–You whom I loved with such tenderness, you who were the . . . best of mothers, Adieu–I wanted to strew violets over her dying bed as she strewed sweets over my life but they would not let me.” Her distant cousin, Charles James Fox, for whom she had triumphantly campaigned, was noted to have cried. The Prince of Wales himself lamented, “The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone.” Thousands of the people of London congregated at Piccadily, where the Cavendish home in the city was located, to mourn her. She was buried at the family vault at All Saints Parish Church (now Derby Cathedral) in Derby.
Her last two literary works were reprinted again after her death, and she remained a noted figure of near legendary admiration among the Ton and English politics for decades.