Duchess of Devonshire: Georgiana Cavendish

Georgiana Spencer was born on 7 June 1757, the eldest daughter to John Spencer, (later the 1st Earl Spencer), and his wife, Margaret Georgiana Poyntz, an English philanthropist. Georgiana was noted from birth to display “promising symptoms of worth, and loveliness.”[1] She was described as sweet, spirited, and engaging. On her seventeenth birthday the popular beauty married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. He was one of the centuries most eligible bachelor and a man, who although exceedingly knowledgeable, was stern, cool, and “incapable of strong emotion.”[2]

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The new Duchess of Devonshire soon found herself surrounded by politics and the political ambitious, with her inscrutable husband’s main enjoyment being spending time with his dogs, wooing his mistresses, and drinking with his friends. Nonetheless, his Devonshire House, in London’s west end, became the heart of political activism for the Whigs. In the center of it all was the Duchess of Devonshire who was viewed by her husband as little more than someone tasked with meeting social demands and producing children.

As much as her husband was distant and unaffected, everyone else was enamored by the stunning Duchess. London’s social season of balls, assemblies, and fêtes followed the opening and closing of Parliament and ran from late October through June’s summer session. It was during this social season that Georgiana quickly cemented her reputation and bathed in the limelight as a fashion icon.

Georgiana also became enamored with politics and was highly supportive of her distant cousin (alleged lover), Charles James Fox, in his political aspirations. In fact, she decided to campaign for him, which made her a lady of paramount importance within the Whig party. Moreover, this exciting period became one of the brightest times in her life. The Duchess of Devonshire “strenuously exerted herself in favor of … Fox,”[3] and her enthusiasm, lively addresses, and charming manners fully turned the tide in his favor so that he handily obtained more votes and was re-elected, although legal challenges delayed declaration of the results for over a year.

Charles James Fox, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Charles James Fox. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One famous story related to Georgiana’s vivacious campaigning involves a Clare Market butcher and her sister “dressed in garter-blue and buff … to compliment…Fox and his principals.”[4] One day while they were out soliciting votes and spiritedly campaigning, the Duchess of Devonshire came across a young, good-looking butcher who was unaffected by her elegant manners, stunning beauty, and persuasive reasoning. It did not matter what she said he remained unconvinced that Fox was the man to support and “declined to accede to the Duchess’s request without a bribe — he did not want money, he said, but he wanted something else.”[5] The Duchess of Devonshire asked what he required and he replied, “Why … a kiss would carry the day.”[6] Supposedly, she did not hesitate: “the butcher kissed her, gave a plumper for Mr. Fox, and dragged all Clare Market to his heels.”[7]

Parody by Thomas Rowlandson of "THE DEVONSHIRE, or the Most Approved Method of Securing Votes", Courtesy of Wikipedia

Parody by Thomas Rowlandson of “THE DEVONSHIRE, or the Most Approved Method of Securing Votes.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In May of 1782, the Duchess of Devonshire befriended Lady Elizabeth Foster, the daughter of the 4th Earl of Bristol. Elizabeth was described as having noble features, magnificent eyes, and “rare and commanding beauty,”[8] which  attracted Georgiana’s emotionless and apathetic husband who became completely enamored with her. After the friendship began, the three became involved in a ménage à trois, which resulted in them living together for twenty-five years. Exactly why Georgiana agreed to this unorthodox relationship is unclear.

 

Lady Elizabeth Foster, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Lady Elizabeth Foster. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Georgiana also introduced Lady Foster to the French socialite Madame Récamier. She had traveled to London in 1802 and when Georgiana aided her in her first public appearance the French beauty was nearly swept off her feet. Of course, Madame Récamier knew nothing of the unconventional relationship between Georgiana, Lady Foster, and the Duke but for those who did, salacious rumors were spread. One vicious (and completely false) rumor that surfaced was related to the two women giving birth: It was reported that Lady Elizabeth gave birth to a son and Georgiana to a daughter, but the children were switched at birth in order for the Duke to have a proper and uncontested heir.

Besides Georgiana’s legacy of being a fashion icon, having a knack for political campaigning, and sharing her husband, she was also known for her gambling. Author Thomas Skinner Surr wrote a novel introducing her under a fictitious name as an inveterate gamble in the A Winter in London.  Supposedly, his book was one element that hastened her death. The Duchess died in 1806 from an “abscess of the liver, which was detected rather suddenly, and which proved fatal some months after.”[9] At the time of her death, she reputedly owed an equivalent of £3,720,000. The amount apparently did not faze her husband, as he supposedly remarked he was surprised it was not more.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, Courtesy of Wikipedia

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As to Georgiana’s rival, Lady Elizabeth Foster, she married the Duke after Georgiana’s death, albeit with Georgiana’s approval. When the second Duchess of Devonshire died some twenty years later, her stepson, William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, excluded all her friends from her deathbed until she was speechless. This action was seen by some people as confirmation that he had been switched at birth. However, it was widely remarked:

“[I]n disposition, in … benevolence and courteous manners … [he] greatly resembled the … beautiful, the gifted, … the worldly Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire.”[10]

References:

  • [1] Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo, Female Biography, 1834, p. 183.
  • [2] Thomson, Mrs. A.T., and etal., The Queens of Society, 1870, p. 138.
  • [3] Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo, p. 185.
  • [4] Thomson, Mrs. A.T., and etal., p. 145.
  • [5] Jerrold, Douglas William, The Illuminated Magazine, Vol. 1-3, 1843, p. 240.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Thomson, Mrs. A.T., and etal., p. 158.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 157.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 159.

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