Desert Isle Keeper
Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
I was prepared to dislike this book. I am very anti-hype, and this book had major, major hype built right in, so it was quite a shock to me when it eventually ended on my TBR pile. It shocked me even more when I liked it enough to voluntarily do a review of it. Basically I will say that if textbooks were written like this, I would have paid way more attention in school.
Georgiana was the eldest child of John, the first Earl Spencer (yes, the same Spencers that begot the late Diana, Princess of Wales) and his wife, Georgiana Poyntz, whose mission in life seems to have been pointing out her daughter’s shortcomings. Our Georgiana seems to fall easily to outside influence from early on, something that lands her in trouble once married, but at the same time, something that came in handy when her family wanted her to marry the fifth Duke of Devonshire. She was already one of the “beautiful people” when she did marry him at 17, and set to turn society on its head.
Known for her addiction to gambling (not to mention opiates and drinking), Georgiana spends most of her life in enormous debt. She falls in with a fast crowd, so to speak, and is soon being tsk-tsk’d when she is seen as behaving less than properly. The press adores her, whether they are praising her style or criticizing the shallow life she leads. Of course, we must also talk about the hair. Georgiana and her friends started the trend of big hair. I mean Big Hair. BIG HAIR. Three-foot-high towers adorned with feathers, sailboats, fruit, etc., a stylish lady’s coif was frequently in danger of catching fire from the hanging chandeliers and sometimes they had to ride in carriages sitting on the floor. They also had their own little language, with words all their own and nicknames for people they liked to talk about.
At one point she even becomes the model for the fictitious “Lady Teazle,” the central character in Sheridan’s play School for Scandal, which chronicles the empty lives of the rich and privileged. Georgiana also realizes early on that her husband is quite immune to the charms that have captivated society and is forced to look elsewhere for affection. One of the people who captivates her also captivates the Duke; Lady Elizabeth Foster, or Bess, as she is known, becomes the Duke’s mistress and, along with Georgiana, carries on a menage a trois that goes on until Georgiana’s death. However, when Georgiana becomes pregnant by Whig politician Charles Grey, she is banished to the Continent, and it is Grey’s family that raises the child. Her influence, however, extends beyond the shallow aspect of life to politics, where Devonshire House, her home in London, becomes known as the place to be and to network for Whig politicians and supporters.
Although scandal does seem to follow Georgiana, let’s consider for a moment the world that surrounds her. Charles Grey, her lover and father of her child, begins an affair with playwright Sheridan’s wife. Sheridan, meanwhile, has angered his wife by carrying on with Georgiana’s sister Harriet. Harriet had already had two children by Lord Granville Gower, who later marries Georgiana’s daughter (and Harriet’s niece). Georgiana’s loneliness is palpable and real, and the glitter and glamour of her life and her dedication to Whig politics become the cocoon for her empty heart.
Foreman’s style is almost dishy – it’s like you’ve got a girlfriend telling you this incredible story over lunch and you can’t wait to hear the rest. If you usually groan at the thought of reading some those thick tomes about some person or other who died a long time ago, I urge you to try Georgiana; Ms. Foreman is already an auto-buy for me.
LLB: Claudia is right about the Big Hype. I "borrowed" a copy of The New Yorker from a doctor's office early this year because of its review of this book. Utterly fascinating!