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All That Glitters: The Legacy of a Georgian Duchess



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The year was 1774 and seventeen-year-old Lady Georgiana Spencer was a blushing bride. All of England whispered about the most advantageous marriage. Lady Georgiana’s groom was none other than the much-sought-after Duke of Devonshire, considered the most attractive bachelor of his age. Married on her birthday in a quiet ceremony, little did she realise the lasting impact she would make on history and the sparkling legacy she would leave behind.

This marriage helped her make connections with some of the most famous people in the land including members of the Royal Family. And centuries later, her name remains as famous as theirs. We cannot help but look back at the woman we know as the Duchess of Devonshire in sheer awe. For a female who was notorious for being an eighteenth-century fashionista, she left a lasting mark on the world. What is so enthralling about Georgiana that sparked a series of books as well as a 2008 motion picture starring the lovely Keira Knightly?

She Marched to the Beat of her Own Drum

Georgiana grew up in the world where women were seen as only ever having one vocation and purpose, marriage. Young women were instructed to oblige their husbands by being gentle, selfless, and entirely acquiescent. While Georgiana was a devoted daughter who sought to please her parents, they raised their daughter with loving care. The young Georgiana was encouraged to be her own person, something that she would bring with her into adulthood. As a duchess, she completely flouted tradition, created her fashions, and even befriended those were seen as unpopular. Needless to say, Georgiana was very much a free spirit, and none could stop her.

She was Involved in Politics

Nowadays, women are included in politics but it was a battle to get there. In the world of the 18th century, it was wholly unseemly for a woman to be involved in politics, whether she was single or married, poor or wealthy. If she had perhaps been a quieter person, Georgiana might not have meddled in politics. However, being the vivacious woman that she was, Georgiana actively campaigned for the Whigs, a political party that opposed the absolute rule. Amongst her good friends was the Honourable Charles James Fox, a Whig politician with a scandalous reputation. While the Suffragette movement would occur over a century later, it is apparent that the well-beloved Duchess of Devonshire was a forerunner for the female politician.

She was an Author

There is a great deal of speculations regarding the Duchess of Devonshire and the novel she wrote, “The Sylph.” Published in 1789, “The Sylph” told the story of Julia Grenville, a beauty whose husband is a rake and gambler who has a cadre of mistresses. Unsurprisingly, “The Sylph” very much resembled the life of Georgiana and was in part somewhat autobiographical.

She was a Fashion Icon

“When she appeared, every eye was turned towards her; when absent, she was the subject of universal conversation.” Retired French Diplomat, Louis Dutens once said of the scintillating Duchess of Devonshire. The constant hustle and bustle of 18th century society were often centered around the elegant and stylish attire of the beautiful young duchess. Whenever she wore a new fashion, it was emulated by all of polite society and many desired to gaze upon her. There was something charismatic and resplendent about Georgiana, a perfect combination with her jaw-dropping fashions. While 18th century fashion dictated a woman’s pompadour to be large and rather tall, she went above and beyond to invent the three-feet pompadour.

She was a Dedicated Mother

Duchess_of_Devonshire_by_Joshua_ReynoldsDuring the first few years of her marriage, Georgiana suffered from a series of harrowing miscarriages. The pressure was on her to have children and quickly knowing full well her duty to produce an heir. She eventually produced three children, Georgiana (known as Little G), Harriet (known as Harryo), and the long-awaited heir, William (known as “Hart,” short for Hartington).

The Duke of Devonshire was known for having a slew of mistresses at a time, and he paid very little attention to his wife. As a result of one of his affairs, he fathered a child who was known by the name of Charlotte Williams. At one point, he brought her home for his wife to raise and, to be the strong person that she was, Georgiana rejoiced in having another daughter.

In what is considered of one of Georgiana’s more scandalous happenings, she had an affair with Charles Grey, Earl Grey. In the Georgian era, it was one thing to have an extramarital affair but another matter entirely when it came to having a child out of wedlock. When the duke discovered that Georgiana was pregnant, he sent her out of the country to France where she gave birth to Eliza. A saddened Georgiana was to give up her child to the care of Earl Grey’s family so that she could return to her other children. “My bosom struggles with its pain and checks the wishes form’d in vain,” Georgiana would later write to Eliza in the form of poetry.

She Knew all the Great Names

As previously mentioned, Georgiana was an immensely popular woman, and many a person looked up to her. She surrounded herself with a circle of some very brilliant people of that age: the Honourable Charles James Fox; French Queen, Marie Antoinette; and George, the Prince of Wales (who would later become George IV). Georgiana was related to Fox, and their political campaigning drove the two of them together. Interestingly enough, the Prince of Wales was a dedicated Whig, and he constantly rebelled against his father, George III. The trio of Fox, Georgiana, and the Prince of Wales were inseparable at parties, fetes, and balls. There is one instance in Amanda Foreman’s “The Duchess” where the Prince of Wales snubbed every other woman in the ballroom and danced only with Georgiana, just to spite his father.

Whenever Georgiana travelled to France, she met and befriended the famous French Queen, Marie Antoinette. This meeting would spark an affectionate lifelong friendship between the two women.

Picture credit: Painting of “The Duchess of Devonshire” (1783) by Thomas Gainsborough and “The Duchess of Devonshire with her eldest daughter, Georgiana” (1786) by Joshua Reynolds, via Wikipedia [Public Domain].