The Duchess of Devonshire was the most celebrated and influential woman of her time.
Born in England at Althrop House, the Spencer family home, in an age when women were often ornamental pawns in family power plays, Georgiana rose above what was expected of her and made history by following her heart and desires.
Lady Georgiana Spencer Cavendish was born June 4th, 1757 to the 1st Earl of Spencer and Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. She is the great-great grand aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales and ancestor to Sarah, Duchess of York.
Georgiana married at the age of 17 to England’s most powerful aristocrat, the Duke of Devonshire, and both families were prominent Whig party supporters.
Her homes were used as a tool to actively support the campaigns a key political figures and she was the first female to actively campaign for those she supported for office. Her dinner parties were highly coveted.
Like all newly married couples they had to be received at court days after their marriage in their wedding apparel. There was never a more crowded day at court, excepting only the birthday of the King and Queen when all the court was required to come.
Loved by both her parents, both the Earl Spencer and Lady Spencer remained extremely close to their daughter, writing her nearly every day and many letters still survive.
Shortly after her marriage, her father wrote, “My Dearest Georgiana, I did not know till lately how much I loved you; I miss you more every day and every hour.”
Georgiana’s wedding trousseau cost fifteen hundred pounds and included 65 pairs of shoes, 48 pairs of stockings and 26 pairs of gloves. Morning dresses, walking dresses, riding habits, ball gowns, along with hats, cloaks, shawls, and wraps.
Only five people attended the wedding: Georgiana’s parents, her maternal grandmother Lady Cowper, the duke’s brother Lord Cavendish, and his sister the Duchess of Portland. At the same time he was betrothed to Georgiana, the duke was conducting an affair with a former milliner, Charlotte Spencer, who bore him a daughter.
From the start of their marriage, the duke preferred to spend his nights at Brook’s, playing cards until early in the morning. Georgiana launched into London society regardless and due to her high rank, enormous fortune and youthful beauty, she caught the public’s imagination.
The newspapers would give full detail of what she wore, her every activity and of her passion for Whig politics. Like her friend Marie Antoinette had done in France, Georgiana made fashionable in London the completely outrageous three-foot pompadours.
With horse hair put beneath her own, Georgiana’s hair was so tall the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor, quite a feat given her wide skirts.
A celebrated beauty, Georgiana was constantly written about in the newspapers and her sense of style was reported with great interest. Yet her true passion was gambling. Gambling parties were all the rage and although Georgiana was technically wealthy, her husband controlled the family finances, giving her only an allowance.
When her debts exceeded the generous four-thousand pounds annually given to her by the duke, her mother never failed to admonish her for her gambling debts. “Play at whist, commerce, backgammon, trictrac or chess,” Lady Spencer wrote, “but never at quinze, lou, brag, faro, hazard or any games of chance.” The advice went unheeded.
Despite that she was married to one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, she was constantly borrowing money from her friends, from the Prince of Wales, and would flatter the wealthy banker Thomas Coutts with her friendship in exchange for him settling some of her debts.
Constantly strapped for cash, her addiction to gambling threatened to bring shame on her and when she was died at age of 48, the Duchess was deeply in debt owing in today’s equivalent of £3,720,000. The Duchess hid her debts from her husband until after her death, where upon he remarked, and “Is that all”?
Georgiana was sought after by the most famous artist and was painted several times by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. At Chatsworth today, if one stands in the dining room, Georgiana looks down from her Gainsborough portrait.
Georgiana was responsible for providing an heir, which resulted in several miscarriages before giving birth to three children with her husband and an illegitimate daughter fathered by the 2nd Earl Grey. She was also mother to the Duke’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte.
The Duchess had a close friend, the Lady Elizabeth Foster, who lived in a ménage a trios with them until she died. Although Lady Elizabeth eventually married the Duke after the death of Georgiana, she gave birth to an illegitimate son and daughter by the Duke.
Because of her close friendship with Fox, there were rumors that he became Georgiana’s lover, but there is no evidence of this, nor is there evidence that she was lover to the Prince of Wales, as was her friend Lady Melbourne, whose son George was said to have been fathered by the prince.
Before her time, Georgiana led an arduous door-to-door campaign in the Westminster election of 1784 and is credited with helping Fox and Lord Hood gain victory. As the opposition party, the Whigs dressed in the blue and buff colors of the American rebels and carried fox tails–a manner of dress Georgiana was only too happy to adopt.
Her canvassing resulted in a flagrant political rumors and satirical cartoons that implied she exchanged sexual favors and money for votes. Despite her mother pleading to quit politics to shield her from public ridicule, Georgiana determined that the Whig’s could not win without her notoriety.
Georgiana refused to stay in her carriage, instead walked the streets and faced commoners as an equal.
The Duchess anonymously published an autobiographical novel titled “The Sylph”, which was a success, going into four printings. Though she never publicly acknowledging her authorship, Georgiana did admit it in private.
The book was a thinly veiled autobiography about an aristocratic bride seduced into wickedness and was written during one of her many attempts at reform from gambling and her fast lifestyle in public and in private.
Though she had suffered from ill health, those around her sensed she was truly ill this time and persuaded her mother to come. On March 30, 1806, Georgiana, aged forty-eight, died at three-thirty in the morning. Until almost the very end she was surrounded by her mother, the duke, her sister, Bess and Little G. who was eight months pregnant.
All of them were said to be nearly inconsolable. One friend wrote that, “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.”
She was mourned by thousands of Londoners who streamed into Piccadilly, where Devonshire House was located, to pay their respects. Fox wept bitterly and the Prince of Wales said, “The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone.”
Three years after Georgiana died the duke married Bess. Georgiana’s children were not happy and all three disliked Bess. When Bess gloated about the duke giving his illegitimate daughter a larger dowry than his legitimate daughter Harryo, it was met with pride.
When the duke died in 1811 and Georgiana’s son became duke, he insisted on raising his sister’s marriage portion. He also settled many of his mother’s old gambling debts, yet was kind to Bess’s children and eventually helped her son rise to baronet.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire will be remembered for her beauty and loyalty to family, but most importantly her willingness to break with past traditions and live her life to the fullest. She was the undisputed queen of society.