The Duchess by Amanda Foreman

November 24, 2010

Summary The Duchess by Amanda Foreman was originally published under the title Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. The book was a New York Times bestseller, and was eventually made into a 2008 film starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish. One can only assume that the book’s title was changed to draw in movie fans who might not have previously known about the original source. Count me in this group.

Georgiana is one of the most remarkable women in British history. She came from the Spencer family (which also yielded Diana, Princess of Wales) and assumed the title Duchess of Devonshire when she married William, Fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1774 at the tender young age of 17. This was not a love match, and the Duke of Devonshire was often criticized for being about as exciting as an eczema outbreak compared to the vivacious Georgiana, but he was fabulously wealthy even by today’s standards, so that helped brighten the situation.

Almost immediately, Georgiana became one of the leading society women of the day. She was known for her outrageous sense of fashion and style, which made all other ladies of rank and prestige want to copy her. She gave lavish entertainments at Devonshire House, leading the 18th-century newspapers to report on the events in a very tabloid-like manner. Furthermore, Georgiana soon became infamous for her love of gambling. Indeed, in her lifetime it is not an exaggeration to say that she lost the equivalent of millions of pounds at games such as Faro and whist.

Foreman’s book spends a great deal of time covering Georgiana’s unconventional marriage with the Duke. They were involved in perhaps the most notorious ménage à trois in history, along with Lady Bess Foster. Foreman describes how Georgiana’s friendship with Foster developed into something almost akin to codependency, which all but forced Georgiana to countenance the subsequent affair between Bess and the Duke. All three relationships were really quite complex — and very interesting.

And of course no account of Georgiana’s life would be complete without going into her intense involvement in national politics when such a thing was unheard of for women. Foreman spends a great deal of time detailing Georgiana’s efforts on behalf of the Whig party, though unless you’re quite familiar with the historical events of the time, these chapters will probably mean little to you.

Liked:

  • Georgiana is a great subject for a biography! She led such an exciting life (relatively speaking — it was the 1700’s, after all) and I thought Foreman did a decent job of highlighting the most salient points for readers.
  • I was utterly flabbergasted by how much money Georgiana lost because of her gambling habit! Millions and millions of pounds! And yet the Devonshire estate was so vast that she didn’t even come close to bankrupting the family due to her imprudence. What’s even more amazing is how many people she begged and borrowed from in an effort to hide her problem from the Duke. No wonder she was constantly plagued by worry about this or that creditor. These were the best passages in the book for me.
  • I liked it whenever the book focused on Georgiana’s friendship with Bess. The exact nature of the relationship remains unclear — probably because, as Foreman points out, Bess was appointed trustee of Georgiana’s papers after her death and was therefore able to destroy anything that reflected negatively on her. Were they lovers? Was their friendship a true one or was Bess simply a mercenary with her eyes set on the Duke all along? People can speculate, but no definitive answer can be given.
  • I absolutely loved how Foreman summed up Georgiana’s accomplishments and contributions to society in the final few pages of the Epilogue. This was rather a long book overall, so to have that brief summation really helped pull it all together. It seems that few biographers take the trouble anymore of being so straightforward about spelling things out.

Disliked:

  • I hate to say it, but most of the political stuff was a complete bore. I mean, I know Georgiana was well ahead of her time in regards to taking an active part in politics, but very few of the machinations made any sense to me since I couldn’t put them in historical context. I know this is more my own shortcoming than the author’s, but it was still something I disliked about the book.
  • The length. This biography went on and on and on, mostly due to Foreman’s insistence on covering all the political minutiae of the day. I think the work could have benefited from the help of an editor familiar with the use of the ‘delete’ key.

Rating:

The Duchess by Amanda Foreman was a mostly interesting account of the life and times of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. I’m not ashamed to admit that I found the juicy tabloid fodder to be the best parts of the book. Isn’t that why most people are interested in these old aristocrats? It’s just too bad that the frequent political chapters disrupted the overall flow of the book and lessened my enjoyment of it. I give The Duchess 3 stars out of 5.

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