Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society-Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

Written by Jess Burchett

Born in 1757, Georgiana was the first of three children and adored the most by her mother. Her father came from a wealthy English noble family, the Spencers, her titles advancing in her youth as her father gained new positions. Her education focused on accomplishment, with a keen emphasis on etiquette. She was a writer and poet from a young age, her first writing was published at only 16.

At 17, she married society’s most eligible bachelor, 25-year-old William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. Despite her parents’ reluctance to let her go, they could not refuse to marry her to one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the land. The Duke was emotionally reserved and had little in common with Georgiana. He also already had a mistress with whom he had a daughter, Charlotte. His main expectation of Georgiana was to provide him with an heir. She only found out about the illegitimate daughter years into the marriage, but upon the mistress’ death she helped raise Charlotte, showing an aptitude for motherhood.

Georgiana mainly lived in London at Chiswick House, her ‘earthly paradise’ – there she entertained friends and hosted members of the Whig party, whilst making her own changes in the garden and interiors. With an affectionless yet powerful marriage, she devoted herself to the world of fashion, becoming the darling of the Beau Monde, known for her beauty and character. She found the attention she craved here, leading Le Ton and setting the style from extravagant to elegant.

Politics being beneath the Duke, Georgiana involved herself, inspiring women to promote the Whig party and campaigning for their ideals. She was the first woman to make active and influential front-line appearances in politics. Charles James Fox, a distant cousin, was a chief party leader for Whig policies – they were anti-monarchy and advocated for liberty against tyranny. Georgiana’s family, as well as her husband’s, were also great Whig supporters. She also influenced science and literature, running in important literary and political circles. Newspapers chronicled her every appearance and activity. She was known for her beauty, good nature and effortlessly polite and graceful manner.

In 1784, when Fox was struggling to keep his seat in the Westminster election, Georgiana and her sister went amongst the electorate, canvassing for votes for Fox. Their actions were successful and Fox held his seat, but the press shamed Georgiana, accusing her of exchanging kisses for votes which forced her to take a less visible role in the future. 

Picture credit: Instagram

Being a leading member of late Georgian society, famous for her extrovert personality, extravagant fashion and influence on politics, Georgiana unsurprisingly took part in gambling, drinking and drugs. Whether a coping mechanism or the social ‘norm’, it seemed as though nothing was enough to solve her heartache – everybody loved her except her husband.

Georgiana formed intense feelings for female friends throughout her life – though they were not always reciprocated. A romantically emotional letter to the Countess of Jersey received the reply ‘some parts of your letter frightened me’. Much of Georgiana’s infatuations went beyond the conventional terms of endearment used between Georgian women. Georgiana met ‘The Beautiful’ Mary Graham in 1777, her first major crush; Her letters to Mary revealed to historians the depth of her feelings.

Georgiana’s infatuation with Mary Graham ended, however, while on a retreat from London with the Duke, where Georgiana met Lady Elizabeth Foster in Bath, who was financially struggling after separation from her husband. They became close friends, Georgiana relying on her emotionally. With the Duke’s approval, Georgiana invited her to live with them. The ensuing ‘Love triangle’ between the Duke and Duchess and Elizabeth was a common topic of conversation amongst the elite. Elizabeth became the Duke’s mistress (giving him two children), which was not uncommon of the time, but the fact that she lived with him and his wife was more unusual. Georgiana and Elizabeth were likely also more than friends – in the 18th century, ‘romantic friendships’ were accepted among elite women. Their intimacy and affection can be seen in Georgiana’s letters and the locket of Georgiana’s hair that Elizabeth wore. The arrangement the three had was clearly a success, lasting 25 years. However, Georgiana herself was not socially permitted to take a lover until she produced an heir.

Georgiana’s first child, Georgiana “Little G”, was born in 1783. The Duchess had developed a strong maternal instinct from raising Charlotte and insisted on nursing her own children as opposed to having a wet nurse. In 1785 Harriet “Harryo” was born, a second daughter. In 1790 Georgiana finally had a son, William, who took the title of Marquess of Hartington at birth and was called “Hart”. The Duchess was now socially permitted to take a lover.

There is no evidence for when she began an affair with Charles Grey, future Prime Minister, but Georgiana became pregnant in 1791. She was sent off to France to give birth and due to her poor health many thought she would die in childbirth, including herself – she also suffered from isolation and separation from her children. Luckily, Eliza Courtney was born without complications, yet Georgiana was forced to give her away to be raised by the Grey family and renounce her love of Charles Grey in order to return to her husband and three children after two years in France. She was permitted to visit Eliza later on in life, bringing presents and affection for her daughter.

Her return to England largely involved caring for her ill husband and suffering from declining health herself. For several years, she lived a quiet life, until her eldest daughter entered society and she took an active role once more amongst the elite. She died relatively young, aged 48, surrounded by her family. A remarkable, much-loved woman, influential beyond expectation as a Duchess, she led women to be more involved in politics, literature and science and pursued her love for both men and women throughout her life.

Written by Jess Burchett


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Previous articles of the series Flying High: The Lives of 5 Notable Women in Georgian High Society:

Henrietta Howard

Anne Seymour Damer

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Fruzsina Vida

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.