Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire - Amanda Foreman This is obviously a well-researched biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a figure of political and social consequence from her teen years when she married the duke in 1774 to her death in 1806. The book is studded with the surviving letters by her and about her that Foreman traveled throughout Britain to research. The Duchess was a confidante of the Prince of Wales, an intimate of Whig statesman Charles James Fox, a friend of Edward Gibbon (writer of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and playwright Richard Sheridan (who modeled the lead in School for Scandal after her) a subject of a famous portrait by Gainsborough and acquainted with Frances Burney (a forerunner of Jane Austen.) Foreman confesses to the challenges of a biographer in the introduction--the incompleteness of the record eroded by time, the biases you find, and the dangers of "Stockholm Syndrome"--finding yourself held hostage by and falling in love with your subject--which I've certainly noted in just about every biographer and which Foreman isn't immune from. Foreman said that others have compared Georgiana to Marie Antoinette, with whom she was a close friend: Previous accounts portrayed her as charismatic but flighty woman; I see her as courageous and vulnerable. Reading Foreman's own biography I don't see her as courageous, although Foreman convinced me it's unfair to dismiss her as a mere party hostess and setter of fashion. In her introduction Foreman said she attempted to portray Georgiana's "life and times" and that for me is the fascination of the biography, although is also what some complain about. This has plenty about the social life, customs and mores of the day. It sometimes reads like a true life Georgette Heyer regency novel. Plenty of gossip, rumored menage a trois, secret pregnancies and hidden illegitimate children, ruinous gambling, suspected poisonings of abused wives. Austen claimed in Northanger Abbey that gothic plots were absurd--Foreman makes them sound common place. But this is also a political history, filled with lots of machinations of the Whigs and Tories. I haven't seen The Duchess, the film based on this book, but somehow I doubt that aspect made it in, but it's the linchpin to Foreman's biography and takes up a lot of its space. In her epilogue Foreman complains that: The propensity of women's historians to ignore high politics, and of political historians to ignore women, has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of one of the most sexually integrated periods of British history. Foreman tries to claim for Georgiana a key role here, and if politics bore you and you expect Foreman to provide only scandalous froth, you may find yourself disappointed. And where this book does lose a point for me is I don't think the personal side and the political side connect up--I found the evidence for Georgiana's political importance fairly scant. On the other hand, anyone purported to find the current American political scene uncivil or frivolous may be comforted. Truly, contemporary Democrats and Republicans have nothing on 18th century Tories and Whigs. I left this book feeling I better understood the era and for the most part vastly entertained.