Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire: Childhood

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is a very important and famous historical figure of the eighteenth century. We all know her story. She entered into an unhappy and loveless marriage with a man she had nothing in common with, became the queen of fashion and of the ton, was an important figure in the Whig Party, was an affectionate mother, was always in debt because of her love for gambling and had the best friend from hell, Elizabeth Foster. But what is less known about Georgiana is her childhood. How was she as a child, and how those important years affected her?

Georgiana Spencer was born at Althorp, the Spencer’s family home outside Northampton, on 7th June 1757. She was the eldest child of John Spencer and his wife Margaret Georgiana Poyntz. The couple had two more children, George, born in 1756 and Harriet, born in 1761. However, Georgiana, a precocious and affectionate baby, always remained her favourite child and the two women enjoyed a close relationship throughout their lives. The relationship with her father, instead, was more complicated. She obviously loved him but was also a little afraid of him at times. John Spencer was a very reserved man who showed his amiable disposition only in private, but he was also capable of an explosive, albeit not violent, temper, which was probably due to his ill-health.

The Spencers were one of the richest families in the country. Their estate was worth £750,000 (about £45 millions in today’s money) which included 100,000 acres of land in 27 counties, five residences and a vast and beautiful collection of paintings, jewels and plates. The family would spend the summer at Wimbldon Park, a Palladian villa on the outskirts of the town, the autumn at their hunting lodge in Pytchley, outside Kettering,
the winter at Althorp, the county seat of the Spencers, and “the season” in a draughty house in Grosvenor Square in London. But when Georgiana was 7, the family moved to their new sumptous London residence, Spencer House, localed in St James’s and overlooking Green Park. In 1765, John Spencer was created first Earl Spencer and thus little Gee, as her mother called her, became Lady Georgiana.

The Spencers were always entertaining. Her father was a lover and a collector of rare books and Italian arts, plays and concerts were often held at Spencer house and after dinner the most famous actors and writers of the time would display their talents to entertain the guests. All this was done to consolidate the power and prestige of the family, with many jobs obtained and government policies discussed at the house. But it also meant that Georgiana grew up in an exciting environment and surrounded by artists, politicians and writers. From an early age, she started writing little poems and stories she would recite after dinner and would put up little plays for her family in the evenings. Adults were charmed by this little girl and failed to see that she craved and needed attention, something that would affect her for the rest of her life.

She also received a good, but not overtly so, education. During the week, she studied languages (French, Latin and Italian), geography and deportment. She learned how to draw, to play the harp, dance and ride. She also received singing lessons. A good student who learned easily, Georgiana never had any problems grasping the complicated rules of etiquette and had great social skills, which pleased her mother a lot. When little Gee was 6 years old, her father had trouble with his lungs and his parents decided to go to Spa, in Belgium, hoping the warmer climate of the Continent would improve his health. George and Harriet were considered too young to travel abroad, but Georgiana went with her parents. Spa, however, didn’t have its hoped effect on the Earl’s health so they decided to try Italy instead. This time, her parents went alone, leaving little Gee with her grandmother in Antwerp.

This deeply affected Georgiana, who was already missing her siblings. She felt this abandonment was a punishment for something she had done, but didn’t know what it was. As a result, in the year she lived with her grandmother, she became even more self-conscious and eager to please those around her. Lady Spencer noticed a change in her daughter when they finally reunited but she liked it and never realized how this lack of confidence would cause her to depend too much on other people as an adult. In 1766 and 1769, Lady Spencer gave birth to two daughters but they died after a year and three months respectively. The Countess and Earl were distraught and started travelling a lot. When at home, Lady Spencer would play billiards and cards, gambling at her house with her friends till the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, the children would creep out of their rooms to see what was going on at the gaming table. As an adult, Georgiana would lose exorbitant sums of money gambling.

But for now, she was just a little girl affected by her sisters’ deaths. While it is true that she might have been a bit jealous of them soon after their birth because of all the attentions they received from their mother, their deaths made Georgiana worry excessively about her remaining siblings. She also became very sensible to criticism and would overreact, crying and screaming, at the slightest remonstrance. Her mother tried everything she could think of to calm her down, but to little avail. Time would help, though, and by the time she was a teenager, her reactions were more controlled.

Georgiana had a privileged childhood. She had parents who loved each other and their children very much, she was close to her siblings, she received a good education and her family never had any money problems. Yet, by examining her childhood it is clear to see that her lack of self-esteem, eagerness to please others, her tendency of being dependent from other people, and maybe even her love for gambling, developed at a very early age. Lack of self-esteem and addiction go hand in hand and when people are desperate to please others, they are very easily influenced and often end up doing whatever they are asked, even if that’s gonna get them in trouble. But still, the question remains, how could she have had such a low self-esteem when everyone loved her and she didn’t seem to have had anything traumatic happen to her?

I think Georgiana was simply a very sensitive child, more sensitive than most. Things that most people would consider normal, especially when taking into consideration the times and situations they happened in, like her parents travelling a lot (especially after the death of their two youngest daughters) and leaving her alone with her grandmother abroad for a year (it just wasn’t feasible to take her with them), affected her more deeply than they would others. Yes, she was very loved but maybe she didn’t think she was worthy of that love (maybe she felt that was why she was left with her grandma) or she thought she felt she had to behave in a certain way to deserve it (her mother was obviously pleased about Georgiana’s social abilities – may it be that Georgiana felt under great pressure to be the charming and social girl her mum loved and not disappoint her?) . Whatever the reason, she felt that being herself just wasn’t enough. And so, she needed to please others and gain her approval to feel loved. Unfortunately for her, no one, not even her parents, seemed to understand how vulnerable this charming girl actually was inside and so no one helped her. After all, to the outside world, she was a fascinating woman with a gambling addiction who just spent too much. Sad, isn’t it?

What about you? How do you think her childhood experiences affected Georgiana?

Further reading:
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Celebrity Sightings At Vauxhall Gardens

Vauxhall Gardens, a pleasure garden located in Kennington on the south bank of the River Thames, was one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London, from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. Initially entrance was free. The owners made money by selling food and drinks. But as its attractions expanded, an admission fee was charged too.

The gardens boasted a rococo Turkish tent, a Rotunda, several buildings in the chinoiserie style, a statue of George Frederic Handel, and walks so intricate and private they were often used for romantic assignations. Performances were frequent. Crowds gathered to watch tightrope walkers, fireworks, concerts (the most famous singers and musicians of the day, such as Handel, played there), and hot-air balloon ascents. In 1817, they even hosted a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo.

All the most popular celebrities of the day could be frequently seen at Vauxhall Gardens. This print by Thomas Rowlandson has immortalized quite a few. In the centre, wearing a white dress, there’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She’s with her sister Harriet, who’s wearing a blue riding habit. The two sisters, who were very close, are no doubt gossiping about their acquaintances, who are, in turn, talking about them.

Everything the Duchess did interested the papers and their readers. Next to the sisters, we can see Sir Henry Bate, the editor of the Morning Herald, and James Perry (he’s wearing a kilt), the editor of The Morning Chronicle, a rival publication. You can bet the sisters’ outing at Vauxhall Gardens will be reported by their papers the following day, hopefully accompanied by some juicy bits of gossip, if they can overhear any worth reporting from the ladies’ own lips.

Farther to the right, the Prince of Wales, future George IV, is whispering something romantic into the gorgeous Perdita’s ear. Mary Perdita Robinson and the Prince were lovers, but their affair had ended by the time Rowlandson draw this picture. Next to them stands Perdita’s husband, but no one is paying much attention to him.

In the dining box, enjoying a hearty meal, is Samuel Johnson, the author of the famous “Dictionary”. He’s eating with writers Mrs Thrale, Boswell, and Goldsmith. Jonhson’s friend Topham Beauclerk, a famous wit, is observing some ladies with his monocle.

More difficult is the identification of the performers. Some historians believe the singer to be Mrs. Weichsel, others her daughter, Elizabeth Billington. The identity of the composer leading the orchestra, instead, is certain. He’s François-Hippolyte Barthélémon.

Can you identify any other celebrity?

A Negligent Duchess

When, in April 1776, English author Fanny Burney met Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, at the park, she wasn’t too impressed. Here’s what she wrote to Samuel Crisp:

Mr. Burney, Hetty and I took a walk in the Park on Sunday morning, where, among others, we saw the young and handsome Duchess of Devonshire, walking in such an undressed and slaternly manner as in former times Mrs. Rishton might have done in Chesington Garden. Two of her curls came quite unpinned, and fell lank on one of her shoulders; one shoe was down at heel, the trimming of her jacket and coat was in some places unsown; her cap was awry; and her cloak, which was rusty and powdered, was flung half on and half off.

Had she not had a servant in a superb livery behind her, she would certainly have been affronted. Every creature turned back to stare at her. Indeed I think her very handsome, and she has a look of innocence and artlessness that made me quite sorry she should be so foolishly negligent of her person. She had hold of the Duke’s arm, who is the very reverse of herself, for he is ugly, tidy, and grave.

Omai*, who was in the Park, called here this morning, and says that he went to her Grace, and asked her why she let her hair go in that manner! Ha, ha, ha ! Don’t you laugh at her having a lesson of attention from an Otaheitan?

*A young Ra’iatean man who became the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe.

Further reading:
Journals and Letter by Frances Burney

Caroline St Jules

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster fell pregnant around the same time. It would’ve been a lovely coincidence if the babies didn’t share the same father, Georgiana’s husband William. Awkward. While Georgiana, as the legitimate spouse, was allowed to give birth to her second daughter Harriet in the comfort of her home, Bess was discreetly sent abroad. Her daughter Caroline Rosaline was born, a few days before Harriet, in an Italian hostel/brothel.

Bess wasn’t even allowed to raise her own daughter. Baby Caroline spent the first few weeks of her life with a poor family her parents didn’t know before being handed over to a respectable middle-class family. Years later, the ever persuasive Bess convinced the Comte St Jules to adopt her and give her his name.

Bess hoped to bring her daughter to England and raise her with Georgiana’s daughters, but the Duke had other ideas. He sent her to Paris, to be educated together with her other illegitimate step-sister Charlotte, who had been conceived shortly before the Duke’s marriage to Georgiana so that time at least he hadn’t, technically, committed adultery.

Bess eventually had her wish. Help came from the most unlikely of sources. Lady Spencer, Georgiana’s mother, had always despised Bess. But circumstances outside her control meant that, for once, Lady Spencer had to put her personal feelings aside. In 1790 Georgiana gave birth to her son Hart just outside Paris during the French Revolution. In her hurry to escape the country and bring her family to safety, Lady Spencer allowed the two illegitimate daughters of the Duke to go with her.

To be fair to Lady Spencer, she actually liked Caroline, whom she found to be very obedient. Georgiana’s friend Fanny Burney wasn’t so nice. She described the young girl as “fat and full of mincing little affections and airs.” Ouch! Her harsh judgement may have been influenced by her dislike for Bess. Mother and daughter were said to have similar personalities, which is probably why the young Caroline was her father’s favourite child.

Caroline’s illegitimacy and her unpopular mother didn’t prevent her from marrying well. The huge dowry of $30,000 bestowed on her by the Duke surely helped. So, on 17 May 1809, she married George Lamb, the son of Lady Melbourne and the younger brother of William Lamb, later Lord Melbourne. William had married Caroline Ponsonby, daughter of Georgiana’s sister Harriet.

To avoid confusion, the two Carolines were referred to as Caro William and Caro George. But while Caroline Posonby was very happy with her husband, Caroline St Jules’ marriage was a bitter mistake. The couple never had any children, and it was even rumoured that the marriage was never consummated.

Georgina Carteret Cowper

When Georgiana Spencer married William, Duke of Devonshire, she thought they were gonna live happily ever after. She knew that aristocratic marriages were arranged to forge alliances and increase the prestige and wealth of both families, of course, but there had been enough happy marriages in her life for her to believe the same could happen to her. Her parents had been very much in love with each when they got married, with Lady Spencer declaring, many years later, that she had never regretted her choice.

Neither did Georgiana’s paternal grandmother, Georgina Carteret. Born on 12 Mar 1715, Georgina was the third child of John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, and his first wife Frances Worsley. She got married, on Valentine’s Day 1734, to John Spencer, a man who had picked her off a list of potential brides his grandmother, the formidable Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, had compiled. The Duchess had wrote down the names in alphabetical order, and John, not really caring about any of the women on it, simply picked the first name on it.

Such carelessness in the choice of a bride would usually result in a miserable union. It certainly didn’t help that John was very fond of gambling, drinking, and had no intention of giving up other women. It would have been enough to drive the charming and smart Georgina to despair. But the young bride was also patient and madly in love with her husband, so she decided to turn a blind eye to his indiscretions and faults. The couple had one son, John, Georgiana’s father, and a daughter, Diana, who died aged 8.

Such an irregular and debauched lifestyle was bound to take its toll on John. Actually, it killed him off prematurely. John Jr was only 11 when his father died in 1746. Georgina, though, didn’t mourn John too long. Four years later, she married again, this time to William, Earl Cowper. It was the second marriage for him too. Georgina lived a long life and managed to see her granddaughter Georgiana get married. But rather than a source of joy, the marriage concerned her because it had made the young bride become a lot quieter than usual. There was nothing she could do about it though. Georgina died of cancer shortly afterwards. She was 64 years old.

Further reading:
The Duchess Of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide To The 18th Century

Historical Reads: Stealing The Duchess Of Devonshire

Author Evangeline Holland tells the story of Adam Worth and of his most famous theft. To quote:

For a large part of the late 19th century, one man confounded, outwitted, and bemused the police forces of multiple continents: Adam Worth (1844-1902). So difficult was it to catch him red-handed, so wily were his swindles, and so brazen were his thefts that Scotland Yard called him the “Napoleon of Crime.” His greatest and most famous theft of all was that of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire in 1876. Worth, who was born to Jewish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked his way up from a bounty jumper during the Civil War (bounty jumpers were those who joined the Army and then deserted with their enlistment bounties), to bank robber, to gambling saloon owner, and finally to jewel and art thief. With his dapper good looks and excellent manners, Worth even managed to infiltrate English high society for a brief period–though of course he used his position to rob his esteemed and flattered aristocratic friends.

To read the entire article, click here.

The Horrific Death Of A Friend

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was a good friend of Marie Antoinette, Queen of the French. The Duchess was horrified when she heard of her friend’s death. She wrote:

“The impression of the Queen’s death is constantly before my eyes, how anxious I am to know how my dr sister will bear it. Besides the admiration that is universally felt for her and the horror at the barbarians, her answers, her cleverness, composure, greatness of mind blaze forth in double splendour, and the horror of making the child appear against her is what one shd have hop’d that the mind of man was incapible of…”

Little G

On 12 July 1783, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, finally gave birth to her first child. Much to the disappointment of her husband, it was a girl. Georgiana was just glad the baby was alive. During the delivery, thinking the baby had been born dead, she had become almost hysterical. The little girl was named Georgiana Dorothy, but her family called her Little G. Despite her sex, she was very loved by both her parents.

Georgiana breastfed her baby herself, something very unusual for the time. The Duchess had actually hired a wet nurse, but when she came to work drunk, she decided to fire her and personally take care of her daughter. Despite her lavish and hectic lifestyle, Georgiana was a devoted mother. Even so, Little G never inherited her charms and outgoing personality. Shy and introverted, the little girl took after her father.

Her mother’s affair with Charles Grey made Little G insecure too. When Georgiana got pregnant with her lover’s child, the Duke gave her an ultimatum: either give up her lover and their child, or she would never seen her three children again. Georgiana chose her family, but even so she spent a couple of years in exile after the birth of her illegitimate daughter. When she was finally allowed to return home, Little G was so scared her mother would disappear again that she started following her everywhere.

Little Georgiana was also very clever and loved books. When she made her debut in society, she was courted by both the Duke of Bedford, a Whig and a libertine, and Lord Morpeth, a 27 year old Tory. A staunch Whig herself, Georgiana had reservations about Lord Morpeth, but when Little G fell in love with him, she relented. So, Georgiana duly became Countess of Carlisle and led a quiet married life, away from the parties and social events her mother loved so much. She also gave birth to twelve children, one of which ended up marrying one of Charles Grey’s sons! Georgiana died in August 1858, aged 75.

Further reading:
Georgiana Duchess Of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Best Posts Of 2013

Hello everyone,

the year is almost over. That means it’s time to take a small trip down memory lane and reminisce about some of the topics we’ve discussed this year. Here we go:

Le Bon Genre: a series of prints depicting the lives, pastimes and interests of the Parisian middle class at the beginning of the 19th century.

The World’s First Sex Therapist: Dr James Graham was a pioneer in sex therapy, a medical entrepreneur, a quack and a brilliant showman. He created The Celestial Bed, an electromagnetic bed that was supposed to help couples conceive. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her husband used it.

Was Anne Boleyn Beautiful Or Ugly?: Anne Boleyn’s appearance still remains a mystery. We only have one authenticated picture of her and lots of contradicting descriptions. So, what’s the truth?

Mary Eleanor Bowes: an ancestor of the Queen Mother, she was one of the wealthiest heiresses in England. She was the victim of domestic abuse and was even kidnapped by her violent husband. She managed to escape his clutches but her reputation never recovered from the scandals surrounding her divorce proceedings.

Catherine Of Aragon’s Pregnancies: if Catherine of Aragon wasn’t able to give her husband Henry VIII’s an heir, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. Unfortunately, most of her pregnancies would end in miscarriages or still births. Only one daughter, the future Mary I, would survive to adulthood.

Georgiana, The Trendsetter: Georgiana was the Queen of fashion of her time. Whatever she wore, everyone else soon copied. Check out this article to discover some of the trends she launched.

Marie Bashkirtseff: Marie was a famous and popular Russian painter. Despite suffering from tuberculosis, she worked incessantly, egged on by her desire to do something worthwhile in art that would live after her. Sadly, a large number of her works were destroyed during World War II.

Marriage A La Mode by William Hogarth: one of Hogarth’s most famous works, this series of prints depicts the disastrous consequences of arranged marriages, a very widespread practice among the upper classes at the time.

Princess Louise Of France, Blessed Thérèse of Saint Augustine: Princess Louise, one of the daughters of the womanizer king Louis XV was a very pious and devoted woman who decided to leave the splendors of Versailles behind and become a nun. But she would still use her royal connections to help the causes she believed in.

Elizabeth Chudleigh: Elizabeth lived a very scandalous life that defied all the conventions of her time. A bigamist, Elizabeth would try hard to deny her first marriage had ever happened, which would be her downfall. Despite this, she was also a generous woman who never lost her zest for life.

Armand de Gontaut, Duc de Lauzun and Biron: a brave soldier and a womanizer, the Duc was a supporter of the Revolution, believing it would bring freedom to the country. He also fought for it, and participated in the repression of the uprising of the Vendee, but this wasn’t enough to save him. Like many noblemen, he too lost his head.

Marie Antoinette’s Wardrobe: Marie Antoinette had a huge and luxurious wardrobe. This article explains how it was organized, and how the Queen decided what to wear.

Jane, Duchess Of Gordon: Jane was the Tory version, and rival, of Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire. Very active in politics, she once even kidnapped a man to secure a seat for one of her friends!

Was Gabrielle De Polignac A Loyal Friend Or A Greedy Social Climber?: Gabrielle was Marie Antoinette’s best friends. The friendship earned her (and her family) lots of money, perks, and titles, but also a reputation as a frivolous and greedy social climber. But who really was Gabrielle?

I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles!

The New Duchess Of Devonshire Is Presented At Court

In her book, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman discusses the newly married duchess’ presentation at court:

He [The Duke] provoked more gossip when he turned up four hours late for his presentation at court with Georgiana. All newly married couples were required to present themselves to the Queen at one of her twice-weekly public audiences at St James’s Palace, known as “Drawing Rooms”. The Drawing-room was fuller than ever I saw it, ” a witness recorded, “excepting that of a birthday [of the King or Queen], owing, as I suppose, to the curiosity to see the Duchess of Devonshire.” Georgiana was wearing her wedding dress and “look’d very pretty… happiness was never more marked in a countenance than hers. She was properly fine for the time of year, and her diamonds are very magnificent.” The formidable Lady Mary Coke wondered why the Duke ambled in on his own several hours after Georgiana. He “had very near been too late; it was nearly four o’clock when he came into the Drawing Room.” She watched him for some time and noticed that he showed no emotion. “His Grace is as happy as his Duchess,” she decided charitably, “but his countenance does not mark it so strongly.” Lady Mary’s opinion might have been different had she known about Lady Spencer’s* frantic messages to the Duke, imploring him not to be late.

*Georgiana’s mother

Further reading:
Georgiana, Duchess Of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman