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From Father Christmas this year, I received several books including The Duchess by Amanda Foreman. I am a huge historical fiction fan and this was the first non-fiction book I have read in a while. The book was made in to a film of the same name in 2008, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.
The book is based on the true life of Lady Georgiana Spencer, later Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire in the eighteenth century. Lady Georgiana Spencer was the eldest child of Lord John, the 1st Earl Spencer and Lady Margaret Georgiana Spencer. She was born at Althorp, near Northampton on 7 June 1757. The book was originally published as 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire'
At the beginning of the book is a picture painted by Thomas Gainsborough. This is followed by extensive family trees for both the Spencer family, including Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Cavendish family.
The book is divided in to four parts, plus the epilogue, focusing on various stages of Georgiana's life. It starts with her early life and her marriage to the Duke and continues to her death and the effect this has on the family.
Throughout the book, we hear about Georgiana's gambling addiction, and her huge debts. She is forever confessing these to her husband when she can hide them no longer. And we are talking huge amounts of money here - millions of pounds. We also read about Georgiana's rise to a fashion role model, describing various trends she started which other ladies of the Quality swiftly copied. These included creating a three foot hair tower, stuffed with horse hair to give it volume, and topped by ornaments, including a ship at full sail and even an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds!
We also learn about Georgiana and the Dukes children, both legitimate and illegitimate. Georgiana is very close to her family, her mother, sister and eldest daughter Georgiana, affectionately known as Little G, in particular.
When Georgiana meets politician Charles Fox, she becomes very active in the Whig Party, at a time when it was frowned upon for women to become involved. She spends a huge amount of time and money furthering their cause and becomes friendly with the Prince of Wales, the future George IV.
In 1782, she meets her lifelong friend and the apparent third person in her marriage, Lady Elizabeth Foster, or Bess as she becomes known throughout the book. Bess is adored by both Georgiana and the Duke, but hated by Lady Spencer and Georgiana's children. Her relationship with Georgiana is subject to much speculation, as no one around them seems to understand the love that the two obviously share.
Georgiana died, aged 48, on 30 March 1806 with her family around her. For one who died so young, her life was extremely full and she definitely made the most of it.
The Duchess is a fascinating character. She has been described as beautiful, sensitive and extravagant, and all this is clear throughout the book. She was totally ahead of her time in so many respects and becomes a celebrity due to her fashion sense and political views. She was also a talented writer.
A huge amount of the book is devoted to the politics at the time, and though some of it is very interesting, it can be very confusing. For someone with no real knowledge of this, I did enjoy parts of it, but did feel that there was rather a lot.
The book is incredibly well told, with clips from the papers of the day including the Morning Herald and the London Chronicle at the beginning of each chapter. To back up the facts throughout the book, Foreman quotes letters both to and from Georgiana, plus people associated with her. The book is well researched and it is clear that a huge amount of time has gone in to verifying all that is written. It is such a shame that her Victorian descendants felt the need to censor some of the letters, so some aspects of her life are effectively erased from history.
Foreman reveals so much of Georgiana's character, a real feat considering she died over 200 years ago. She shows the Duchess to be a loyal and loving friend, whilst also laying bare her faults - her gambling and her inability to face up to her actions which result in the huge debts which threaten to bankrupt the family and over which she is forced to lie to friends and family.
There were times when I felt such sympathy for Georgiana for the difficulties she faced in her life, but other times that I wanted to shake her to make her understand the consequences of her actions.
In summary, I found the book hugely interesting and Foreman shares her knowledge of the period well, making parts of it come to life. It is definitely not light reading, being biographical and full of extracts from letters over 200 years old when the language used was totally different from today. I would definitely recommend to anyone to read, as long as they are aware of these facts before they start reading.
The 2008 paperback edition (496 pages) is available from Amazon new from £1.90 plus £2.80 postage.
Thank you for reading.