Her father’s temper was somewhat uncertain, but her mother doted on her and remained jealous for her affection throughout her life. Georgiana was brought up to be accomplished, but not too bookish, with a keen emphasis on etiquette. In short, she was raised to make a brilliant marriage.An illustrious marriage
Georgiana married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, on 7 June 1774, her 17th birthday. The Duke was extremely reserved and ill-matched to the emotionally demonstrative Georgiana.
She in turn was unprepared for her duties as Duchess and hungry for affection. The Duke already had a mistress, Charlotte Spencer, with whom he had a daughter, Charlotte Williams. All he required of Georgiana was to provide him with an heir and this she seemed unable to do.Queen of fashion
Starved of the affection she craved, Georgiana threw herself into the fashionable world. The Duchess became the darling of the Beau Monde. Where Georgiana led, the ton followed. She set the fashions, whether for three foot high ostrich feathers or tall towers of hair with elaborate decorations or, later, the penchant for free-flowing muslin dresses tied simply with ribbon round the waist.Devoted Whig
Georgiana enthusiastically embraced her husband’s politics and became “a zealous advocate of the Whigs”(1)
. Devonshire House became the hub of the Whig party and Georgiana their leading hostess.
In 1780, Georgiana appeared on the hustings for the general election beside Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig party. 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 was humiliating, accusing Georgiana of exchanging kisses for votes and forcing her to take a less visible role in the future.
Many years later, Georgiana was instrumental in persuading the different political factions to work together, eventually forming the Ministry of All Talents in 1806.The Devonshire House Circle
The Devonshire House Circle was a wild set with loose morals that drank heavily and played deeply. It included Charles James Fox, the Prince of Wales
, the Countess of Jersey
and Viscountess Melbourne
who became Georgiana’s intimate friends.
Within the set, Georgiana popularised the Cavendish drawl – an affected manner of speaking that bespoke the aristocrat which she had learnt from the Duke.Debts, debts and more debts
Georgiana was extravagant and gave the most splendid parties. But her real downfall was her addiction to gambling, resulting in ever-increasing debts which she did her best to hide from the Duke, placing a constant strain on her life. When she eventually confessed to her debts, it seemed for a while as if the Duke would divorce her, but instead he treated her with great forbearance.Bess
In 1782, the Duke and Duchess went to Bath, where they met the fascinating Lady Elizabeth Foster
. She was separated from her husband and living in restricted circumstances and eagerly seized the opportunity to improve her situation. Lady Elizabeth, known as Bess, attached herself to Georgiana and was invited to return home with them.
Bess succeeded in making herself indispensable to both Duchess and Duke, as friend to one and mistress to the other. Whether Georgiana’s emotional dependence clouded her judgement or whether Bess was blackmailing her over her ever mounting debts, Georgiana supported the strange “ménage à trois” that resulted.
Bess bore the Duke two illegitimate children, Caroline St Jules and Augustus Clifford, and became the Duchess of Devonshire after Georgiana’s death.A devoted mother
Finally, in 1783, Georgiana, known as Little G, was born. Her sister, Harriet, known as Harryo, followed two years later, but it was not until 1790, when the hope of her ever producing an heir had almost disappeared, that William, Marquess of Hartington, known as Hart, was born.The love of Georgiana’s life
The true love of Georgiana’s life was the handsome young Whig politician, Charles Grey. She embarked upon an affair, but in 1791 she faced the worst crisis of her life when she discovered that she was carrying his child. The Duke gave her an ultimatum: give up Grey and the child or she would never see her three children again. Grey was furious when she chose her children over him.
Georgiana fled abroad giving birth to Eliza Courtney in January 1792 and then handing her over to Grey’s parents to be brought up. She was never able to openly acknowledge her motherhood, although she did visit her daughter.
Eventually, the Duke sent word that she could return and in the autumn of 1793, she arrived in England after a two year absence.Recluse
For several years following her exile, Georgiana lived a quiet life. She suffered a severe eye infection, possibly a tumour, which left her blind in one eye and her face scarred from the primitive treatment that she had received.
It was not until Little G was to be launched into society that Georgiana overcame her disability and once more entertained at Devonshire House. She rekindled her friendship with the Prince of Wales and became one of his main advisors.
An intelligent woman
Georgiana is usually associated with her extravagant behaviour, but there is a different side to her which is often overlooked. She was both a writer and a scientist.
In 1779, she published a satire, The Sylph
, and she also wrote a number of poems, including The Passage of the Mountain of St Gothard
and verses to accompany the bust of Charles James Fox at Woburn.
Whilst in exile abroad, Georgiana met the scientist Charles Blagden and developed a keen interest in chemistry. She also built a mineral collection at Chatsworth.
Georgiana died on 30 March 1806 from a liver complaint. She was buried in the family vault at St Stephen’s Church, Derby, on 8 April, and all society mourned her passing."There is no part of the world, I believe, where the angelic Duchess will not be deeply regretted; her kindness and beneficence were wound up with the happiness of so many."