Books: Confessions of a Whig-hag

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The Independent Culture
GEORGIANA: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman HarperCollins pounds 19.99

EVEN in an age not noted for its high moral tone, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire was notorious for her heavy drinking, ruinous gambling and disastrous love affairs. As the undisputed queen of fashionable society and the hostess of one of 18th-century England's most influential political salons, she was constantly in the public eye. But does she deserve a 400-page biography?

Born at Althorp in 1757, the daughter of the fantastically rich John Spencer (later the first Earl Spencer, the possessor of 100,000 acres and an income of pounds 30,000 a year), Georgiana was 17 when she married the fifth Duke of Devonshire, at 24 the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom. "She would," writes Foreman, "go to any lengths to please her parents, and that included thinking herself in love with a man she hardly knew."

Though the marriage was not a happy one - the "boring and gauche" Duke seems to have preferred the company of mistresses to that of his young wife - Georgiana made the most of her husband's wealth and high position in society to satisfy her passion for politics and pleasure. Devonshire House in London became the unofficial headquarters of the Whig party; it also became a den of sexual misconduct, reckless gambling and hard drinking. No one participated more enthusiastically than Charles James Fox, the rising Whig politician, whom Georgiana first met in 1777. "Fox's ardour moved Georgiana," Foreman tells us. "He talked to her as no one else did, treating her as his equal, discussing his ideas and encouraging her participation." He became her political mentor and, briefly, her lover.

The author is right to point out that, after 30 years in politics, Georgiana had achieved a number of significant victories. She "rescued Fox from electoral defeat" by canvassing on his behalf in the Westminster election of 1784 (and was accused by the government papers of trading kisses for votes). She "succeeded in recruiting new blood to the party and in helping to stem the flow of desertions" during the "wilderness years before and after the 1789 Regency crisis"; and she was "one of the leading instigators of the Fox-Grenville coalition of 1804".

But Foreman has a tendency to exaggerate Georgiana's influence. She did help to save (temporarily) the Portland government of 1783 by advising the Prince of Wales to accept the King's offer of an income of pounds 62,000 a year (almost pounds 4m in today's money) and a one-off parliamentary grant of pounds 60,000 to settle his debts. He was also swayed by common sense and the advice of his former equerry, Colonel Lake.

Again in 1804, according to the author, Georgiana managed to persuade the Prince not to desert the Whigs for the ruling Tories. In fact, the real reason the Prince did not go along with William Pitt's attempt to seduce him into supporting the government, by arranging a reconciliation between himself and his father, was because, despite Pitt's assurances, the King would not grant him useful military employment (nor would he live up to his promise not to consult the Prince's estranged wife, Princess Caroline, about their daughter's upbringing).

For all Georgiana's qualities - she was charming, generous and, above all, politically astute - she had many faults: among her ill-advised lovers were the Duke of Dorset and the first Earl Grey (by whom she had a child), though not, oddly enough, the lascivious Prince of Wales. She frittered away a fortune at the gaming table, confessing to her husband in 1805 that she was pounds 50,000 in debt when the true figure was much greater still. She chose as her closest friend (and possible lesbian lover) the scheming Lady Elizabeth Foster, the estranged wife of an obscure Irish MP, who became her husband's mistress (and ultimately his second wife). She also became addicted to laudanum and eventually died, at the age of 48, from an abcess on the liver (probably a legacy of her excessive drinking).

Though exhaustively researched and well-written, Foreman's generally balanced account does contain one or two factual errors: it was the Duke of Portland, not Lord North, who became the (albeit titular) Prime Minister in March 1783; the row between the government and the King in the summer of 1783 was over the size of the Prince's income, not a one-off payment; and the Prince of Wales's nickname of "Prinny" was coined in the 1800s (not the 1780s).

Foreman has been hailed by her publishers as following "in the tradition of Antonia Fraser and Stella Tillyard". But unlike them, she does not succeed in bringing her period to life, nor does she always manage to hold the reader's attention. Partly because the narrative is too bogged down with the minutiae of Georgiana's day-to-day existence (more details about 18th-century life in general would have been welcome), and partly because the book is longer - at 400 pages - than its subject deserves.

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