An Aristocratic Affair by Janet Gleeson

The fabulous frocks and frustrated fortunes of a Regency bon viveur
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The Independent Culture

Is history just celebrity journalism, profiling colourful dead people? So asked Stephen Fry when launching the "History Matters" campaign. Definitely not, he answered. A good historian should guide us into the inner worlds of past people, so that we share their perspective rather than gazing at them from outside.

Janet Gleeson's An Aristocratic Affair reminds us that we can get away with doing both. Here, we have a glitzy Regency aristocrat who satisfied the purest definition of a celebrity, famous mainly for being famous. We see her in all her glory - fabulous frocks, hysterical public scenes and all. Yet Gleeson also enters into her experience and makes us feel its frustrations.

Harriet Spencer was born in 1761 into glamour. Her mother was a formidable society matron and gambling addict. Her older sister was the spectacular Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Harriet in turn became mother to Caroline Lamb, addled stalker of Lord Byron, who, it emerges, was more impressed by Harriet. "If ever I were again smitten in that family, it would be with herself and not C," he wrote.

Like Georgiana, Harriet showed off, flirted and waxed passionate about politics and people. She married Lord Bessborough, who humiliated her in public and may have caused her brain damage. In revenge, she took lovers, notably Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the young, handsome Granville Leveson Gower.

After several legitimate children, Harriet had two secret ones by Granville. Hiding these pregnancies was a feat, even with the era's bulbous dresses. Discovery would have meant divorce, a thing to be feared. The shame and anxiety surrounding these births brings home the constraints on a woman's life even in the highest circles - perhaps especially there, where one was always watched.

For all her vivacious spirit, Harriet was unable to live as she wished. Until her death in 1821, she spent years roaming Europe, fleeing gossip and struggling with her unstable daughter, who never learned to hide herself. Like today's celebrities, these people seem strangely boxed in by their fortune and are more interesting for it. It is not only the razzle-dazzle, but the shared, troubled humanity that makes us want to curl up sometimes with History Today, sometimes with Hello!.

The writer's 'The English Dane: a Story of Empire and Adventure' is published by Vintage

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