Not the People's Princess, but the Democratic Duchess: Jenny Uglow on a Spencer heroine's public and private affairs
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

by Amanda Foreman

HarperCollins, pounds 20

In November 1785, the Morning Herald advertised a print of "The Duchess of Devonshire - The Whig Heroine - reviewing the grand procession and the triumphant cavalcade of the Man of the People". The Man of the People was the Duchess's lifelong friend Charles James Fox, whom she had helped in the Westminster elections the year before. She had tramped through Covent Garden with her sister Harriet, handing out Foxite medals, had coaxed high-born women to appear on the hustings, and, to the horror of many, had talked to the common electors themselves, "dazzling and enchanting them with the fascination of her manner, the power of her beauty and the influence of her high rank", according to Horace Walpole. Others were less kind: crowds shouted abuse, and a spate of cartoons showed Georgiana glued to the loins of lusty butchers.

One of the achievements of Amanda Foreman's crisp, sympathetic biography, is her presentation of this spoilt darling of the aristocracy as a genuine political force, a skilled tactician and a sophisticated manipulator behind the scenes. Other women had campaigned in 1784, on both sides, but Georgiana stood out: she flagrantly exploited her fame as a leader of the fashionable world; she treated voters as real people; she fought for strongly-held principles. She was attacked, because her methods - exploiting "her own cult of celebrity and her democratic approach" - were too modern for her society.

Introducing each chapter with hungry press reports, Foreman sets Georgiana's private travails and passions against her public image. Her iconic status was as high as her rank: newspapers reported soaring sales whenever they carried a story about her. Something familiar here? A teasing thread of this story, kept out of the text but trumpeted loudly in the accompanying publicity material, is the unmistakable parallel with our own aristocratic icon, the People's Princess.

This is a pity, as the book stands up fine on its own, although the echoes do make one brood on the proud persistence of the class and its antiquated attitudes, let alone on the tabloid fascination. Georgiana too was a Spencer, born at Althorp in 1757. She was precocious, with a love of performing, but her self-assurance was shattered by her parents' long absence on the Grand Tour, by the loss of younger siblings, by her mother's vacillations between gambling and religion. At 15, she was picked as a suitable wife by the chilly Duke of Devonshire, 10 years her senior, arriving at Chatsworth in 1774 with a trousseau that included 65 pairs of shoes. But not, it seems, her husband's heart. Half a mile away, a milliner called Charlotte Spencer (no relation), was nursing the Duke's new child. Georgiana's job was to bear heirs and carry out her social obligations. After that, she was left largely alone. At times in the future her inner turmoil would led to eating disorders, laudanum, a menage a trois with her husband's mistress, a passionate adulterous affair, and an enforced separation. (Hmmm...) Starved of affection, she plunged into London life as the new star of the fastest set. She took fashion to extremes. When she adopted a three-foot high hairstyle, decorated with ornaments including a ship in full sail, a fountain of fruit and a pastoral tableau, every fashion- slave followed her, even though the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor.

While her whimsy was ridiculed, Georgiana's disarming directness won hearts everywhere: despatched to the continent for her health, she formed a friendship with Marie Antoinette which lasted until the latter's execution. This sort of alliance, with Fox and the Prince of Wales in London, with Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Polignac in Paris, ties her story intimately to history. She was an eyewitness to crucial events: her diary is one of the chief sources for historians of the Regency Crisis; she was in the midst of all the Whig manoeuvrings; in Paris during the early days of the French Revolution, she fraternised both with the court and their aristocratic opponents.

Foreman sketches the complex historical context with a clear head and a ready wit. And she is equally clear-headed in tracing the intricate social maze within which Georgiana blazed her perilous way. She shows how families closed ranks when threatened, and how quickly they turned cruel when boundaries were overstepped. She makes no attempt to absolve the tiresome Devonshire House set, with their arrogant dissipation, perpetual gossip and affected drawl. And she shows how their gambling - prevalent everywhere, but chronic in this group, where whole estates were pledged and lost overnight - nearly destroyed her heroine.

Georgiana played high, fast and hopelessly, and showed all an addict's symptoms. She concealed her losses (millions in modern figures); she borrowed from everyone, from her family to the Prince of Wales and upwardly aspiring bankers such as Coutts, and never repaid them. Again and again, a loan intended to ease a few debts was blown on a gamble to clear the lot. When the Duke's personal banker sent over pounds 5,000 in secret, she kept some and laid the rest on the Oaks and the Derby. Inevitably, she lost. Inevitably, she repented: "I am sickened at myself."

Foreman also exposes the ruthless self-interest beneath the indulgence and affectation of the ton: the tacit sexual convention, for example, that a husband could have mistresses and a wife lovers - but only after she had delivered an heir whose patrimony was beyond doubt. If the intrigues and elopements make tedious reading, they also give real poignancy to Georgiana's story as the evident danger of male ties encouraged intense bonds between women. These begin in the family: Georgiana's mother is a constant, prickly presence here, as is her sister Harriet, brutally treated by her husband, and fiercely loyal to her sister.

Georgiana's passionate friendships with Mary Graham and Lady Elizabeth Foster ("Bess") are entirely comprehensible, and very touching. And when Bess wheedles her way neatly into becoming the Duke's mistress and installs herself in Devonshire House, it is easy to see why the two women remained more allies than rivals. Their mutual dependence appears as self-preservation, a tribute, as much to Georgiana's tactical sense as to her desperate need for love.

The burden of producing a healthy heir also adds suspense to the tale of Georgiana's many miscarriages, the birth of her dearly loved daughters, and the final, nerve-wracking appearance of her son Hartington. And when she did take a lover, she still shunned safety, casting aside the urbane Duke of Dorset for the young, moody John Grey. Patient so far, the Duke greeted the news that his wife was carrying Grey's child as the last straw: she was banished to the continent for three years. Her baby girl was sent to Grey's parents and she was forced to play the role of "godmother" while her own children almost forgot her. But although she clearly suffered, her energy found a new outlet in her avid interest in natural science.

On her return to England, a subdued Georgiana patched things up with her Duke and moved back into politics as a power behind the party. We are always on the high ground here, among ministers and ambassadors, statesmen and royalty. The atmosphere is close and often airless. Yet Amanda Foreman makes a strong case for seeing Georgiana as a representative, as well as an exceptional woman. Her life, she suggests, shows how closely the personal and the public intertwined in the late 18th century, and how the spheres of men and women were not separate but "interlocking".

In this defiance of received wisdom, she comes to exactly the same conclusion as Amanda Vickery, whose detailed study of very different women, from the lesser gentry of Lancashire, also appears this month (The Gentleman's Daughter: Lives of Georgian Women, Yale University Press). And although these women saw the Duchess of Devonshire merely as a distant token of scandal in high places, she shares something with them, in her vitality and courage and passionate involvement in the wider world.

A close look at the archives can overturn convention. Foreman spent hours deciphering letters blacked out by Georgiana's high-minded Victorian descendants, to achieve a true picture: it was worth it. Her book is not only a pungent, intimate blend of biography and history, but a provocative contribution to our understanding of women of the past.