I am not generally a big reader of biographies or nonfiction of any stripe, aside from professional reading, but I became interested in Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, after seeing the movie based on this book: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is not quite like the movie, but one would expect moviemakers to take certain license with with truth in the interest of narrative. The true Georgiana who emerges from the pages of this biography is at one less sympathetic and also more interesting and genuine than the character played by Keira Knightley.
I admit I really don’t know much about British politics. Much of this biography is devoted to Georgiana’s work on behalf of the Whigs. She had several friends who were prominent in the party and used her influence to help them get elected: Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and Charles Grey (1st Earl Grey). In a time when women did not wield much power, Georgiana influenced politics more than many men did. The realm of fashion, she reigned supreme.
More attention is given to Georgiana’s gambling addiction in this biography than in the movie. She borrowed money from many of her friends with promises of repayment that she rarely fulfilled. I have to admit this part of her personality was maddening to read about. The pain it caused her was acute, and it hurt her relations with her husband and friends, but she seemed unable to control it.
Lady Bess Foster, the friend who “steals” the Duke of Devonshire from Georgiana in the movie, comes off considerably less sympathetically and much more conniving in this biography. No doubt Georgiana valued her friendship, but Foreman’s depiction of her character leads the reader to believe Georgiana’s judgment in the matter to be sincerely flawed. In contrast, the Duke of Devonshire is not quite the villain he’s painted in the film.
Foreman includes the Cavendish and Spencer family trees, but I found myself wishing there was a glossary of characters, as so many similar names made it difficult for me to keep up with some of the people mentioned in the book. To Foreman’s credit, she did as much as she could to prevent confusion through repetition and extensive notes. It is clear that this biography was painstakingly researched. Foreman allows the people in the biography to speak for themselves as much as she can through primary source documents quoted extensively throughout the entire book.
If you watched the film The Duchess, you haven’t met the real Georgiana yet. The figure that emerges from the pages of Foreman’s biography is at once more compelling and more intriguing than the film hinted.