The Duchess tells the life story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire from her birth in 1757 to her death in 1806. It describes her marriage to William, 5th Duke of Devonshire and her involvement in the politics of the day. It looks at her role as a society hostess and leader of fashion and her problems with gambling.
Georgiana married young to a man she hardly knew and almost certainly didn’t love. Women were expected to marry, it was a very ‘suitable’ match and her parents seemed to want it, so she married the Duke of Devonshire. Many of her later problems can be traced to her marriage. Her husband’s family, the Cavendishes, weren’t welcoming and Georgiana felt constrained to behave in a way that went against her nature. It’s hardly surprising that she went off the rails a bit, staying up till all hours and gambling more than she could afford. She became so desperate for affection that she formed a friendship with one Lady Elizabeth Foster, who ended up as part of the Devonshire household despite the disapproval of Georgiana’s mother. Once Lady Foster (Bess) was there, it was impossible to remove her!
Given that women weren’t given the vote and there were no female Members of Parliament till 1918, Georgiana’s involvement in politics came as a surprise. However, it wasn’t uncommon for female family members to give support to the men when it came to electoral campaigning. Georgiana and her mother were good at this. Unfortunately, some people thought that Georgiana went too far.
One problem I have with this book is that so much space seems to be given to Georgiana’s gambling, the amount of her debts and the problems they caused. It reached the stage where the mention of anything else – politics, her exile abroad, her relationships with other people – came as a relief. I’m fascinated by history, but this wasn’t the easiest of reads for me.
The Duchess was the basis of a film starring Keira Knightley in the title role.