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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman

Can I just stay, to start off with, that I am not a fan of ‘movie tie-in’ covers? Especially on biographies. I haven’t seen The Duchess yet, although I’m pretty sure I would like it: I am a Keira Knightley fan and have been since Bend It Like Beckham, and if nothing else I would enjoy seeing Chatsworth. But I really don’t like that most of the copies of this book that are in the stores have (a) been renamed to “The Duchess” and (b) have Keira Knightley on the cover.  The only movie tie-in cover I’ve seen that I think is at all appropriate is one that still has the portrait of Georgiana on the front, but with Keira Knightley in a small circle near the bottom, and says that it has been made into the movie The Duchess.

Anyway. I have been meaning to read this for literally years, pretty much since it came out.  I have always had a connection to Derbyshire because of my godmother, and Chatsworth was one of the first stately homes I ever visited.  It’s always interesting for me to see references to places that I have been (I’m sort of working on a ‘literary memoir’ that explores that).

Georgiana was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, celebrity of her time. She is the one who set trends in almost every field.  It was fascinating to read about how influential she was, and her insecurities even given that.  Her relationships were the main focus of this book, with an emphasis not so much on Georgiana’s relationship with others as their relationship with her.  So much of the book shows Georgiana in other people’s words – a historical necessity, since apparently quite a lot of Georgiana’s letters were censored in the 19th century, literally blacked out.  Showing so many different perspectives is quite possibly the best way to get a sense of a person as a whole: we all present different facets of ourselves depending on whom we’re interacting with, including in our private ‘alone time’, so the only way to see as much as possible is to see the person from as many different views as possible.

This book is also remarkable in the way that it almost makes me care about 18th century politics.  Someone – I think it was Peter Sagal – said about the book Game Change that it shows that character counts more than political ideology. The same could also be said about this book and its portrayal of 18th century politics. I’m sure Georgiana agreed wholeheartedly with the idea of the Whigs. But I also am sure that she wouldn’t have been such a political power for them if she didn’t like them, too. So much of political success is personality and persuasion, then as now, and that was part of what made Georgiana successful.  While reading it, I wished I knew more about some of the characters –  Fox, Grey, Pitt, etc. – to get a non-Georgiana sense of what made them good politicians.

I doubt I would have liked her if I’d been alive at the time, frankly. I would probably have been fascinated by her, as many people seemed to be, but getting to know her through this book, there were definitely times where I got ridiculously frustrated with her: mostly in money matters. Now, my money management is not the best (although not having a reliable income is a big part of that) but I just got so frustrated with her continual gambling and her deceit to her husband and her creditors. It wasn’t until nearer the end of her life – certainly nearer the end of the book – that anyone demanded consequences for her continual spending, borrowing, and lying about it. This is one of the things that would have frustrated me if I had known her: it was rare that she had to face consequences for her own actions. She got away with things that many other people would not and did not get away with, merely because she was glamorous and charming.  The Prince Regent (well, the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent) seemed quite similar: he is another one that I don’t know that much about and rather wish that I did.

I have also been getting more interested in contemporary medical diagnoses.  What really happened to Georgiana’s eye, and how would it be treated today? How did she form the abscess on her liver that killed her? This is something that I started thinking about more when I was reading Queens Consort: when they said that Henry VI and his French grandfather were ‘mad’, what does that mean in today’s terms? Most people by now know that George III’s madness was actually symptoms of porphyria but where did that come from? My sister has a book somewhere about the medical histories of the kings and queens; I may have to borrow it sometime.

I’m debating about what to read next: do I want to stick with the historical biography theme and read Bess of Hardwick? Or do I want to shift tacks and go for a work of fiction?

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)