4) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman
I’m not in principle a big fan of the 18th century, but I read McCullough’s John Adams just over a year ago and have spent today in bed with the Duchess of Devonshire, as it were. They were contemporaries (she was born just over twenty years after him, and he died just over twenty years after her) but neither book actually mentions the other’s subject, though they must surely have met when Adams was in London in the 1780s, given her interest in America.
The fact that Foreman’s book is two hundred pages shorter than McCullough’s has nothing to do with its subject’s shorter lifespan. Their public careers were in fact close to contemporaneous. Adams, aged forty, was thrust into prominence by the Constitutional Convention in 1776; Georgiana, aged only 23, had become a national figure by 1780. Adams’ career ended with his presidency in 1801, though he lived another quarter century; Georgiana succeeded in putting together the Ministry of All the Talents, which took office in February 1806, just a few weeks before she died.
Foreman’s is much the better book. I confess that I had very little idea who Georgiana was before I picked it up from the lower recesses of my “to read” pile. As I said above, I don’t especially care for the 18th century. But Foreman made me care much more about the politics of the time, the factionalism between Fox, Pitt, Burke, Addington, Grenville, and the rest, far more than McCullough’s rather blasé treatment of the Federalist/Republican split.
It must also be said that Georgiana had much the more interesting love life of the two. There is not even the faintest whiff of suspicion about Adams’ fidelity to his wife Abigail. Georgiana had three children by her own husband and a fourth by one of her lovers, and Foreman concludes, having tantalisingly raised the question, that we will never know quite how physical her passionate friendships with other women were.
But an interesting subject doesn’t guarantee a good biography. Foreman has done the legwork, seeking out primary sources and secondary sources, not ashamed to tell us when she feels she has got something especially new (as in her account of Georgiana’s construction of the new government in 1804-06), and stringing it all together to form a coherent and compassionate account of a complicated life. And she makes a convincing call, based on her research, for women’s history not to be segregated from men’s history. Georgiana’s indirect influence was considerable. On one or two occasions she exercised direct influence, as in 1783 when (aged 26!) she persuaded the Prince of Wales not to push his luck with the government lest it fall. Her impact on election campaigning methodology in 1779 and 1784 seems to have been considerable, and largely her own idea. The tragedy was that her male political allies were so useless, shown most clearly by their screwing up in the Regency crisis in 1789.
Her experiences in Paris and Belgium during the revolutionary years would be material enough for a book on their own, but are just an interlude here. (She was on intimate terms with Marie Antoinette, and left Paris just before the Bastille was stormed.) In 1792 she was back in France again, to give birth to Charles Grey’s child, exiled from England by her husband in an episode which seems to have resulted in her taking up science rather than sex as a diversion. Georgiana’s own expertise in mineralogy and chemistry, we are told, was recognised by her male contemporaries, and she also sponsored the discovery of nitous oxide (actually this is one poiont where I would have liked a few more details).
She had her faults. Addiction to gambling, most obviously; a certain amount of wishful thinking as well, both in her personal life and in politics (her trust was often betrayed, by her husband’s lover Lady Elizabeth Foster, and on a wider political level by Fox and indirectly by Napoleon). But I find it possible to comprehend and forgive. In particular, she stuck her neck out in 1798 to insist that the minimum of force be used to oppose the Rising in Ireland that year, and did her best to get Catholic Emancipation (though that foundered on the rock of George III’s intransigence). I wish there were more biographies like this.