I could light my pipe at her eyes

Ian Gilmour

  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
    HarperCollins, 320 pp, £19.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 00 255668 5
  • Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain by K.D. Reynolds
    Oxford, 268 pp, £35.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 19 820727 1
  • Lady Byron and Earl Shilton by David Herbert
    Hinckley Museum, 128 pp, £7.50, March 1998, ISBN 0 9521471 3 0

Some body said of the 18th-century Spencers that the Bible was always on the table – and the cards in the drawer. Certainly, that was true of the first Countess Spencer, mother of Georgiana and Harriet. She was conspicuously religious and a compulsive gambler. Up at 5.30 in the morning, she spent an hour at her prayers and a further hour with her Bible. The evenings were spent more congenially, at the gaming table. ‘I staid ’till one hour past twelve,’ Harriet wrote in her diary as a child, ‘but Mama remained ’till six in the morning’ – which presumably curtailed Mama’s devotions that day. She effectively taught her children to gamble. ‘I can never make myself easy,’ she later wrote to Georgiana, ‘about the bad example I have set you, and what you have but too faithfully imitated.’

Her daughters had indeed inherited the Spencer cards, but fortunately they did not flaunt die Spencer Bible. Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire on her 17th birthday. From a worldly point of view, the Duke was the best possible choice, but from every other he was a poor husband for an immensely attractive and highly intelligent girl, who was anyway still too young to marry. He was reserved, dull and apparently interested only in dogs – when she fainted at a ball during their engagement, he showed no concern, carrying on talking to his friends – though he did have an illegitimate daughter before he married. Still, he proved a better husband than Harriet’s choice, the cold and unpleasant heir of the Earl of Bessborough, who was not even rich.

Whether from heredity, boredom, the culture of her class or high spirits, Georgiana was an even more obsessive gambler than her mother or husband, a failing which ruined her life. She lost vast sums, which she was unable to repay, and was too frightened to tell her husband about the debts. Instead, she borrowed money from her friends – including the Prince of Wales – and told endless lies, minimising her indebtedness to both her friends and her bankers. When blackmail eventually forced her to seek help from the Duke, she did not tell him the full story, so missing the chance to become fully solvent. Her husband, who initially demanded a separation, in the end defied his family; he refused to banish Georgiana and was generous to both her and Harriet, who was being persecuted by her odious husband. Georgiana confessed that she had ‘run into errors that would have made any other man discard me’.

The Duke even put up with her having an illegitimate child by Charles Grey (later of the Reform Bill), though she was exiled for a year. Of course, he was not in the best position to complain since, on top of the daughter he had fathered before he married, he had himself had two children by Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess); according to the double standards of the day that, however, was fully acceptable, and the Duke’s bastards by Bess were brought up alongside his legitimate children. Rather more unusually, Bess, too, lived in Devonshire House with the Duke and Duchess in a ménage à trois which, if anything, suited the ladies even better than the Duke. This was not because of any troilism in the arrangement – though Georgiana loved Bess – but because each gave the other security: Georgiana was less likely to be expelled from Devonshire House so long as Bess was there, and Georgiana’s continued presence enabled Bess to live with the Duke respectably and in state. After Georgiana’s early death, Bess ‘felt it her severe duty to be the Duchess of Devonshire’.

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