The Bachelor Duke: William Spencer Cavendish, Sixth Duke of Devonshire, 1790-1858 
by James Lees-Milne.
Murray, 234 pp., £19.95, March 1991, 0 7195 4920 5
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William Spencer Cavendish, sixth Duke of Devonshire, was born ‘in a somewhat furtive manner for a baby of his exalted rank’. In 1790 his father, the fifth Duke, and his mother, the giddy Duchess Georgiana, had been travelling in the Low Countries, where the Austrian threat became such that they bolted for the safety of Revolutionary Paris. The party included the Duke’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, and his four young children, two of them by Lady Elizabeth, whose company Georgiana ‘for reasons best known to herself ... loved more than that of any living soul’. Georgiana’s mother, Countess Spencer, was also in the group, for the Devonshire Set was nothing if not close-knit. On the eve of the accouchement Lady Elizabeth very prudently displayed her slim form at the opera, so heading off any rumour of a changeling. In the birth chamber several witnesses testified that the child was Georgiana’s (the event has echoes of the ‘warming-pan affair’ which embarrassed James II’s Queen). Having given her husband a long-wanted male heir, the Duchess naturally expected him to pay off her prodigious gambling debts. This he failed to do. Soon she became pregnant again, this time by a future prime minister, Earl Grey, who in years to come would be happy to present the white wand of a Lord Chamberlain to the sixth Duke.

Reared in a confusion of progeny, a social worker’s nightmare, the sixth Duke, in spite of the odd lapse, failed to live down to the standards of his forebears. His coming-of-age celebrations at Hardwick Hall held wicked promise – acres of tenants roaring drunk, one drowned, one dashed to pieces – but creeping rectitude overtook him and at one time he became, in Joseph Paxton’s words, a ‘ranting saint’. He was a great territorial magnate and a patron of the arts, but never a mover and shaker. He has not hitherto been accorded a biography, other than in Violet Markham’s Paxton and the Bachelor Duke. The DNB gives him less space than it devotes to many a miscellaneous writer, or quarrelsome dean. To James Lees-Milne, an alert student of the aristocracy in their natural habitat, it seemed time to give the bachelor duke a solus portrait.

First, his bachelor status. For a young man of great possessions it seems odd that he lacked any philoprogenitive urge. There was no suggestion that he was ‘not the marrying kind’. He kept a mistress for many years. He even visited the deplorable Harriette Wilson and was roughly treated in her memoirs. At Chatsworth as a young man he had a brief ‘romantic friendship’ with the Grand Duke Nicholas, later Emperor of All the Russias, with whom he larked about, sang songs and engaged in what Lees-Milne calls ‘delicious uninhibited intimacies’. The Duke was over-impressionable and liked to think he had enjoyed a romantic friendship with Princess Charlotte, George IV’s daughter, whose royal blood rendered her inaccessible. They exchanged letters and gifts, but it amounted, we are told, to ‘little more than une amitié amoureuse’. The Duke wept when the Princess died in childbirth, but so did all England. In Rome he even had a stormy flirtation with Napoleon’s young sister, Pauline Borghese, who ‘cast her spell over the susceptible Englishman’. But he steered clear at all times of the shoals of matrimony. It would all have been too much trouble. He had inherited, perhaps, the ‘can’t be bothered’ streak in his father, who, on a famous occasion, when told in the night that Chatsworth was on fire, told them to put out the flames and went back to sleep.

For the Duke’s guests, life at Chatsworth was not necessarily a world of excitement. Emily Eden, writing in 1825, said: ‘We have made a rule to accept one invitation out of two. We go there with the best disposition, wishing to be amused, liking the people we meet there, loyal and well affected to the King of the Peak himself, supported by the knowledge that in the eyes of the neighbourhood we are covering ourselves in glory by frequenting the great house ...’ But at the end of the second day ‘the depths of the bore’ were such that it was necessary to make excuses to leave. ‘I have not yet attained the real Derbyshire feeling which would bring tears of admiration into the eyes whenever the Duke observed that it was a fine day.’

There must, of course, have been times when the King of the Peak, for all his indolence, found himself bogged down in inescapable ducal business, like finding incumbents for the scores of livings within his gift (Lees-Milne could usefully have told us how he discharged that duty). After succeeding to the title, the Duke was twice laced with the spectre of revolution in the land. His own conscience was clear, for the author presents him as a progressive English landlord: ‘He was a passionate champion of popular rights and equal opportunities, albeit hoping that the aristocratic supremacy would last out his lifetime because, he would argue, sudden reversal of the established order would mean revolution and general chaos from which no one would benefit.’ As Chesterton said:

         the fixed system that our land inherits,
Viewed from a certain standpoint, has its merits.

The first bad scare came in 1831, when the Lords threw out the Reform Bill and the mob sacked Nottingham Castle. There were riots also in Derby, in the county for which the Duke was Lord Lieutenant. The Duke and the Mayor of Derby discussed what was to be done, but took no bold decisions; the Duke simply continued to hold the feasts and balls for which he was already noted. Lees-Milne does not tell us of the panic which gripped his fellow dukes. On the ramparts of Belvoir Castle the Duke of Rutland mounted cannon and drilled his footmen in how to blow their fellow men to bits; the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos removed the guns from his yacht with similar execution in view; and the Duke of Argyll fortified his seat at Ardencaple against the Clydeside mobs. It is doubtful whether the bachelor Duke had much sympathy with the owner of Nottingham Castle, the Duke of Newcastle, for this was the man who ejected 40 of his tenants for voting the wrong way: ‘Shall I not do what I will with mine own?’ The next big flap was in 1848, when thrones shook all over Europe.

At first the Duke was overcome by certainty that this revolution portended an end to rank and property in England. He even feared for his beloved Chatsworth’s security. He had forgotten that social upheavals on the Continent did not necessarily have an echo in these islands. He had reached that stage of life when the horrors of the future are too readily magnified.

But that did not mean throwing in the towel. He celebrated the fatal year, not by mounting cannon on the heights above Chatsworth (which he had done in 1843 to salute the arrival of Queen Victoria), but with ‘a superabundance of balls, dinners, routs and breakfasts’.

The most expensive ball the Duke ever gave was the one he laid on in Moscow for the coronation of his friend Nicholas. It cost him £60,000, coincidentally the sum his mother had hoped his birth would bring her. In 1844 he had high hopes of entertaining the Tsar at Chatsworth and spent another fortune on hydraulic enterprises, including a 260-foot fountain, ‘The Emperor’, which alas the Tsar never saw. Instead, the Duke gave him splendid English breakfast at Chiswick House and the hero-worship flared up again. Ten yean later the Crimean War broke out and his hero was the most reviled man in Britain.

Notoriously, the ducal Devonshires owned property almost everywhere except in Devon. For decades on end the Duke failed to visit his fine castle of Lismore in Ireland; the heavy spending went on Chatsworth, which the Duke wished to transform into a palace rivalling Longleat. It was here that the extraordinary jumped-up gardener Joseph Paxton contributed so spectacularly to his patron’s, and his own, fame. Paxton turned his skills to the creation of aqueducts, cascades, reservoirs and the Chatsworth Stove, or Grand Conservatory, which was the inspiration for the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The canal-building Duke of Bridgewater leaned heavily on the technical skills of the rude James Brindley, but, unlike Paxton, Brindley was never his master’s financial adviser or, in the days of decline, the host to his distinguished guests. Paxton became a railway director and a knight, yet he was always there to respond to a ducal twitch on the thread. When, in 1854, a group of electors asked him to stand for Coventry he withheld his answer until he had asked the Duke’s leave: ‘so much does he continue to be my very good little boy always,’ observed his master. The Duke formed a habit of descending on the Paxtons in their home on Sydenham Hill and in his last stricken years he even suggested living there as a lodger.

James Lees-Milne obviously enjoyed writing this book (which is dedicated ‘To Andrew and Debo’). His Duke may have held no higher office than that of Lord Chamberlain, in which capacity he closed down an illicit gin-shop run in Windsor Castle by a Mrs Miller (if he censored any plays we do not hear about it). But doing is not necessarily more important than being and there is a fashion for extended obituaries of persons in high places who did nothing very much but did it in style. As a mirror of the life of one of the last Whig grandees, a man who saw magnificence as a duty, a man ready to amuse his guests with a castrato, an elephant, a couple of giraffes or a giant water-lily, a traveller who always called at royal courts when other men merely signed the ambassador’s book (if that), this book is much to be commended. The period information is often entrancing, as in the strict rules the Duke laid down for his travelling physician, who was not to expect to be invited everywhere. It is instructive to learn that in the Duke’s time 60,000 persons a year passed through the splendours of Chatsworth, which in itself was no trivial public service to provide. He may have shifted the unsightly village of Edensor (‘Shall I not do what I will with mine own?’) but the cottages were falling down anyway and he (and Paxton) built a far better village out of sight. Unlike the reclusive Duke of Portland at Welbeck, he thought that ballrooms, art galleries, libraries, riding schools and carriage drives ought to be readily visible by the multitudes, not buried underground. As for his entertainments, we learn that in one week at Chatsworth in 1852 a house-party was held for 426 persons, of whom 70 sat at the Duke’s table, 105 at the steward’s room table and 251 in the servants’ hall: which was not bad even by Medieval standards.

The author is at pains to persuade us that the Duke was a man void of snobbery and class feeling, that he could, as it were, condescend without condescending; we are assured that he was ‘a highly civilised being’ whom ‘we would dearly like to entertain at dinner, no matter how inadequate our dining-table’. Very possibly. Yet long-suffering Lady Paxton did rather grow to resent his presence at her board at Sydenham and perhaps wished he could have been whisked back to Chatsworth to be the life and soul of the washerwomen’s ball.

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