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’.

All this is excellently told by Amanda Foreman. Though not classically beautiful, Georgiana Devonshire was much the most fascinating woman of the age, and Foreman has written a biography to match her. A graceful writer, she has absorbed a great deal of archival material not only about the Spencers and Cavendishes, which has enabled her almost to think herself into the Devonshire House set, but also about the political background, which she has deftly, and usually accurately, inserted into a well constructed narrative. She does, however, make a rare hash of the Gordon Riots, which broke out in June 1780.

Starting off with the wrong date, she tells us that

the crowd blocked all the entrances to Parliament while Lord George Gordon stormed into the Commons. The MPs fell silent at his entrance and sat spellbound as he harangued them on the evils of popery. He then rushed out to do the same in the Lords. In between speaking he ran to the window to shout at the crowd outside. Fearing for their lives, MPs made a dash for the stairs and as they tried to leave the House they were punched and kicked by the marchers. The Lords followed suit, ignominiously leaving older Peers such as the 80-year old Lord Mansfield to fend for themselves.

Almost all that is wrong. So far from Lord George Gordon ‘storming into the Commons’, he arrived ‘so faint with heat and dust’ that he needed ‘an orange and some wine and water to recover me, which I took upon the table of the House’. So far from MPs falling ‘silent at his entrance and sitting spellbound as he harangued them’, one MP told Gordon that he would kill him if any of the mob entered the chamber; another followed him around with the same intention. And Gordon’s motion to have his anti-Popery petition taken into immediate consideration was supported by only seven MPs and opposed by 192. So far from MPs making ‘a dash for the stairs’, the debate and the hubbub lasted for six hours.

Gordon would not have been allowed to address the House of Lords, let alone ‘harangue’ it. Many of their Lordships had been roughly handled on the way to Westminster. The Bishop of Lincoln was seized by the throat and (the 76-year-old) Lord Mansfield ‘narrowly escaped with life’, while in the chamber the scene was said to resemble ‘the pit at a Garrick play’. But like the Commons, the Lords did not ‘rush for the stairs’. While the mob thundered outside, the Duke of Richmond laboriously advocated annual Parliaments and manhood suffrage for almost an hour. The Lords did not adjourn until 9 p.m.

On 5 June, the Duchess of Devonshire, Foreman records, wrote that Gordon’s people ‘continued to make a great fracas’. In consequence she was not able to go ‘to the Birthday’ in a beautiful pale blue gown, but was comforted that the Prince of Wales had expressed ‘his disappointment at having missed dancing with me for the third time’.

Shortly after the riots the Duchess made her first public political move, standing on the hustings with Charles James Fox, who was contesting Westminster in the September General Election and whose mistress she may, or may not, at some point have been. Although she was there for only a short time, many were shocked by her boldness. At the Westminster by-election two years later, caused by Fox having become Foreign Secretary in the Rockingham Administration and his having, therefore, to submit himself for re-election, Georgiana made a more formal appearance on the hustings, this time accompanied by other Foxite ladies. The event was a public relations triumph. Georgiana was the first female political celebrity. She was also well-read and clever. Yet, under the spell of Fox, she un-questioningly accepted the Foxite orthodoxy that Pitt’s acceptance of office, when George III turned out the Fox-North coalition, and his subsequent continuance in office despite successive defeats in the Commons, was a betrayal of the Glorious Revolution. ‘If Mr Pitt succeeds, he will have brought about an event that he himself, as well as every Englishman, will repent ever after,’ she absurdly wrote, ‘for if he and the King conquer the House of Commons, he will ... make the Government quite absolute.’

Her most notorious political activity took place at the subsequent General Election. After some quiet and productive canvassing in St Albans, where their brother Lord Spencer had the main interest, Georgiana and Harriet came to London to give Fox some badly needed help at Westminster. Other women also were involved in the election – Lady Salisbury and others helped the Government candidates – but Georgiana was the only one who was bitterly attacked, largely because she was much the most attractive woman taking part and a far better canvasser than any of her competitors. She was also the most energetic, at one moment tramping the cobbled streets and at others cajoling tradesmen and navvies, and carrying them to the poll in an open carriage. She mixed easily with all classes, showing a genuine interest in those whose votes she was soliciting. ‘Were I God Almighty,’ said one labourer, favoured with her attentions, ‘I would make her Queen of Heaven.’ ‘I could light my pipe at her eyes,’ said another starstruck voter. After some days, the Duchess retired hurt She was tired and footsore, and wounded by the savage attacks of the Government press. But when Fox looked certain to lose, the Cavendishes appealed for her return, and to her mother’s dismay the Duchess resumed her efforts – which may well have been decisive in winning Fox the seat.

If the Westminster electors were more charmed than shocked by Georgiana’s electioneering ways, outsiders were mainly shocked. In the light of the 18th-century methods of gaining votes and keeping opposition voters away from the poll, the frenzied disapproval of Georgiana’s activities is remarkable – all the more so as the 1784 Westminster election was almost a collector’s piece of corruption and intimidation. No ingredient of a popular election was missing: bribery – the Government spent almost a third of its entire election fund trying to beat Fox at Westminster – intimidation, drink, regular riots, even murder were all there; and some more unusual ones were mixed with them. The Foxite mob was led by Irish chairmen hired from Spitalfields, while the Government side had Admiral Hood’s sailors, described by their opponents as ‘a gang of fellows, headed by naval officers and carrying His Majesty’s colours’. Battles and skirmishes were frequent In one more peaceful incident, the King had a detachment of Guards marched to Covent Garden, not to quell a riot but to vote.

None of these activities attracted a great deal of criticism; they were largely taken for granted. Respectable people and the political class were chiefly worried by the activities of what Pitt called ‘the Duchess of Devonshire and other Women of the People’. To us, Georgians kissing a butcher or two – if in fact she did – seems the least objectionable activity of the election campaign, but to contemporaries her sophisticated, successful and allegedly ‘masculine’ electioneering was an offence against both gender and class. ‘Victorianism’ began long before Victoria. Having seen the Duchess canvassing in the Strand, one diarist commented: ‘What a pity that any of our sex should ever forget what is due to female delicacy.’ No less serious were worries about upsetting the social hierarchy. ‘During her canvas,’ Horace Walpole recorded, ‘the Duchess made no scruple of visiting some of the humblest of electors, dazzling and enchanting them by the fascination of her manner, the power of her beauty and the influence of her high rank.’ That sort of thing would not do at all. If such people as butchers were to be treated familiarly by duchesses, they were liable to get ideas above the station to which it had pleased God to call them.

Georgiana herself was abashed by the stir she had created. In future she exercised her political influence in private. In any case, the conservative reaction against the French Revolution would have made a repetition of 1784 impossible. In consequence, no woman could emulate Georgiana’s exploits for a long time. Indeed, less than thirty years later, many doubted if it was consistent with feminine delicacy for ladies to visit the homes of the poor even for the purpose of distributing Bibles and religious tracts. Foreman comes down strongly against the Rousseauist ‘separate spheres’ school of history, which argues that women lived ‘in sealed communities without autonomy or direction, being little more than passive victims of the whims of men’.

K.D. Reynolds agrees with her. Her book argues that Victorian aristocratic women were actively engaged in the pursuits of their families and that, in the aristocratic culture, ‘they had some roles, such as those of wives and mothers, which were essentially defined by their gender, and other roles ... which were the consequence of their membership of the aristocracy.’ Stated baldly, Reynolds’s thesis seems to the amateur irredeemably banal. That aristocratic women should be predominantly female as wives and mothers, and aristocratic in other roles, is precisely what anyone but the dogmatically blinkered would expect.

But, however blinkered the thesis, Reynolds’s book is anything but banal. She, too, has immersed herself in innumerable archives which have enabled her to produce an engrossing account of aristocratic women helping to run landed estates, churches, schools and charities as well as taking part in more overtly political activities. Reynolds writes in a clear, spare prose, not at all crabbed – unlike the villainously small printing OUP has imposed on her – and with much sharp, humorous comment. When the Calvinist Lady Errol sought to comfort Queen Victoria ‘in one of her many bereavements with the thought that “we will all meet in Abraham’s bosom” she was met with a sharp rebuff from Victoria, who deelined to meet Abraham’.

Aristocratic charity, Reynolds points out, has not had a good image. ‘ “Lady Bountiful”, supercilious and condescending, slumming with the poor in a quest for novelty or dispensing benevolence like unpleasant medicine’ came under heavy fire in 19th-century literature. David Herbert’s unpretentious little book, which is written almost entirely from primary sources and is local history at its best, deals with Byron’s widow in her Lady Bountiful role. Lady Byron certainly did quite a lot for the village of Earl Shilton – among other things, she opened a school there – but Herbert is perhaps inclined to exaggerate her generosity, as was the lady herself. ‘I would give up half my own dinner,’ she wrote, ‘rather than fail to help my fellow creatures at this crisis.’ Had she done so, she might have helped herself as well, for she sometimes made herself ill by overeating. But there was no chance of her doing any such thing. Her philanthropy was always well confined within the limits of financial prudence, accounting for much less than 10 per cent of her income. Herbert thinks she might have been happier had she lived on her estate instead of in a succession of suburban villas. Yet she was much more philanthropic at a safe distance – she was not liked by the servants, tutors etc, that she employed and she did not treat them well.

All in all, Lady Byron was at the opposite pole from Georgiana Devonshire. She was no more likely to dissipate her fortune on gaming than on charity; and there was not the slightest danger of her kissing an employee, let alone a butcher. Whether that was an improvement is a matter of opinion.