A portrait of a lady with a gold fish

Imagine you are a person who by a stroke of exceedingly good luck had caught a magical gold fish and then magnanimously released it. Now that mythical creature owns you a favour – three of your wishes will come true. What should you ask your gold fish for?  Plenty of people would instantly say they want to be rich, high born and beautiful (sometimes not in this order but the order is not important here) as these three things are most commonly considered to be a guarantee of happiness. Would your wishes be similar? If so, this essay might make you rethink your priorities.

Let me present my heroine, a woman who, it seems, wouldn’t have to ask the gold fish for anything because she had it all from the very beginning – her maiden name was Georgiana Spencer. She was born on June 7, 1757 the first child of three, into a privileged, noble family with impressive aristocratic bloodlines. Her father, John, the 1st Earl Spencer, was the great-grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill Her mother was a very ambitious lady, Georgiana Poyntz, after who the girl was named. Her parents married for love – something very rare at that time – and were a very happy couple.

Portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devo...Georgiana Spencer via Wikipedia

Georgiana was a very beautiful girl. Her great looks matched an easy-going, affable character. Georgiana excelled at assisting her mother with hosting social events. She had a lively and engaged mind with a keen interest in literature and politics. Apparently her parents decided that the best way they can deal with such a dangerous daughter is to marry her – the earlier the better. They found a proper candidate – one of the richest men in England. On her seventeenth birthday: 7 June 1774 lady Georgiana Spencer married William Cavendish the 5th Duke of Devonshire. Her husband was a British aristocrat and politician, aged 24 at that time so seven years older than his bride. Although such disparity in age was indeed nothing strange in the case of this marriage it had bitter consequences.

 The young spouses neither loved each other nor shared any common interests- it seems that from the start of their marriage, they were seldom in each other’s pockets. The duke was a known philanderer with at least two illegitimate children born prior to his marriage and he preferred to spend his nights at Brook’s, where he played cards until five in the morning. Small wonder young Georgiana, feeling unloved and uncared for, immersed herself in the social life of her own. Unimpeded by lack of her husband’s escort, she stormed into London society. Because of her rank, enormous fortune, and youthful beauty, she caught the public’s fancy. For the next couple of decades, the newspapers would be full of accounts of her, of what she wore, of her every activity, and of her passion for Whig politics.
The Duchess was, like her mother, a popular hostess. She organized intellectual salons that included the most influential Whig politicians, poets, writers and artists of the day. The playwright Richard Sheridan, the politician Charles James Fox and the artist Thomas Gainsborough were frequent visitors. As a celebrated beauty and fashion icon she wore extravagant outfits, hats and hairdos developing even the extreme style of high wigs topped with long feathers. These head-dresses, full of horse hair and powder, were so cumbersomely large that women would have to crouch on the floor of couches to prevent them being crushed against the roof, and were in danger of catching on fire in ballrooms as they brushed the ceiling chandeliers. Perhaps it was the Duchess’s way of saying: ”look at me, I am very important, worth your interest and bigger than you think!”.
Did the intensive social life bring her happiness? It seems that no, it didn’t. Here’s the proof. Early in her marriage Georgiana had anonymously published an autobiographical novel entitled The Sylph, a creditable success, going into four printings. The Sylph was about an aristocratic bride seduced into wickedness by the ton. Apparently it was written during one of the many low periods in her life when she was attempting to reform from her gambling vice and fast lifestyle. 
Like most aristocrats of the day, Georgiana developed an unhealthy obsession for gambling. I think it was another way of proving to herself that she could control her life at least partially. Unfortunately she soon discovered that gambling has nothing to do with control, quite the opposite in fact. Early in her marriage she ran up debts that exceeded the generous four-thousand pounds annual pin money given her by the duke. Her mother’s didactic letters, saved to this day, never failed to admonish her for her gambling debts. “Play at whist, commerce, backgammon, trictrac or chess,” Lady Spencer wrote, “but never at quinze, lou, brag, faro, hazard or any games of chance.” Of course the advice went unheeded. The first time Georgiana tallied debts of three-thousand pounds ($297,000 in today’s money), she begged her parents for a loan. They complied, but insisted that she told her husband. When the duke found out, he repaid her parents. For the next several years she would continue to be hounded by ever-amassing gambling debts and would continue hiding the extent of them from her husband. She also borrowed heavily from her friends, and used her influence to obtain more from such people as Thomas Coutts of Coutts bank. They came to the tacit agreement that she would introduce Coutts’ daughter’s into society in exchange. Even when she would own up to an exorbitant sum, it was always less than what she really owed. Money issues remained the source of tension in their marriage till the very end.
Georgiana was also the first woman to campaign for an candidate in an election in 1784 because Charles James Fox as Whig politics was her other passion. The anti-crown creed of this group was to represent liberty against tyranny. Hated by King George III, the Whigs were headed by the duke’s Cavendish family, the Spencers, and the Portlands, and because of Georgiana’s natural flair for the limelight she soon became the Whig’s chief hostess. 
Georgiana’s newest biographer, Amanda Foreman, says this of Fox: “Eighteenth-century England was full of wits, connoisseurs, orators, historians, drinkers, gamblers, rakes, and pranksters, but only Fox embodied all these things.” Small wonder lady Spencer, Georgiana’s mother was so worried about her daughter’s company.
A century before her time, Georgiana led a really modern, door-to-door campaign in the Westminster election of 1784 and is credited with bringing Fox and Lord Hood’s victory. Her “canvassing” was highly unorthodox and it resulted in a flagrant rumors and political cartoons that implied she exchanged sexual favors–as well as money–for votes. Despite pleas from her distressed mother Georgiana ceded to the Whig’s argument that they could not win without her notoriety. Georgiana refused to stay in her carriage, like a true grande dame, but walked the streets until she had blisters on her feet and met the commoners face to face as an equal. She did it unaccompanied by neither her husband nor her brother nor an army of bodyguards – imagine that. Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman (those Irishmen and their cheek!) exclaimed: “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!”, a compliment which she often recalled whenever others complimented her by retorting, “After the dustman’s compliment, all others are insipid”. Perhaps it was worth all these blisters after all.
Amanda Foreman wrote of Georgiana:
Georgiana should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity for public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda. The two-party system was still developing in the late eighteenth century and factions, with their problems of discipline and dependence upon personality, predominated. Despite this, Georgiana was successful in helping to foster a sense of collective membership among the Foxite Whigs; and she made Devonshire House the focal point for meetings during critical times, such as the Westminster election and the Regency crisis [When King George lll became ill, and parliament had to decide whether or not and how to begin a Regency.] She was simultaneously a public figurehead for the Whigs and an effective politician within the party. The faction leaders obeyed her summonses, and sought her advice, employed her to negotiate, and relied on her to maintain the morale of supporters.
Georgiana’s private life was pretty complicated, unorthodox and definitely not as peaceful as that of her parents. Her first duty was to give birth to an heir and she tried her best. Unfortunately a number of miscarriages strained her marriage from the very beginning – the duke was growing more and more impatient and dissatisfied with his wife. After all these were her staggering gambling debts that sucked up all his money, and he was unable to mortgage his estates until he had a son. During the years in which Goergiana was unable to carry a child to full term, she embraced the duke’s illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Williams, who came to live with them in 1780 following her mother’s death. Georgiana was “vastly pleased” with her but her mother,Lady Spencer was not. “I hope you have not talk’d of her to people,” she admonished her daughter. Georgiana showed her better side by telling her mother, “She is the best humored little thing you ever saw.” 

In 1782 the Devonshire’s travelled to Bath and their met the woman that would be with them for the rest of their lives. Her name was Lady Elizabeth Foster, or ‘Mrs. Bess’. Separated from her husband (some say because of her possible infidelity) and their two sons, Lady Foster was financially destitute when Georgiana brought her into their home. Bess ingratiated herself into the Devonshire household immediately. A natural coquette, she soon had the duke under her spell, but Georgiana seemed not to mind. Perhaps she was under the spell as well. Their mutual relationship was complicated and weird, even by today’s liberal standards. They lived together as a menage a trois for 25 years. While Georgiana had difficulty conceiving, this was not the case with her dearest friend. One year it happened that both ladies became  pregnant roughly at the same time and both had daughters. Harriet (or Hary-O as she was called) was named for her aunt, the duchess’s sister Henrietta, Lady Bessborough. Bess’s daughter, Caroline St Jules, spent her first few years in Europe and France until Bess could bring her back.

Elizabeth Foster's second husband, with whom s...The Duke of Devonshire via Wikipedia
Surprisingly Georgiana would always love Bess with the tenderness of more a lover than a friend. Foreman has even speculated that they may have had a lesbian relationship. One of Georgiana’s letters suggests this: “My dear Bess, Do you hear the voice of my heart crying to you? Do you feel what it is for me to be separated from you?” Can you imagine writing such words to a person who is your husband’s mistress and gets pregnant almost the same time as you? Along these lines it was also rumoured that the Duchess of Devonshire managed to keep a “natural relationship” with the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette but at least they didn’t have to share the same man.
Three years later, Bess became pregnant again. As it was the custom she removed herself to the continent to bear the child in secrecy, only this time Georgiana and the duke ensured her every comfort. As the time of her son’s birth drew near, Bess was suffering from worry that the child might not be the duke’s because she had also been intimate with the married Duke of Richmond. Had the child come later, he would clearly have been sired by Richmond. When he came earlier, she could rest the paternity on the Duke of Devonshire. Her journal at the time reads:
 “What will the Duke [of Devonshire] think? That is the last day I was with him, and did not return till I was above two months gone.”
A son, Augustus Clifford, was born in 1788, two years before Georgiana would finally give birth to her long sought-after son. The birth of the future sixth Duke of Devonshire instead of being a happy event turned into a big fat scandal. As the Duchess failed to get pregnant for a long time, she, her husband and Bess tried to find a solution to this problem. Georgiana and Bess (but notably without the Duke) decided to travel to Paris in 1789. As soon as they arrived voila- Georgiana found herself all of a sudden expecting. Such a miracle pregnancy aroused plenty of gossip that the child was in fact another love child of Bess and the Duke, and not Georgiana’s. It was certainly not an unfounded accusation – after all a pregnancy is an odd time to pleasure tripping in France, especially without the modern comforts and a doctor in tow. Georgiana, having had so many miscarriages before, would certainly avoid any additional risk. What’s more, France was in political unrest and hardly the place for a pregnant woman to be traveling safely. Fortunately for all interested parties there were no DNA tests available.  
It was the custom of the times that a woman of the ton didn’t take lovers until she produced an heir in order to guarantee the lineage. With the duty of producing an heir dispatched, Georgiana felt herself free to revenge on her cheating husband and, like him, take on a lover. Many women of this era participated in adulterous affairs under their husband’s noses and sometimes even with his tacit approval, notably Emma, Lady Hamilton, who carried on an affair with Lord Nelson. Not all husbands were willing to turn a blind eye, though. Georgiana’s sister, Harriet, fell in love with Sheridan, who was also married, but her husband was not amenable to the connection. Nor was the Duke of Devonshire. When Georgiana became pregnant by Charles Grey, later to be the second Earl Gray and a prime minister, she was forced to leave her children and travel to France to deliver the baby girl, Eliza. The girl  was born less than two years after Georgiana’s son and raised by Gray’s parents as her own father’s sister. Convinced she would die in childbirth, Georgiana wrote this to her baby son left in England:
 “As soon as you are old enough to understand this letter it will be given to you. It contains the only present I can make you–my blessing, written in my blood…Alas, I am gone before you could know me, but I lov’d you, I nurs’d you nine months at my breast. I love you dearly.”
Very sad and moving words.
During her long absence, Georgiana missed her children dreadfully, and despite that she was very much in love with Grey, who was seven years her junior, she agreed to renounce him in order to return to her children. Still, it was more than two years before the duke relented and allowed her to return. Though the references to the reason for Georgiana’s exile have been purged from letters and journals in the Devonshire family records, Foreman was able to determine that Georgiana’s children were informed of the true reason for their mother’s absence. And though Georgiana was never able to publicly acknowledge Eliza, their relationship was common knowledge. While the truth of her parentage was withheld from Eliza, the highlights of the little girl’s dreary childhood came when Georgiana visited her, bringing presents and showing the child the genuine affection her paternal grandparents withheld.

The Georgiana who returned after her exile was a changed woman. She spent many hours at home nursing her gout-ridden husband, and the relationship between them obviously softened because she suffered another miscarriage at this time. She concentrated her efforts on scientific experiments and eventually came to befriend the woman her former lover, Grey, took for his wife.

Elizabeth Hervey, better known as Bess Foster,...Bess Foster via Wikipedia
The year 1796 brought Georgiana distress while bringing Bess good fortune. Georgiana’s health, always rather delicate, declined further and she was afflicted with a malady that would cause her loss of sight of one eye. For Bess, three fortunate occurrences were precipitated by the death of her estranged husband. She received a handsome widow’s jointure, and her two sons from Ireland were restored to her. But most importantly, she was free to remarry. She immediately fancied herself a duchess because the Duke of Richmond’s wife died, and the duke had always been in love with her. She and Richmond marked a year of mourning for their spouses but after that time the duke changed his mind, rejecting a humiliated Bess.
Meanwhile Georgiana’s life was ending swiftly. When her mother received a letter begging a hundred pounds and complaining of jaundice, Lady Spencer assumed Georgiana had once again made herself sick over gambling debts. But this time she was really terminally ill. It was later discovered that she had an abscess on her liver. On March 30, 1806, Georgiana, aged forty-eight, died at three-thirty in the morning. Until almost the very end she was surrounded by her mother, the duke, her sister, Bess, and Little G. her eldest daughter, who was eight months pregnant. All of them were said to be nearly inconsolable. One friend wrote that, “The Duke has been most deeply affected and has shown more feeling than anyone thought possible–indeed every individual in the family are in a dreadful state of affliction.” Perhaps after all these years of grief and quarrels he loved his wife more than he had thought possible.
Georgiana was also mourned by thousands of Londoners who streamed into Piccadilly (where Devonshire House was located) to pay their respects. Fox wept bitterly. The Prince of Wales said, “The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone.”
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Georgiana was penned by her eldest daughter, Little G.:

 “Oh my beloved, my adored departed mother, are you indeed forever parted from me–Shall I see no more that angelic countenance or that blessed voice–You whom I loved with such tenderness, you who were the . . . best of mothers, Adieu–I wanted to strew violets over her dying bed as she strewed sweets over my life but they would not let me.”

Three years after Georgiana died the duke married Bess and they had had Georgiana’s deathbed blessing . Georgiana’s children were not happy. All three of them had always hated Bess, a matter that had caused their mother consternation. She never failed to beg that they love Bess as she did. Surprisingly, Georgiana’s and Bess’s children continued to get along well.
Georgiana’s son would never marry and would be known as the Bachelor Duke. Because of his close friendships with men, there have been innuendos that he may have been homosexual, but no evidence has ever been offered.
The intrepid Bess, after the death of the duke spent most of the rest of her life in Rome, where she managed to have a torrid affair with a cardinal. She died eighteen years to the day after Georgiana, still wearing  about her neck a locket bearing one of Georgiana’s reddish-gold curls, and a bracelet made of Georgiana’s hair was beside her bed. Amor vincit omnia. She was interned in England next to Georgiana and the duke.
So, if you caught a gold fish which can make your three wishes come true what would you ask it for?
Masters, Brian, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Hamish Hamilton 1981

 The Two Duchesses – Correspondence edited by Foster Vere

A Regency C hapter, Ethel Colbourn Mayne

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13 Responses to A portrait of a lady with a gold fish

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    So sad. When I watched the movie I cried. What a life

  2. Tracy says:

    A fascinating story. I was aware of bits of it but not the whole, so thank you!

  3. anachronist says:

    You are welcome and thank you for visiting!Blodeuedd I haven't watched the movie so far but I am intending to. Usually normal, ordinary-life stories are more or less sad. Unfortunately.

  4. Wow! Very interesting. How sad. 😦

  5. anachronist says:

    Thanks Melissa and sorry for the sad part but this is how it is, writing about real people – it never ends well.

  6. anachronist says:

    So I've heard, Brooke. Unfortunately good movies rarely are shown in my local cinema.

  7. It wouldn't be a life I would choose for myself. Amazing how similar her life was to Diana's except Diana hated Camilla.Did you ever figure out how the two were related?

  8. anachronist says:

    Well Diana's maiden name was Spencer so I suppose she must have descended from Georgiana's brother, George John Spencer.I found Georgiana far more intelligent and tragic than Lady Di, though. Having Diana's possibilities she would have fared much better imho.

  9. George was her great-great-great-great-grandfather. :-)Diana was so young and unprepared for her life as consort. Plus they did not have paparazzi in the Duchess' day and women were permitted to have a little fat on them. I wonder how well Georgiana would have done under the intense media scrutiny that Diana was subjected to. I felt sorry for Diana. Imagine doing something so mundane as going to the gym and finding out later there was a hidden camera that took photos up your crotch while you worked out and these end up on the front pages of the newspaper. 😦

  10. anachronist says:

    Well Georgiana was equally young when she had to marry the Duke. Diana had a choice while Georgiana didn't. Diana didn't want to go to university, Georgiana didn't even have that option but still she managed to write a readable book all on her own and become the Whigs' PR think tank. When comes to paparazzis and photos I think both ladies had similarly rough time. Georgiana was a perennial topic of many gossip rags of her time and after her unusual canvassing for Fox some journalists published such pictures as this one – showing the Duchess trading kisses for votes with commoners. Not exactly a nice thing either.

  11. Deepali says:

    Hey! That is a strange, fascinating story – I feel so sorry for Georgiana, but it is still very good to know that she became such a big influence on society and politics.

  12. anachronist says:

    Hi Deepali nice to see you dropping by! Yes, she didn't live long but she was an influential woman, one of few at that time.

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