Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

Her Grace
The Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1775, The Devonshire Collection
Personal details
Born Georgiana Spencer
(1757-06-07)7 June 1757
Althorp, Northamptonshire
Died 30 March 1806(1806-03-30) (aged 48)
Devonshire House, London
Resting place Derby Cathedral
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
(m. 1774–1806; her death)
Children Georgiana Howard, Countess of Carlisle
Harriet Leveson-Gower, Countess Granville
William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire
Eliza Courtney
Parents John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer
Georgiana Spencer, Countess Spencer

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer; /ɒrˈnə/ jor-JAY-nə; 7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806) was an English socialite, style icon, author, and activist. Of noble birth from the House of Spencer, married into the House of Cavendish, she was the first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, and the mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

As the 5th Duchess of Devonshire, she garnered much attention and fame in society during her lifetime.[1][2] With a preeminent position in the peerage of England, the duchess was famous for her beauty, charisma, and leading fashion and style; political campaigning; emotionally and psychologically conflicting marital arrangements and love affairs; and socializing and gambling.

She was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. Their lives, centuries apart, have been compared in tragedy in contemporary time.[3]

Early life and family

A young Miss Georgiana Spencer with her mother, Margaret Georgiana Spencer. Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The duchess was born Miss Georgiana Spencer, on 7 June 1757, as the first child of John Spencer (later Earl Spencer) and his wife, Margaret Georgiana Spencer (Mrs John Spencer; later Countess Spencer), at the Spencer family home, Althorp.[3] After her daughter's birth, her mother wrote that "I will own I feel so partial to my Dear little Gee, that I think I never shall love another so well".[4] Two younger siblings followed: Henrietta and George. (A niece later born to Henrietta, Lady Caroline Lamb, would become a writer and lover of Lord Byron). Mr John Spencer, great-grandson of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, came from a wealthy English noble family. He built a Spencer family residence at St. James's, London and raised his children there.[5] The parents raised Georgiana and her siblings in a marriage which bears no record of there ever having been any extramarital affairs - a rarity in the era.[5] Meanwhile, Georgiana grew to be close to her mother who was said to favour Georgiana over her other children.[4]

When her father assumed the title of Viscount Spencer in 1761, she became The Honourable Georgiana Spencer. In 1765, her father became Earl Spencer and she Lady Georgiana Spencer.

Marriage and children

With her siblings, Henrietta and George, by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1774. The painting was painted just before Georgiana's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire

On her seventeenth birthday, 7 June 1774, Lady Georgiana Spencer was married to society's most eligible bachelor, William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire (aged 25). The wedding took place at Wimbledon Parish Church. [6] It was a small ceremony attended only by her parents, her maternal grandmother (Lady Cowper), one of her prospective brothers-in-law, and soon-to-be sister-in-law (the Duchess of Portland).[5] Her parents were emotionally reluctant to let their daughter go, but she was wed to one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the land. Her father, who had always shown affection to his children, wrote to her, "My Dearest Georgiana, I did not know till lately how much I loved you; I miss you more every day and every hour."[5] Mother and daughter continued to correspond throughout their lives and many of their letters survive.[5]

From the beginning of the marriage, the Duke of Devonshire proved to be an emotionally reserved man who was quite unlike the duchess's father and who did not meet the emotional needs of the duchess. The spouses also had little in common.[3] He would seldom be at her side and would spend nights at Brook's playing cards.[5] The duke continued with adulterous behaviour throughout their married life and discord followed pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or failure to produce a male child as heir.

Before their marriage, the duke had fathered an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Williams, born from a dalliance with a former milliner, Charlotte Spencer (of no relation to the House of Spencer).[5] This was unknown to the duchess until years after her marriage to the duke. After the death of the child's mother, she was compelled to raise Charlotte herself.[3] The duchess of Devonshire was "very pleased" with Charlotte, although her own mother, now Countess Spencer, expressed disapproval: "I hope you have not talk'd of her to people."[5] The duchess replied, "She is the best humored little thing you ever saw."[5]

In 1782, while on a retreat from London with the duke, the duchess met Lady Elizabeth Foster (widely known as "Bess") in the City of Bath. She became close friends with Lady Elizabeth who had become destitute after separating from her husband and two sons.[3] Given the bond that developed between the two women (and the difficult position her new friend was in), with the Duke's acquiescence, the duchess agreed to having Lady Elizabeth live with them. When the Duke began a sexual relationship with Lady Elizabeth, a love triangle[3] was established and it was arranged that Lady Elizabeth live with them permanently. While it was common for male members of the upper class to have mistresses, it was not common or generally acceptable for a mistress to live so openly with a married couple. Furthermore, the duchess had become emotionally dependent on Lady Elizabeth whom she believed to be her best friend. Having no alternative, she became complacent over the matter. The arrangement among the three is more commonly referred to as a ménage à trois, but, while the relationship between the duke and Lady Elizabeth was obviously sexual, there is no concrete evidence of anything beyond emotional dependence, and a particular and open affection, on the part of the duchess, towards Lady Elizabeth. In one of her letters, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to Lady Elizabeth, "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?" Nevertheless, Lady Elizabeth Foster herself was said to actually envy her and wished for her position. (Evidence Lady Elizabeth shared a love for her either way was proven at her death years later when a locket, containing a strand of the duchess' hair, was found around her neck, as well as a bracelet also containing hair of the duchess on a table beside her deathbed).[5] Lady Elizabeth was reported to have insinuated her way into the marriage by taking advantage of the duchess's friendship and love and having "engineered her way" into a sexual relationship with the duke.[3] Lady Elizabeth engaged in well documented sexual relations with other men while she was in the "love triangle" with the duke and duchess.[5] Among their contemporaries, the relationship between the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Elizabeth Foster was the subject of speculation which has continued beyond their time. The love triangle itself was a notorious topic; it was an irregular arrangement in a high-profile marriage. Lady Elizabeth's affair with the Duke resulted in two illegitimate children: a daughter, Caroline Rosalie St Jules, and a son, Augustus Clifford.

The Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783.

Despite her unhappiness with her detached and philandering husband and volatile marriage, the duchess, as per the custom of the day, was not socially permitted to take a lover without first having produced an heir. The first successful pregnancy resulted in the birth of Lady Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish on 12 July 1783. Called "Little G", she would become the Countess of Carlisle and have issue of her own. The duchess had developed a strong mothering sentiment since raising Charlotte, and she insisted on nursing her own children (contrary to the aristocratic custom of having a wet nurse).[5] On 29 August 1785, a second successful pregnancy resulted in another daughter: Lady Harriet Elizabeth Cavendish, called "Harryo", who would become Countess Granville and also have children of her own. Finally, on 21 May 1790, the duchess gave birth to a male heir to the dukedom: William George Spencer Cavendish, who took the title of Marquess of Hartington at birth, and was called "Hart". He would never marry and became known as "the bachelor duke". With the birth of the Marquess of Hartington, the duchess was able to take a lover. While there is no evidence of when the duchess began her affair with Charles Grey (later Earl Grey), she did become pregnant by him in 1791. Sent off to France, the duchess believed she would die in childbirth. In this spirit, she wrote a letter to her recently born son stating, "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." On 20 February 1792, Eliza Courtney was born without complications to mother and child, and the duchess was forced to give away the illegitimate daughter to Grey's family.[3][5] The duchess would later be given the opportunity to pay visits to her illegitimate daughter, providing her with presents and affection,[5] and Eliza would grow up to marry Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ellice and bear a daughter named Georgiana as well.

While in exile in France in the early 1790s, the Duchess of Devonshire suffered from isolation and felt her separation from her children. To her eldest, she wrote, "Your letter dated the 1st of Nov was delightful to me tho' it made me very melancholy my Dearest Child. This year has been the most painful of my life. . . when I do return to you, never leave you I hope again--it will be too great a happiness for me Dear Dear Georgiana & it will have been purchased by many days of regret - indeed ev'ry hour I pass away from you, I regret you; if I amuse myself or see anything I admire I long to share the happiness with you - if on the contrary I am out of spirits I wish for your presence which alone would do me good."[5] In order to return to England and her children, she conceded to her husband's hypocritical demands and denounced her love for Charles Grey.[5] Records of her exile in France were subsequently erased from the family records.[5] However, the children of the duke and duchess had at one point been informed as to the reason of her absence during that period of their lives.[5]

Throughout her marriage, while the Duchess of Devonshire coped with the marital arrangements on the surface, she nevertheless suffered emotional and psychological distress. She sought further personal consolation from a "dissipated existence"[7] in passions (socializing, fashion, politics, writing), addictions (gambling, drinking, and drugs), and affairs (with a number of men, not just Grey, possibly including the bachelor Duke of Dorset).[5]

Pursuits and fame

With her renowned beauty and character, alongside her marriage to the affluent and powerful Duke of Devonshire, the duchess enjoyed preeminence in society and was a high emblem of the era.[5] Her keen sense made her the extravagant female leader in fashion and style in England. (The fashionable styling of her hair alone reached literally extraordinary heights above her exuberant costume).[5] Using her influence as a leading socialite and fashion/style icon, she contributed to politics, science, and literature. As part of her illustrious social engagements, she would gathered around her a large salon of literary and political figures. Among her major acquaintances were the most influential figures of her time including the Prince of Wales (later King George IV); Marie Antoinette of France and her favorite in court, the Duchess of Polignac; Charles Grey (later Earl Grey and British Prime Minister); and Lady Melbourne (lover of the Prince of Wales).[8] Newspapers chronicled her every appearance and activity.[5]

She was called a "phenomenon"[7] by Horace Walpole who proclaimed, "[she] effaces all without being a beauty; but her youthful figure, flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity make her a phenomenon".[9] Madame d'Arblay, who had a preference for acquaintances of talent, found that her appeal was not generally for her beauty but for far more which included fine "manner, politeness, and gentle quiet."[9] Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall stated that her success as an individual lay "in the amenity and graces of her deportment, in her irresistible manners, and the seduction of her society."[9]

Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed: "Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!" Then after, whenever others would compliment her, the duchess would retort, "After the dustman's compliment, all others are insipid."[10][11]


The Spencer family, from which she derived, was an ardent supporter of the Whig party as was she and the House of Cavendish. However, because the duke's high position in the peerage disallowed him to participate so commonly in politics, the duchess took it as a positive outlet for herself.[3] In an age when the realization of women's rights and suffrage were still more than a century away, the duchess became a political activist as the first woman to make active and influential frontline appearances on the political scene.[3] Having begun her involvement in politics in 1778[7] (when she inspired a mass of women to promote the Whig party), she relished Enlightenment[12] and Whig party ideals and took it upon herself to campaign — particularly for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox, who was chief party leader alongside Richard Sheridan — for Whig policies which were anti-crown and advocated for liberty against tyranny.[5] At the time of her involvement, King George III (who detested the Whigs)[5] and his ministers had a direct influence over the House of Commons, principally through their power of patronage. The Prince of Wales, who always relished going against the grain with his father, joined the Whig party at the time his friend, the duchess, became involved.[5] She was renowned for hosting dinners that became political meetings and she took joy in cultivating the company of brilliant radicals.[5]

"THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes", by Thomas Rowlandson, 1784

During the general election of 1784, the duchess became a major subject of scrutiny. Fanciful rumours and political cartoons circulated during the campaign, ridiculing her for securing votes in exchange for sexual - and monetary - rewards.[5][7][9] Thomas Rowlandson even satirized her with a rumour of her trading kisses in his print "THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes". Her mother pleaded her to step down, but the duchess was not daunted and was adamant in her activism.[3][9] On election day, the Duchess of Devonshire walked the streets of London, even gaining blisters on her feet, meeting face-to-face with commoners as equals.[5] She was instrumental in the success of Fox and Lord Hood, but after the extensive campaigning and negative media against her, she retired, after the win, from the political arena for a while.[5][7] In 1788, she returned to political activism though behind the scenes.[7]

Even in the last years of her life, she pushed ahead in the field and attempted to help rebuild the Whig party which had become fragmented; her efforts were to no avail and the political party would eventually come to dissolve decades after her death.[7]


See also: The Sylph

In her life, the duchess was an avid writer and composed a number of works, of both prose and poetry, of which some were published.

She composed poetry as a young girl to her father and some of it later circulated in manuscript and was read by Walpole (who said it was "easy and prettily expressed, though it does not express much") and Reverend William Mason (who was more favorable with higher opinions).[9]

The first of her published literary works was Emma; Or, The Unfortunate Attachment: A Sentimental Novel in 1773.

In 1778, the epistolary novel The Sylph was released. Published anonymously, it had autobiographical elements, centering on a fictional aristocratic bride who had been corrupted, and as "a novel-cum-exposé of [the duchess's] aristocratic cohorts, depicted as libertines, blackmailers, and alcoholics."[7] It has been speculated that The Sylph may have instead been written by Sophia Briscoe, and a receipt at the British Library suggests that Briscoe was paid for the published work. However, it is thought more likely that Briscoe may have served as an intermediary between the Duchess of Devonshire and her publisher, so that the duchess could keep her anonymity.[13] The duchess is said to have at least privately admitted to her authorship.[5] The Sylph was a success and underwent four reprintings.[5]

Memorandums of the Face of the Country in Switzerland was first published in 1799.

One more piece was published in the last years of her life, The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard in 1802. A poem dedicated to her children, The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard was furthermore translated into some of the main languages of Western Europe including into French, by the Abbé de Lille, in 1802; Italian, by Signor Polidori, in 1803; and German in 1805. The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard was then reprinted in 1816, after the duchess's death, along with Memorandums of the Face of the Country in Switzerland.[9]

The 5th Duchess of Devonshire was connected to some of the greatest men of letters of her time, and Samuel Johnson, a famed writer of the era, had even paid visit to the duke and duchess, in 1784, at their Chatsworth home.[9]


The duchess also played a key role in formulating, with Thomas Beddoes, the idea of establishing the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol.[14] Her interest arose in part as she was related through marriage to the pneumatic chemist Henry Cavendish.

She also took interest in scientific experiments[5] and began a collection of crystals at Chatsworth, the main seat of the dukedom of Devonshire.


As was common with the aristocracy of her time, the duchess was a passionate gambler for leisure and fun. Her gaming spiraled into a ruinous and stressful addiction, however, underpinned by her emotional instability.

During the first years of her marriage, she accumulated debts that surpassed the 4,000 pounds which the Duke of Devonshire provided her annually as pin money.[5] Her own mother was disapproving and would unsuccessfully advised her to take heed.[5] After a moment in which she incurred beyond 300,000 pounds in debt, the duchess implored her parents to give her a loan as she absolutely would not inform her husband of her debts.[5] Her parents acquiesced and told her to inform the duke who nevertheless found out beforehand and repaid them.[5]

Throughout the subsequent years of her life, the duchess of Devonshire amassed an abhorrent, ever-escalating debt which she always tried to keep hidden from her husband (despite he being among the richest men in the land), and when she would admit to some, it was always less than the reality which even she could not keep up with.[5] In confidence, she would ask for loans from the Prince of Wales and at one point, to try to settle some of her debts, she would even take benefit from her compelling friendship bestowed upon the affluent banker Thomas Coutts.[5]

Later life and death

Her absence from English society and exile in France had isolated the duchess and was a low point for her in every respect; she returned to England a "changed woman".[5] The duke began suffering from gout, and she spent her time at his side nursing him.[5] With also a new miscarriage, this circumstance with her husband brought about a softening and closeness between the spouses.[5] She took a positive interest in science; took up writing again (producing two more works); and she even continued her activism into politics while trying to rebuild the Whig party (to no avail before its end).[5][7] The duchess also came to meet and become friends with the wife of her former lover, Charles Grey.[5] In 1796, the Duchess of Devonshire succumbed to illness in one eye; the treatment of the doctors resulted in a scarring of her face.[3] However, "Those scars released her from her fears. All the inhibitions about whether she was beautiful enough or whether she was up to the job left her."[3] In her late 30s, the duchess was able to regain preeminence and enjoyment in open society[3] though her personal life would continue to be marred by degrees of unhappiness, debt, and decline in health.[7]

During her early 40s, the Duchess of Devonshire devoted her time to the coming out of her eldest daughter, Lady Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish. The debutante was presented in 1800, and the duchess saw her daughter wed the heir apparent of Earl Carlisle, Lord Morph, in 1801; it was the first and only time the Duchess of Devonshire saw one of her issue marry.[5]

Her health continued to decline well into her 40s[5] and her addiction to gambling continued. She once reached out to her mother, begging for a sum of a hundred pounds and also complained to her of jaundice.[5] While her mother at first believed her daughter was just ill from her gambling, Countess Spencer, as well as those around the duchess, soon came to realize she was truly sick.[5] She was thought to be suffering from an abscess on her liver.[5]

Georgiana Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire died on 30 March 1806, at 3:30, at the age of 48.[5] She was surrounded by her husband, the 5th Duke of Devonshire; her mother, Countess Spencer; her sister, Countess of Bessborough; her eldest daughter, Lady Morph (who was eight months pregnant); and Lady Elizabeth Foster.[5] They were all said to have been inconsolable over her death.[5] For the first time, the duke showed moving emotion towards his late wife, as a contemporary wrote, "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." The late duchess's eldest daughter furthermore poured out her feelings, "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." Her distant cousin, Charles James Fox, for whom she had triumphantly campaigned, was noted to have cried.[5] The Prince of Wales himself lamented, "The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone." Thousands of the people of London congregated at Piccadily, where the Cavendish home in the city was located, to mourn her.[5] She was buried at the family vault[9] at All Saints Parish Church (now Derby Cathedral) in Derby.


The legacy of the life of Georgiana Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire, has remained a topic of study and intrigue in cultural and historical spheres centuries after her death.

Immediately after her death, the Duke of Devonshire discovered the extent of her debts - the duchess died owing an estimated 2008 equivalent of £3,720,000 - and remarked, "Is that all?...."[15] He soon enough married Lady Elizabeth Foster who, as his second wife, became Duchess of Devonshire. The children of the 5th Duchess of Devonshire were discontented with the marriage as they never liked Lady Elizabeth at all (something which caused dismay with their mother when she was alive).[5] When William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, died on 29 July 1811, the Marquess of Hartington became 6th Duke of Devonshire. He sought to liquidate his late mother's entire debts.[5] Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth fought to keep Cavendish properties to which she wasn't entitled; furthermore the 6th Duke denied her demand that her illegitimate son with the 5th Duke of Devonshire, Clifford, bear the Cavendish crest. Infuriated, Lady Elizabeth brought back up her affair with the 5th Duke of Devonshire by publicly announcing he had sired her illegitimate children.[5] The 6th Duke of Devonshire finally oversaw an end to it all - the mistake of his late mother of bringing in Lady Elizabeth into her life and all consequences which resulted - with the final dismissal of Lady Elizabeth by paying her off.[5] Nevertheless, the children of Georgiana Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire, lived the remainder of their lives with mutually positive relations with the children of Lady Elizabeth Foster, having grown up together.[5]

In 1786, Susanna Rowson, who went on to become a bestselling author, dedicated her first published work, Victoria, to the Duchess of Devonshire.

With the topic of liberation at the heart of policies she supported in life, the bold involvement of the Duchess of Devonshire in political activism pioneered women's public frontstage and influential participation in the field in a time before the validation of women's rights and subsequent feminist ideals.

Artwork representing the Duchess of Devonshire by reputable painters of the Georgian era remain; this includes a 1787 work by the famed Thomas Gainsborough which was once thought lost. Over a thousand of personal letters written by the Duchess of Devonshire remain in existence. Chatsworth, the seat of the duke of Devonshire, houses a majority of her letters in historical archives.[5]

In modern times, the circumstances of her life are seen as an example of female oppression by historical cultural and legal constructs favoring male interests, while denying rights to the female party, in a relationship, and they have become the subject of scholarly and dramatized works.[3][12]

Film portrayals

Works by Georgiana Cavendish

Titles and styles



  1. Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Modern Library. ISBN 0375753834. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  2. Blasberg, Derek (2011). Very Classy: Even More Exceptional Advice for the Extremely Modern Lady. Penguin. ISBN 1101563060. Retrieved 26 June 2014.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Hastings, Chris. "Princess Diana and the Duchess of Devonshire: Striking similarities". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 June 2014.
  4. 1 2 Foreman 1998, p. 4.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 Bolen, Cheryl. "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire". Cheryl Bolen, author. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  6. Foreman 2004.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "Georgiana Cavendish". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  8. Foreman 1998, pp. 40, 313.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Bloy, Majorie. "Georgiana Cavendish". A Web of English History. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  10. "Beauty — A natural compliment", The Every-day Book and Table Book. Vol III., ed. William Hone, (London: 1838) p 344. Retrieved on 2008-06-11
  11. "The Disappearing Duchess", The New York Times, 31 July 1994. Retrieved 11 July 2008.
  12. 1 2 Taylor, Ella (25 September 2008). "Lady Georgiana Spencer, cheated in life and in casting, in The Duchess". Westword. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  13. Cavendish 2007, p. 11.
  14. Bergman, Norman A. (April 1998). "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Princess Diana: a parallel". J R Soc Med. 91 (4): 217–219. PMC 1296647Freely accessible. PMID 9659313.
  15. Michael Hellicar (29 August 2008). "Diana and me - by Keira... or how movie marketers used the princess' troubled marriage to promote The Duchess". Daily Mail. Retrieved 23 March 2010.

Works cited

Further reading

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