Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. 1787. Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. 1787. Thomas Gainsborough [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Georgiana Dorothy Spencer was born June 7, 1757 in Northamtonshire. In 1774, aged 17, she was married to William Cavendish, 5th Lord of Devonshire. Her husband had inherited a vast fortune and belonged to one of Englands most powerful families. The connection was certainly a very suitable one but the marriage soon became unhappy. Georgiana was nine years his junior and they were very dissimilar in disposition. William felt no real affection towards her, was unfaithful and treated her coldly, from which she suffered very much.

 

Perhaps to divert herself from the evils of her family situation, Georgiana, an acknowledged beauty, quickly became a socialite and a trendsetter in Rococo fashion. People were excited what she would wear, women copied her extravagant attire.

In the 1770s, the Duchess of Devonshire astonished the high society with a 90cm (1yard) high tower of hair adorned with jewels, artificial fruit and birds. This hairstyle is similar to Marie Antoinette's pouf coiffure. In 1782, Georgiana Cavendish and Jane Fleming, Countess of Harrington and sister of Seymour Fleming, Lady Worsley, were considered the two best dressed ladies of the whole party hosted by the Duchess.

Georgiana also introduced huge ostrich feathers on the hair which quickly became an established (but sometimes ridiculous) fashion. One of her feathers was about 1,20m (1,3 yards) in length. When Thomas Gainsborough painted her in 1787 with a with a huge black hat on her mass of curly hair, milliners were showered with commissions for "the portrait hat". The Duchess of Devonshire also actively campained for the Whig party and supported their leader Charles James Fox. Here, she used her clothes as well as her position to make a statement: she wore a fox fur muff.

 

The Duke and Duchess had three children together: Georgiana "Little G" Dorothy, Harriet „Harry-o“ Elizabeth and the long expected son and heir William George Spencer (born in 1790). Georgiana was an affectionate mother and cared for her children a lot herself, which was unusual at the time. She also raised an illegitimate daughter of her husband under her own roof.

After several years of marriage, the couple met Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster. Lady Elizabeth had been likewise trapped in an unhappy marriage but had seperated from her husband who in his turn kept their two sons from her. She soon became Georgiana's friend and confidante. Unfortunately, this friendship would turn against the Duchess - the Duke fell in love with Bess and made her his mistress. They lived in a ménage à trois which only ended with Georgiana's death in 1806. She was but 49. Three years after that, William made Elizabeth Foster the next Duchess of Devonshire.


© Nina Möller