Saturday, August 30, 2008
One of my summer reads was Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Random House, 2000). Admittedly, I'm late to the game on this book, as critics have raved about it since it was published. It won the Whitbread Prize for biography. It should come as no surprise then that I loved this book. Of course, it helps that I'm an Anglophile. But how could you not want to know more about Lady Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), ancestor to Princess Diana? Here was a woman who befriended everyone from Marie Antoinette to the Prince of Wales, and was married to one of the most powerful and wealthiest Dukes in Britain. She was a fashion icon known for her oversized picture hats, and she gave lavish parties at her homes, including both Chiswick House and Chatsworth (which, by the way, is one of the most spectacular estates I've ever seen). But the Duchess also was a gambling addict and accrued debts upwards of millions of pounds. She had three children by her husband and one illegitimate child by her lover, and then also carried on a "romantic friendship" with Lady Elizabeth Foster, who lived with both the Duke and Duchess in a ménage à trois, ultimately having two illegitimate children by the Duke. If all of this wasn't enough to draw you in, the Duchess also was a politician, or at least as much as a woman could be at that time. She worked hard to gather votes for the Whig Party and organized political rallies and meetings between opposing party members. It is this area of politics that perhaps Foreman appreciates the most, for her book also attempts to redress the often disregarded role that aristocratic women played in 18th-century British politics. The tale of the Duchess itself, however, would mean nothing if it weren't for Foreman's writing skills. She has mastered the ability to bring academic writing to the masses. Her book is well researched and comprehensive, yet reads like a novel.
Of course, a book such as this inevitably would lead to a movie, The Duchess, scheduled for release in a few weeks. I have high hopes that the movie will capture some of the spirit of the book and the woman's life, although I suspect from the trailer that it's going to be more of a love story than a true biopic. Hopefully, Keira Knightley can pull it all off.