Allow a hush to fall over your merrymaking as we pay tribute to the grande dame and salonniere who may well have been the first-ever celebrity to send tabloids into a tizzy. Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was born in 1757 into one of the wealthiest families in England. At 17, she was courted by one of the richest and most eligible bachelors in the country and spent her life in grand palaces and ballrooms where she hosted future prime ministers, emerging playwrights, socialites like Marie Antoinette of France, as well as gambling fêtes that would rival the stakes and scandals of modern-day Vegas.
Newspapers followed Georgiana’s every move—something her great-great-great-great niece, Lady Diana Spencer, would also endure two centuries later. The similarities between the royals don’t stop there. Georgiana and Princess Di were both born at the same Spencer family home and were shy teenagers who blossomed after being catapulted to fame by marrying older, wealthier men. Also like Princess Di, Georgiana was beloved by everyone—everyone, that is, but her own husband, who didn’t hide his cold indifference to his young bride.
William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire
In place of romantic love, Georgiana poured her passion into social engagements, hosting salons of literary and political figures, such as the soon-to-be King George IV, future Prime Minister Charles Grey (with whom she would bear an illegitimate child), and Lady Melbourne, lover of the Prince of Wales. Regulars were dubbed “The Devonshire House Circle.”
Georgiana thrived in her role as tastemaker. She was known for pushing the boundaries of fashion, adorning her tower of hair with three-foot-tall feathers, pastoral scenes complete with animal figurines, and wooden ships placed among a sea of tight curls. Hair was worn so tall and voluminous that Georgiana and her copy-cats had to crouch on carriage floors to make room for their impressive coiffures.
Georgiana’s iconic style is still a source of fashion inspiration
Although much is made of Georgiana’s grand style, peers of the day are quick to point out that her charms lay not just in a pretty face but in her extraordinary social prowess. “It was no ordinary science,” one courtier observed, “to know how to enter with grace and assurance a salon where thirty men and women were seated in a circle round the fire, to penetrate this circle while bowing slightly to everyone, to advance straight to the mistress of the house, and to retire with honour, without clumsily disarranging one’s fine clothes, lace ruffles, [and] head-dress of thirty-six curls powdered like rime. . . .”
Georgiana’s husband’s position as one of England’s most important aristocrats made it impossible for him to participate in politics. Instead, she became the public face of the family’s political ambitions, becoming the first woman to appear on political platforms. During the 1784 election campaign—hold onto your powdered wigs—she famously traded bisous for votes!
Chatsworth House, the home of the Duchess and Duke of Devonshire
The grand duchess wasn’t all parties and tightly laced corsets, however. At 20, she penned a not-so-cloaked autobiographical novel about a naive country girl who falls for a wealthy aristocratic rake. She also wrote poetry, produced plays, and amassed a collection of crystals and minerals fit for a museum.
But her unhappy marriage to William, Duke of Devonshire, took its toll. He paraded a string of mistresses in front of her, even indulging in an affair with Georgiana’s best friend who lived at Devonshire House with them—exhibiting a very public ménage à trois. Not to be outdone, Georgiana also took lovers, but she leaned too far into drink and lost the equivalent of millions of dollars at gambling soirées she hosted at Devonshire House.
“You imagine ladies playing cards like in a Jane Austen novel, very sedate,” says Amanda Foreman, who authored a biography of Georgiana later adapted into the film The Duchess starring Keira Knightly, “but in fact, they were doing very heavy gambling. People threw up from the stress.”
Keira Knightley as Georgiana Spencer Cavendish
Yet despite the hardships of debt, drink, and illness that she encountered late in life, upon her death in 1806, Georgiana was referred to as “the best-natured and the best-bred woman in England.” Another admirer noted that “not even the most rigid critic could deny the justice of her personal celebrity. She was quite gay, easy and charming; indeed, that last epithet might have been coined for her.” Here’s to the power of charm and social graces!
And here are a few more stories that we think you’ll enjoy:
A profile of the Duchess of Maine
A profile of Madame Tencin
A story about Sally Award winner, Princess Beatrice
Photo sources: Wikipedia, Loepsie.com