Summary and book reviews of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

By Amanda Foreman

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2000,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2001,
    480 pages.

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Book Summary

The winner of Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize and a bestseller there for months, this wonderfully readable biography offers a rich, rollicking picture of late-eighteenth-century British aristocracy and the intimate story of a woman who for a time was its undisputed leader. Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales, and was nearly as famous in her day. In 1774, at the age of seventeen, Georgiana achieved immediate celebrity by marrying one of England's richest and most influential aristocrats, the Duke of Devonshire. Launched into a world of wealth and power, she quickly became the queen of fashionable society, adored by the Prince of Wales, a dear friend of Marie-Antoinette, and leader of the most important salon of her time. Not content with the role of society hostess, she used her connections to enter politics, eventually becoming more influential than most of the men who held office.

Her good works and social exploits made her loved by the multitudes, but Georgiana's public success, like Diana's, concealed a personal life that was fraught with suffering. The Duke of Devonshire was unimpressed by his wife's legendary charms, preferring instead those of her closest friend, a woman with whom Georgiana herself was rumored to be on intimate terms. For over twenty years, the three lived together in a jealous and uneasy ménage à trois, during which time both women bore the Duke's children--as well as those of other men.

Foreman's descriptions of Georgiana's uncontrollable gambling, all- night drinking, drug taking, and love affairs with the leading politicians of the day give us fascinating insight into the lives of the British aristocracy in the era of the madness of King George III, the American and French revolutions, and the defeat of Napoleon.

A gifted young historian whom critics are already likening to Antonia Fraser, Amanda Foreman draws on a wealth of fresh research and writes colorfully and penetratingly about the fascinating Georgiana, whose struggle against her own weaknesses, whose great beauty and flamboyance, and whose determination to play a part in the affairs of the world make her a vibrant, astonishingly contemporary figure.

Debutante

Georgiana was only fourteen when people began to speculate on her choice of husband. Lady Spencer thought it would be a dreadful mistake if she married too young. "I hope not to part with her till 18 at the soonest," she told a friend in 1771. Her daughter's outward sophistication led many to think that she was more mature than her years. In 1772 the family embarked upon another grand tour, this time with all three children in tow. The rapturous reception which greeted Georgiana in Paris confirmed Lady Spencer's fears. According to a fellow English traveller, "Lady Georgiana Spencer has been very highly admired. She has, I believe, an exceedingly good disposition of her own, and is happy in an education which it is to be hoped will counteract any ill effect from what may too naturally turn her head."

Georgiana combined a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval in the artificial and mannered atmosphere of the French...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
The New York Times - Patricia T. O'Connor

...penetrating and enormously entertaining...Foreman, a researcher at Oxford University, combed libraries, archives and personal collections across England to find missing pieces of Georgiana's story, and the result, the author's first book, is biography at its best. Georgiana, winner of Britain's 1998 Whitbread Prize for biography, seamlessly merges a life and its times, capturing not just an individual but an age, a world entire.

Literary Review - Antonia Fraser

A mesmerizing read. . . . The charm of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana is that it gives you all the fascinating detail you want . . . and is at the same time a serious, scholarly work, based on exhaustive archival research.

The Wall Street Journal - Ned Crabb

[Georgiana] is an elegantly written winner of Britain's Whitbread Prize for biography by a young scholar who did an immense amount of work on a ton of primary source material, plus an impressive list of secondary-source books.... Ms. Foreman's intelligent insights on domestic, social and political aspects of the time and her judicious psychological interpretations of her subjects' behavior flow smoothly, and with no pontificating, into the story.

The New Yorker

...riveting...scholarly, serious, and marvelously diverting...Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had her misfortunes, but reading about her life might make many twenty-first-century Americans feel like sad little Puritans who've missed out on a great deal of fun. Surely Georgiana's intelligence, wit, and angelic magnanimity make her amply deserving of every ounce of fun she had.

Sunday Times (UK) - Roy Strong

I put this book down entranced by the woman. This is an outstanding début by a young biographer fully in control of her sources, and with an easy, elegant writing style. She tells a tale that calls not only for our admiration but for our compassion.

Daily Telegraph(UK)

This is an accomplished and well-written biography, remarkably mature for a first effort; diligently researched and entertainingly presented. Amanda Foreman is a writer to watch and one from whom much can be expected.

Author Blurb Simon Schama
Georgiana bursts from the pages of Amanda Foreman's dazzling biography like the force of nature she undoubtedly was--passionate, political, addicted to gambling, and drunk on life. This is a stunning book about an astonishing woman.

Author Blurb Michael Holroyd
A most impressive début. I predict a great future for Amanda Foreman. She is a scholar who matches her learning to a sense of adventure and writes with engaging vitality.

Author Blurb Brenda Maddox, author of Yeats' Ghosts and Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom
Stunning historical research plus feminine acuity yield a vivid portrait of a shrewd, seductive ancestor of Princess Diana's in an age before democracy or contraception.

Reader Reviews
Laura Elizabeth

The author, Amanda Foreman, admits to being in love with her subject, but I don't think it diminishes the book at all. It is, mostly, an objective look at a woman and her life in all it's glory and sorrows. I came away feeling sorry for Georgianna,...   Read More

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