Excerpt from Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

by Amanda Foreman

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2000, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2001, 480 pages

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Devonshire House lay in London's western end, known as the "polite" end, encompassing Piccadilly, St. James's, and Hyde Park. Before the eighteenth century the grand nobility lived in private palaces along the Strand, overlooking the river Thames, but after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when William and Mary, the Protestant rulers of Holland, sailed to England at the Whig party's request and helped to depose the Catholic King James II, the nature of political life changed. Parliament no longer met at the King's command but according to a set calendar, while the court resided permanently at St. James's Palace when Parliament was in session. The aristocracy had to be in London for much longer periods of time, and in a location convenient for both the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and the Palace of St. James's nearby. The concentration of so much wealth and power transformed the city. By the mid-eighteenth century one in ten Englishmen had lived in London at some point in his life. There was a frenzy of building as the capital spread out westwards. Speculators widened country lanes into streets, turned fields into smart squares, and built shops, arcades, and churches on previously empty spaces. By the 1770s modern London was envied throughout Europe for its glass-fronted shops and spacious roads that easily accommodated two lanes of traffic.

The aristocratic "season" came into existence not only to further the marriage market but to entertain the upper classes while they carried out their political duties. The season followed the rhythm of Parliament: it began in late October with the opening of the new session, and ended in June with the summer recess. The two most popular nights of the week were Wednesday and Saturday, when Parliament was not in session and the men's attendance could be assured. A completely new form of public architecture appeared, the sole purpose of which was to facilitate social intercourse. Coffee houses—where men of all classes gathered during the day to read newspapers and discuss politics—sprang up. White's, the first of the London clubs, opened in St. James's in 1697; Almack's, Boodles, and Brooks's followed half a century later. For evening entertainment people went to Covent Garden or to the Italian Opera House in the Haymarket to hear Handel, or to Drury Lane to watch David Garrick. Afterwards they could amuse themselves at the commercial gardens of Ranelagh, or visit its riverside competitor, Vauxhall, to dance at a masquerade, attend a concert, or watch the fireworks.

With her instinctive ability to make an impression, Georgiana immediately caused a sensation. She always appeared natural, even when she was called upon to open a ball in front of 800 people. She could engage in friendly chatter with several people simultaneously, leaving each with the impression that it had been a memorable event. She was "so handsome, so agreeable, so obliging in her manner, that I am quite in love with her," Mrs. Delany burbled to a friend. "I can't tell you all the civil things she said, and really they deserve a better name, which is kindness embellished by politeness. I hope she will illumine and reform her contemporaries!" Even cynics like Horace Walpole found their resistance worn down by Georgiana's unforced charm and directness. Observing her transformation into a society figure, Walpole marvelled that this "lovely girl, natural, and full of grace" could retain these qualities and yet be so much on show. "The Duchess of Devonshire effaces all," he wrote a few weeks after her arrival in London. She achieved it "without being a beauty; but her youth, figure, flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity, make her a phenomenon."

Whatever she wore became instantly fashionable. Women's hair was already arranged high above the head, but Georgiana took the fashion a step further by creating the three-foot hair tower. She stuck pads of horse hair to her own hair using scented pomade and decorated the top with miniature ornaments. Sometimes she carried a ship in full sail, or an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds and waxed fruit, or even a pastoral tableau with little wooden trees and sheep. Even though the towers required the help of at least two hairdressers and took several hours to arrange, Georgiana's designs inspired others to imitate her. "The Duchess of Devonshire is the most envied woman of the day in the Ton," the newspapers reported. It was true; women competed with each other to construct the tallest head, ignoring the fact that it made quick movements impossible and the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor.

(note from BookBrowse: ton = the fashion or vogue, i.e. the people currently in fashion)

Another of Georgiana's innovations was the drooping ostrich feather, which she attached in a wide arch across the front of her hair. In April Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, presented her with one that was four feet long. Overnight it became the most important accessory in a lady's wardrobe, even though the tall nodding plumes were difficult to find and extremely expensive. The ton wore them with a smug arrogance which infuriated the less fortunate. The fashion generated resentment: it was too excessive and too exclusive. The Queen banned ostrich feathers from court, and according to Lady Louisa Stuart, "the unfortunate feathers were insulted, mobbed, hissed, almost pelted wherever they appeared, abused in the newspapers, nay even preached at in the pulpits and pointed out as marks of reprobation."

Excerpted from Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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