Laura's Reviews > Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana by Amanda Foreman
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's review
Jan 25, 2009

really liked it
Read in January, 2009

I wouldn't have sought out this book if I hadn't seen the movie "Duchess" on a recent transAtlantic flight. I remember, vaguely, hearing about the book when it was first released in 1998, when much was made of the similarities between Princess Diana and her ancestor, the subject of this book, Georgiana Spencer. This notion of their similarities was reason for me NOT to read the book---hadn't we already had way too much of the Spencer family in recent years, without going back a couple of centuries to uncover more of their story?
But the movie piqued my interest. Georgiana Spencer was, if the movie were accurate, a fascinating and very complex character, radically unlike anyone I'd ever read about. And If Diana Spencer was, as she herself said, "thick as a plank," then she couldn't have been more different from her forebear, who was acutely intelligent and enormously multi-talented. Self-sabotaging, yes, a serial mistake-maker, yes, an adulterer, yes, a woman who relied too heavily on pharmaceuticals, yes---in these ways, we can see a Diana connection. But Georgiana was a leader of the Whig Party, a woman who wielded enormous political power throughout her life. She was an accomplished student of chemistry and mineralogy in her middle age, a playwright and poet, too. Foreman's book shows us that women, aristocratic women like Georgiana, moved easily in political and cultural circles of power in eighteenth century England. Though still not officially the equals of men, they nevertheless had plenty of outright influence. This was all, of course, to change for the worse in the nineteenth century, when Victorian ideas of women's roles limited them to marriage, motherhood, and simpering subservience to men. Not only is "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" a truly compelling biography, therefore, it's a revelatory portrait of an age.
PS: The movie treats Georgiana's life in a very superficial way. It's fun to watch, but wildly misleading as a source of biographical fact.
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