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LADIES OF THE HAUTE TON 2: GEORGIANA, DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE

Georgiana features in my first book, 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling', primarily as Lady Bessborough's devoted and beloved sister, who she turns to for advice and support on a regular basis. She is suffering from various ailments when she comes into the story, and she is the mother of Little G and Harryo who all appear frequently throughout the story.

 Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana in 1785
Gainsborough's portrait of Georgiana in 1785

She was born in 1757 to parents the 1st Earl Spencer and Margaret Georgiana Poyntz at their country estate, Althorp House in Northamptonshire. She was eldest of their three surviving children. She had a brother, George Spencer 2nd Earl Spencer, and a younger sister Harriet, later the Countess of Bessborough.

Georgiana's parents doted on their children and created a warm and affectionate family environment where she thrived. She was highly educated, intelligent, naturally curious, and enjoyed studying science and geology.

 Georgiana with her sister Harriet, and brother George
Georgiana with her sister Harriet, and brother George

In 1774, Georgiana married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, who was known within the family as Canis. The marriage was unhappy from the start as the Duke was very reserved, whereas Georgiana was outgoing, vivacious, and they had little in common. The Duke would stay out all night gambling in Brook's, an all-male club frequented by mostly Whig aristocrats, and this left Georgiana free to pursue a busy and hectic social life.

She was known to set fashions and was famous for her enormous hair creations which were all the rage in the 1770's. She was the undisputed queen of society and wherever she went, everyone followed.

The Duke was desperate for her to produce a male heir, and after a series of miscarriages and two daughters, Georgiana, known as Little G, and Harriet, known as Harryo, she eventually gave birth in 1790 to the desired male heir, William, Marquess of Hartington, known as Hart to the family.

Reynolds's portrait of Georgiana with her eldest daughter Little G
Reynolds's portrait of Georgiana with her eldest daughter Little G

Georgiana's unhappy marriage led her to embark on various love affairs, most notably with Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister Earl Grey, and she became pregnant by him in 1791. When the Duke found out, he sent her to France to have the baby, and she was accompanied by her devoted sister Harriet, where she gave birth to a daughter Eliza Courtney. Eliza was given to Grey's parents to raise and she was never told about her true parentage.

Still in exile in France and separated from her children, Georgiana became ill and suffered from various debilitating ailments throughout the rest of her life. This was exasperated by the fact that she was £100,000 in debt, mostly due to her extravagant lifestyle and reckless spending, but primarily down to her large gambling debts, as she was, like many other aristocrats, addicted to gambling.

Reynold's portrait of Georgiana
Reynold's portrait of Georgiana

Georgiana was eventually allowed to return home, but her relationship with the Duke was never the same, and he continued to carry on a long-term affair with her friend Lady Bess Foster. She was ill with various ailments for the rest of her life, and in March 1806, suffering from jaundice and liver disease, she passed away at the age of 48.


Sources: 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire' by Amanda Foreman.

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