Born on the 7th of June of 1757, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is often regarded as one of the most acclaimed women of her period. Married to the Duke of Devonshire at seventeen, Georgiana was catapulted into the fashionable lifestyle of England’s high society and became a national celebrity. Nevertheless, her involvement in politics, her gambling addiction, ad the fact that she lived with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her close friend, in what has become known as a “ménage à trois” also exposed her to severe criticism by some of her contemporaries.
With July 2017 marking the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the life of this intriguing historical figure, as well as the ways in which we have imagined her throughout the years. And when we look at the modern interpretations of Georgiana’s life, it becomes clear that they actually tell us more about ourselves than they do about the Duchess.
Fifteen years after the publication of Amanda Foreman’s biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and five years after Saul Dibb’s movie, “The Duchess” the 2013 documentary “Secrets of Chatsworth” granted us once again access to the most intimate details of the life of Georgiana of Devonshire. The section of the documentary dedicated to Georgiana begins with the narrator’s gripping statement that the true secrets of Chatsworth are to be found in the archives containing “hundreds of letters by one duchess [which reveal]… her manipulation by a back-stabbing best friend”. As sad music plays, the narrator proceeds: “Stuck in a suffocating marriage, and despite the attention of celebrity, Georgiana was lonely. So when she met Lady Elizabeth Foster in 1782, she thought she had found a true friend.”
According to Foreman, whose interview followed: “Lady Elizabeth Foster, known universally as Bess, was the quintessential snake in the grass.” This use of harsh language to describe Bess is characteristic of the general portrayal of her as a cold-hearted, designing woman, and Georgiana as a helpless victim. The representation of Georgiana as a gullible woman, deserving our pity, presents a striking contrast to the generally accepted depiction of her as an intelligent, insightful woman.
The different biographies written about Georgiana present contrasting accounts of Bess’s nature, something which can be explained by the fact that each author identifies somehow with the person they are writing about. Foreman accuses Bess of being a bad friend to Georgiana and “incapable of reciprocating her feelings in full measure”, whilst Caroline Chapman (author of Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses) sides with Bess. Both authors are very open about the admiration that they feel for their subjects. 1
Foreman explains that her resolution to write a biography about Georgiana stemmed from her dissatisfaction with the works previously written about her: “None of the books… portrayed the Georgiana whose voice I felt I had heard.” 2 As Foreman writes: “Previous accounts portrayed her as a charismatic but flighty woman; I saw her as courageous and vulnerable.” 3 Foreman’s admiration for Georgiana may be a reason for her comparatively less-sympathetic portrayal of Bess, whom she sees as one of the causes for Georgiana’s unhappiness.
Chapman, much like Foreman, presents her frustration with previous accounts of Bess as the reason behind her decision to write the biography: “Indignation is an excellent spur to a biographer, and I feel indignant that Bess has been so often unfairly portrayed in the past. Of her love for the Duke and Duchess, and of her fidelity to them in thought, word and deed, I am entirely convinced.” 4
Whereas Foreman sees Georgiana as someone who was neglected by the people she loved the most, Chapman regards Bess as a woman who “For almost twenty-five years of her life… lived in the shadow of Georgiana” and who, throughout history, has been falsely accused of taking advantage of Georgiana’s friendship for her own benefit. 5
United by destiny? Georgiana and Princess Diana
One of the trailers for the 2008 movie not only sustains this idea of Georgiana as the victim – presented by Foreman and disputed by Chapman – but also establishes a peculiar parallel between her life and that of Princess Diana, her indirect descendant. According to the trailer, these two women are “united by destiny” and by similar occurrences in their lives. The determination of the producers to establish this parallel is such that various aspects of Georgina’s relationship with Bess are either over-simplified or completely ignored, in order to present the Duchess as someone who, just like Diana, found that, because of another woman, she was trapped in a marriage in which happiness was impossible.
The willingness to make Georgiana seem as helpless in her marriage as Diana means that the result is a distorted portrayal of the relationship between Georgiana and Bess: Georgiana becomes someone who felt constantly alone due to a cold-hearted Bess who did not provide her with enough emotional support. The establishment of a comparison between Bess and Camilla means that Bess is portrayed as someone who was in love with the Duke but not with Georgiana, as someone who was simply her husband’s mistress and who, like Camilla, stole her husband from her. But the letters between the two women present a completely different reality.
“I adore and love you beyond description.” – the love letters of Georgiana and Bess
In 1782, Georgiana met Bess and the two began a relationship that would last until the end of their lives. In spite of some self-censorship due to fear of exposure, the letters contained the sort of passionate language which is found in letters exchanged between lovers: “God bless you my angel love, I adore and love you beyond description.” 6
The intensity of Georgiana’s feelings for Bess is clear in these letters, including one in which Georgiana writes of her fear that she might be separated from Bess: “I declare to God I am half mad… Oh Bess, every sensation I feel but heightens my adoration for you.” 7 Written in April 1783, when Georgiana feared that she may be forced to move to Ireland and leave Bess behind, Georgiana’s desperation is evident.
“The truth may never be known,” says the narrator in the documentary, but Foreman is of the opinion that “it is entirely possible” that Georgiana and Bess were romantically and sexually involved. Society certainly seemed to think so, since in 1784 there were rumours of a lesbian affair between the two women in Paris. 8 And, there is reason to believe that this kind of relationship was socially acceptable.
Thanks to Lilian Faderman 9, we know that ample evidence exists of widely accepted romantic female relationships in many eras. Faderman’s book, for example, contains several examples of eighteenth-century novels, diaries and correspondence between women where they can be found speaking “a language that was in no way different from the language of heterosexual love”.
By the time she met Bess, Georgiana was already no stranger to this kind of relationship. In her visit to France in 1775, Georgiana became intimately acquainted with Marie Antoinette and the Duchesse de Polignac. As Foreman states in the biography, rumours about their relationship swirled around the Court at Versailles. 10
According to Foreman, the French court was a “highly charged feminine atmosphere” where physical contact and expressions of affection between women were socially acceptable. 11 In Paris, “kisses and embraces were part of the ordinary language of communication” and the three women openly wore tokens of each other’s affections, such as locks of hair. When she returned to England, Georgiana also established a passionate relationship with Mrs Mary Graham. Once again, the romantic language of their letters is undeniable: “I want to say above all that I love you, my dear friend, and kiss you tenderly.” 12
Considering their intensity, it is perhaps surprising that eighteenth-century society was so willing to accept these romantic relationships between women. Faderman explains that it was not the sexual aspect of lesbianism, but the women’s attempts at seizing what were considered to be male prerogatives that were the cause of society’s condemnation. According to Faderman, as long as women appeared feminine, “their sexual behaviour would be viewed as an activity in which women indulged when men were unavailable”. 13These relationships would be dismissed as “an apprenticeship… to heterosexual sex” since “in men’s phallocentric world it was inconceivable that a woman’s sexual pleasure could be significant if the male were absent”. 14 Another eighteenth-century prejudice was that these female friendships simply provided confidantes for talking about men.
Contemporary portrayals of Georgiana and Bess
The most disturbing aspect of the 2008 movie is that these prejudices are duplicated in the portrayal of Georgiana’s relationship with Bess. Beginning with the moment in which Georgiana receives the marriage proposal from the Duke, the movie concludes with her return to her husband after the end of her affair with Charles Grey and the birth of their illegitimate daughter. Throughout the entirety of the movie, Grey is portrayed as the only person with whom Georgiana has a fully sexual and romantic connection. The relationship between Georgiana and Bess is sanitised to such an extent that Bess is not her lover but simply her confidante, to whom she tells the most intimate secrets about her relationship with Grey.
Bess is there simply to facilitate the heterosexual relationship between Georgiana and Grey. She first teaches Georgiana that sex with men can be “rather pleasurable,” and then leaves her unsatisfied and instead summons Grey, the one who is capable of sexually satisfying Georgiana. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that all The Duchess’s screenwriters were male…
Far less controversial, but still problematic, is the portrayal of their relationship in “Secrets of Chatsworth”. In it, Bess is described as a “fake” and Georgiana as the only person who did not realise this because she was “desperate… for companionship”. In the documentary, Foreman claims that “Anyone who knew Bess knew that her real ambition was to drive out Georgiana, ensure her destruction, and get the duke for herself.”
However, this is not consistent with what we know about their relationship. Foreman even argues in her biography that when the Duke found out about Georgiana’s debts in 1787 Bess was torn between helping Georgiana and convincing the Duke to separate from her. And the documentary mentions Georgiana’s exile abroad in 1791, where she gave birth to Grey’s child, but not the fact that Bess accompanied her. Yet it is significant that Bess chose to be with Georgiana through this difficult period in her life, despite the separation from the Duke it entailed, lasting for several months.
Although only eight minutes of the documentary are devoted to telling the story of Georgiana’s life, an amount of time that does not allow for complexity, there is still something problematic in the way it ends: with the declaration that, when three years after Georgiana’s death Bess became the new duchess of Devonshire, she “finally got what she wanted”. This unforgiving account portrays Bess as an absolutely ruthless woman, who was not even sorry to see her close friend and almost certainly lover die from an extremely painful illness, as she cared for nothing else but usurping her position in society. 15
The characterisation of Bess as a conniving, unfeeling woman, together with the idea that Georgiana was only drawn to Bess out of desperation due to her husband’s neglect, denies Georgiana any agency, self-awareness and knowledge of the people closest to her.
The ménage à trois
The truth is that there is no reason to believe that Georgiana, Bess and the Duke of Devonshire were not all perfectly happy with their arrangement. According to Faderman, men accepted the fact that married women established romantic relationships with other women, as this allowed them to find comfort without harming the essential fabric of society. This could be the reason why the Duke accepted Georgiana’s relationship with Bess.
In spite of Foreman’s declaration that theirs was not a “traditional lesbian relationship” because they did not wish to run away together, it should not be forgotten that they had several issues which made such an idea impractical: money, their standing in society, and their children, with whom they would inevitably have lost contact in the case of any formal separation.
Unlike Foreman, however, Chapman argues unreservedly that the only romantic and sexual connection was the one between the Duke and Bess. She claims that Bess “cannot have foreseen that a summer spent in their company would lead to a friendship lasting until Georgiana’s death, or that she would fall in love with the Duke”. 16 Chapman is convinced that the relationship between the two women was one of friendship and nothing more.
Chapman is also quick to dismiss the idea that the letters between the two women are indicative of the existence of a romantic and sexual relationship. Chapman argues that, although romantic language in the correspondence between two women seems odd to us, it is simply what women did and does not mean anything. And yet, the conviction that these women simply adopted this kind of affectionate behaviour towards each other because it was the convention, or what was fashionable, is naive.
It is also ridiculous to completely reject the possibility that women who lived together and expressed their feelings romantically ever engaged in a sexual relationship. The fact that they do not conform to our modern expectations does not mean they did not have a ‘lesbian relationship’.
But although, as Chapman argues, the portrayal of Georgiana as victim and Bess as villain is over-simplistic, it is extremely likely that Bess was jealous of Georgiana’s status. And yet, there is no reason to conclude from this that Bess wished to cause her destruction. It is true that Georgiana’s family did not approve of Bess. However, even though this has been attributed to insight into Bess’s real intentions, it could also have been due to lack of it.
A lack of sympathy towards Bess might have been due to a lack of understanding of their relationship. If Georgiana’s family did not know (or chose not to believe) that the two women were romantically involved, then Bess would have appeared to them as nothing but the Duke’s mistress, an intruder and, as such, the only thing standing between Georgiana and a happy marriage.
It is perfectly possible that Georgiana was not just aware of, but perfectly comfortable with, her sexual feelings towards Bess. In the biography, Foreman quotes a letter written by Georgiana to her son, Hart, in which she says: “I see in you still more perhaps than even in them [her daughters] what my youth was.” 17 If Georgiana is referring to her son’s homosexuality here, then this indicates that she did not strive to hide or deny the romantic nature of her attachment to Bess.
Whether this was the case or not, upon her death in 1806, Georgiana left Bess an unmistakable proof of her affection and confidence in her: she made Bess the sole guardian of her papers, fully aware that this would give her some stability for at least the amount of time it would take to sort through them. This indicates that not only was Bess not resented but also that she had Georgiana’s blessing to become the next duchess of Devonshire.
The fact that Bess and the Duke waited three years after Georgiana’s death to get married is also significant. Their decision to wait for so long is indicative of a deep respect for Georgiana’s memory, and it invalidates the idea that Bess waited impatiently for Georgiana’s death and the moment in which she would become the new Duchess of Devonshire.
Our imposition of a modern viewpoint on what a lesbian relationship is supposed to look like has kept us from recognising Georgiana and Bess as the important queer historical figures that they were. Outdated ideas about relationships between women have also simplified the two women, resulting in Georgiana being portrayed as gullible and Bess as cruel and cunning. Georgiana’s obituary in The Morning Chronicle on the 31st of March of 1806 read: “A woman more exalted in every accomplishment of rapturous beauty, of elevated genius, and of angelic temper, has not adorned the present age.” Georgiana was clearly an intelligent, perspicacious woman. Perhaps we should start believing it.
Rita J. Dashwood is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Warwick. Her thesis, Women in Residence: Forms of Belonging in Jane Austen, investigates the various kinds of relationships between women and property in Jane Austen’s novels. Rita has presented papers at international conferences both in the UK and in Brazil, and has recently been awarded the 2017 BSECS President’s Prize at this year’s annual conference. Additionally, one of her papers was recently published in Jane Austen and Philosophy, edited by Mimi Marinucci and published by Rowman and Littlefield. You can find Rita on Twitter @rjdashwood.
This piece belongs to a series of History Matters blogs by LGBTIQ+ scholars, and about the queer past. As Britain marks the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967, History Matters is proud to highlight the rich spectrum of work on LGBTIQ+ history in the academy and beyond. All of the blogs will appear here, as they are posted.
Header Image: Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (seated, left) and her sister Viscountess Duncannon (later Countess of Bessborough) (standing) at the gaming table in Devonshire House in London, 1791 by Thomas Rowlandson [via WikiCommons]
Image: Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1775-1776 by Joshua Reynolds [via WikiCommons]
Image: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster, circa 1791 by Jean-Urbain Guérin [via WikiCommons]
Image: “The Duchess” Film Poster, 2009 [via WikiCommons under fair use]
Image: Portrait of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, 1783 by Thomas Gainsborough [via WikiCommons]
- Amanda Foreman, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (London: Harper Collins, 1999), p. xvi. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, xv. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, xvi. ↩
- Caroline Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses, (London: John Murray, 2002), p. x. ↩
- Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. ix. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 70. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 115. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 167. ↩
- See Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Women’s Press, 1985). ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 41. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 41. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 52. ↩
- Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, p. 17. ↩
- Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, p. 29. ↩
- The accusation becomes even more serious when we consider the descriptions of Georgiana’s pain during the last stages of her illness. A letter from Georgiana’s sister Harriet read: “Any thing so horrible, so killing, as her [Georgiana’s] three days’ agony no human being ever witness’d” (Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 177). Contrary to these descriptions of Bess, her letters express the support and care which she provided Georgiana during this painful period: “Crowds come to inquire, some we see but most of the day I am at her bed side” (Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 174). ↩
- Chapman, Elizabeth & Georgiana, p. 29. ↩
- Foreman, Georgiana, p. 388. ↩