Ever since watching the film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, I’ve harboured a strong fascination for this woman who entranced eighteenth century society. I loved the feistiness of Kiera Knightley’s portrayal of her, as well as the complexity of her personality. She was the belle of aristocratic society and a passionate and informed political activist, but was still trapped by the maze of patriarchal double standards that wouldn’t allow her to pursue her heart’s desire despite her husband’s less than faithful extra-marital affairs. Discovering that the film was in fact based upon a biography, Foreman’s biography went straight onto my reading list and, after finally discovering a copy in a charity shop, I sat down to immerse myself in the life of this remarkable woman. I was not disappointed. The detail of Foreman’s text makes it particularly immersive, particularly the many quotes from the letters and diaries of Georgiana and her friends. The enchanting nature of Georgiana’s life does not make this rigorousness at all tiresome.
Comparing the book and film however, we are given a prime example of how Hollywood treats literature and history, especially that containing a central female character. Whilst the film is fantastic – still one of my favourites – after reading this biography it becomes clear that the film makers took the relationship between Georgiana and Charles Grey and forced it into centre stage, despite Foreman giving this facet of her life far less attention than the politics and friendships which are sidelined in the film. Not that the Grey romance wasn’t an important part of the Duchess’ life – it did result in a daughter, exile and a connection between the two which lasted until Georgiana’s death – but to make it the axis around which her whole life revolved does seem to be overplaying its role just a bit. For me, there were far more intriguing parts of her life; the public nature of her political role in a time when women were still seen as submissive to male needs, and the possibility of Georgiana’s affairs with other women which are hinted at in various correspondence, though it seems any confirmation of these may have been removed by Victorian censors.
As I closed this biography on its final page I was left in awe of its subject. I was enchanted by her, even more than I had been, and entirely understood the sentiments Foreman expresses in the foreword when she speaks of the draw she felt towards Georgiana. She steps out of the page for me as not just a role model, but a friend of some kind; her life promotes in me a desire to be as committed to a cause as she was, to confound expectations and move in the world on my own terms. Over two hundred years may separate Georgiana from our own society, but she still has much to say about the world we live in now – and it’s a message that I want to continue listening to.