Lady Georgiana Spencer (The Duchess of Devonshire) is an important figure in political history. She was born in 1757 and died in 1806. She had an influential role in many key, political events, and in the shaping of the early Whig Party. Georgiana saw the French Revolution through the eyes of an English aristocrat, and as a friend of Marie Antoinette.
Years before there was a movie – “The Duchess” - I had read the book, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foremanfrom the, Modern Library Press, 2001. The movie is based closely on the book, with the movie focusing on one aspect and time period from the full biography. Though the movie ads were critiqued for mentioning it, Georgiana is, in fact, the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. And, their lives and work have eerie similarities. Also important, is keeping Georgiana’s own place in history as a person who mattered, and a woman leader. I created a blog to try to do just that, and to give women a place to share inspiration from the life of Georgiana: Georgiana Circle: Women Healing History.
Amanda Foreman writes:
Georgiana should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity for public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda. The two-party system was still developing in the late eighteenth century and factions, with their problems of discipline and dependence upon personality, predominated. Despite this, Georgiana was successful in helping to foster a sense of collective membership among the Foxite Whigs; and she made Devonshire House the focal point for meetings during critical times, such as the Westminster election and the Regency crisis [When King George lll became ill, and parliament had to decide whether or not and how to begin a Regency.] She was simultaneously a public figurehead for the Whigs and an effective politician within the party. The faction leaders obeyed her summonses, and sought her advice, employed her to negotiate, and relied on her to maintain the morale of supporters.
Below is a description of the Whig Party from Wikipedia, so there is some sense of Georgiana’s politics and mission:
The Whigs are often described as one of two political parties (the other being the Tories) in England and later the United Kingdom from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. It is more accurate to describe the original two ideas as loose groupings, or more precisely, tendencies. While the Whigs’ origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule, both might be termed conservative by modern parameters. Party politics did not begin to coalesce until at least 1784, with the ascension of Charles James Fox as the leader of a reconstituted “Whig” party ranged against the governing party of the new “Tories” under William Pitt the Younger.
The Whig party slowly evolved during the 18th century. In general terms, the Whig tendency supported the great aristocratic families and non-Anglicans (the “dissenters,” such as Presbyterians), while the Tories supported the Church of England and the gentry.
Amanda Foreman continues:
Dedicating herself to the Whig cause and to Fox’s success (the two being inextricable in her mind), Georgiana achieved a number of political victories during what can legitimately be called her thirty-year career. First, she used her considerable powers of persuasion to prevent the Prince from splitting the Fox-North Coalition in 1783. The following year she rescued Fox from electoral defeat with her courageous campaign in the Westminster election. During subsequent wilderness years before and after the 1789 Regency crisis, Georgiana succeeded in recruiting new blood to the party and in helping stem the flow of desertions. Later, she was one of the leading instigators of the Fox-Grenville Coalition of 1804. More important, she held the Coalition together in 1805, when she once again persuaded the Prince not to desert the Whigs. It was her persistence which helped sustain the momentum for the 1806 “Ministry of all the Talents.” No other woman – indeed, very few men, achieved as much influence as Georgiana wielded during her lifetime.
Why Georgiana’s life story gets overlooked in history (with ideas and quotes from Amanda Foreman‘s biography of her):
- In Georgiana’s time – the late 1700′s, people were conflicted about if women should participate in politics. So, even Georgiana, at times, questioned if it was good for her to be so political. And, her friends and heirs may have destroyed some of her political letters for that reason.
-In the 1800′s, there was an absolute backlash against women in politics, and women were encouraged to stay in the home. Again, many Victorian relatives destroyed letters that showed their women ancestors to be wild, passionate or political.
-Related to the spirit of the 1800′s, when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, there was a further dampening of women’s participation in public life.
-Most traditional, academic historians ignore the role of women in political history.
-”Most feminist historians concentrate on ‘women’s occupations’ and therefore ignore the world of high politics.”
-As Amanda Foreman notes, Marxist history concentrates on the lives of the many, as opposed to the few elite – the aristocracy. And, Marxist history seeks to portray women as a sisterhood of women who were forced to live in sealed communities, the passive victims of men, separate from men’s consciousness, and suffering from the effects of capitalism and the patriarchy. So, exploring the facts about an aristocratic woman who did, in fact, wield power in the world of politics does not fit into the Marxist vision. And, exploring the talents and contributions of an aristocratic woman is not of interest in Marxist theory.
Amanda Foreman goes on to write:
Such an approach denies the experience of a Duchess of Devonshire or a Duchess of Gordon as relevant or significant. Yet, Georgiana’s life is representative of a vital part of eighteenth-century society. Male and female relations were robust, multi-layered, and contradictory. Neither the public and private nor the social and political realms existed as separate entities. They blurred into each other, making divisions often subtle and nuanced. Rather than being an anamoly, Georgiana’s political career demonstrates the fluidity which characterized relationships between the sexes. The propensity of women’s historians to ignore high politics, and of political historians to ignore women, has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of one of the most sexually integrated periods of British history.
A more appropriate model for the eighteenth century would be one of interlocking spheres, recognizing the flexibility of social conventions of the era: women’s lives reflected the shifting patterns of society and were equally susceptible to the pressures caused by class, locality, economy, and age…
And, near the end of the epilogue, Amanda Foreman‘s summary praise of Georgiana and her contributions:
Her history is as much a part of the history of men and the wider world as it is of the woman’s community. She is remarkable for being a successful politician whose actions brought about national events; for attaining great prominence in spite of the fact she was a woman in a society which favoured men; and for achieving success while enduring great personal suffering in her search for self fulfillment.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Kimberly’s new website:
Georgiana Circle: Women Healing History
Absolute Plot Spoiler for the life of Georgiana and the movie, The Duchess: here
The latest review of the book, movie and DVD, with comments on Ralph Fiennes as the Duke and Keira Knightley as the Duchess: here.
Ralph Fiennes was a nominee for the Golden Globe award for his portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire.
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