History explorer: Politics and power in Georgian Britain
Ellie Cawthorne and Hannah Greig explore Chatsworth, the seat of the most influential woman of her age, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire
This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
When asked to describe Chatsworth, one word immediately springs to mind – extravagant. As I approach the house over rolling Derbyshire hills dotted with grazing sheep, its gilt-edged windows glint in the sun, hinting at the opulence inside.
Every possible inch of the house’s interior appears to be intricately decorated. From carved oak panelling to ornately stuccoed walls and ceilings hand-painted with scenes of heaven, more is more seems to be the Chatsworth way.
Outside, a 105-acre garden dotted with rockeries, ponds and a maze sits within elegant parklands stretching out for 1,000 acres. Its centrepiece is the majestic cascade fountain, a gigantic 300-year-old water feature fed by four lakes. Today, the grounds are meticulously maintained by a team of more than 20 gardeners. On the day I look around, the estate is alive with activity and bustling with visitors, from ramblers in walking boots to tourists armed with selfie-sticks.
Originally built by the Elizabethan powerhouse Bess of Hardwick, with construction beginning in 1552, Chatsworth has been the aristocratic seat of the Cavendish family for more than 450 years. Through its countless extensions and renovations, the house bears the marks of each successive generation. What was once a Tudor manor has evolved beyond recognition into a palatial baroque residence.
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Down the centuries, the estate has been home to a myriad of fascinating figures, and one of its most influential residents was Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806). An author, socialite, fashion icon and political campaigner, Georgiana was one of the leading lights of Georgian Britain. Married to the 5th Duke of Devonshire, she wielded considerable influence over several of the key politicians, playwrights and royalty of the day.
“The celebrity Georgiana enjoyed in the late 18th century was titanic,” says Hannah Greig, who was a historical consultant on a 2008 feature film about Georgiana’s extraordinary life, The Duchess. “She was held in high regard for her remarkable level of influence, and her name was not only well known in aristocratic circles, but by the wider public too.”
In the words of the 18th-century author and politician Horace Walpole, Georgiana’s “flowing good nature, sense and lively modesty, and modest familiarity” made her “a phenomenon”. As a demonstration of her fame, the duchess enjoyed the rare privilege of being painted by both Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough – twice. A number of her portraits are on display at Chatsworth. In the South Sketch Gallery, Georgiana imperiously peers down at visitors from a c1785 Gainsborough painting. Draped in frothy lace, with gravity-defying powdered hair, she looks the very picture of Georgian aristocratic extravagance. The gigantic ‘picture hat’ Georgiana wears in the portrait is just one of many 18th-century beauty trends she has been credited with popularising.
However, the duchess was far more than just a fashionista. “She was famous for being a great beauty, but in 18th-century terms, that meant much more than just being physically attractive,” says Greig. “It meant that you were someone of great presence and power. To be called a ‘great beauty’ was to be recognised as one of the leading figures of the age.”
One area in which Georgiana wielded her influence and charisma was politics. A passionate devotee to the Whig cause, the duchess was famous for hosting dinner parties that quickly became political debates. While an involvement in politics was not unusual for aristocratic women in the late 18th century, most politically engaged women would be campaigning on the behalf of their husbands, brothers or cousins. Georgiana broke convention as a tireless activist for those outside of her immediate family.
In the general election of 1784, Georgiana hit the headlines when her political activity went far beyond that of dinner party hostess. The duchess threw the weight of her celebrity wholeheartedly behind the leader of the opposition, Charles James Fox. Canvassing the streets of Westminster, she left her sheltered aristocratic circle to appeal directly to ordinary voters. As the duchess implored shopkeepers and butchers to vote for Fox, satirists of the day were swift to put pen to paper. Caricatures depicting Georgiana swapping money or even kisses for votes were produced almost daily.
“Georgiana was subject to a really vicious campaign that tried to discredit her political activities,” says Greig, “but the very fact that her opponents were working so hard to undermine her probably suggests that she was pretty successful. Georgiana’s political influence has helped historians realise the remarkable power and status women could wield in Georgian Britain. There was a real cultural opportunity for women at this time, but that’s something we seem to have forgotten.”
After spending the political season in London, the Cavendishes – along with most of their aristocratic contemporaries – would retire to the country for the summer. Surrounded by the hills, crags and moors of Derbyshire, Chatsworth was a world away from the politics and parties that characterised Georgiana’s life in the capital.
As well as managing local interests, the duke and duchess would use their time at the estate to entertain guests and enjoy outdoor pursuits in the vast grounds. The gently sloping parklands, steep wooded hills and natural-looking lake had been redesigned a generation earlier by the celebrated landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Summers in Derbyshire would also have given Georgiana a chance to pursue her literary and scientific interests. The duchess authored a number of pieces of prose and poetry, several of which were published anonymously. Like many women of the time, she was also a prolific letter writer. A number of her letters are still kept at the house, along with a collection of minerals she acquired across Europe. Georgiana was a devoted mother and Chatsworth offered an opportunity to spend time with her children. In a handbook to the house published by her son in 1844, he recalled his childhood at the estate with great fondness.
However, Georgiana’s life at Chatsworth was not always idyllic. Shortly after she married the duke, aged 17, it became abundantly clear that the pair were ill suited. “It was undoubtedly an unhappy match,” says Greig. “While Georgiana was famously sociable and charismatic, the duke was far less interested in wielding the huge social power that his position presented. His principal interest was the survival of his estate and the production of a healthy heir.”
Yet it was more than just differing priorities that divided the pair. As well as fathering at least one illegitimate child, the duke embarked on a long-term relationship with Lady Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Foster, a close friend of his wife’s. Bess moved in with the couple, and the three lived in a ménage à trois that continued for several years. While this unconventional domestic set-up has fascinated modern-day historians, biographers and filmmakers, it was kept out of the public eye at the time.
“Georgiana’s private life was very carefully kept within aristocratic networks,” says Greig. “Whatever was going on behind closed doors, the public face the family presented was one of unwavering aristocratic power.”
In the late 1780s, the public image of Chatsworth as a peaceful family home was tested even further, as Georgiana embarked on an extra-marital relationship with the politician (and future prime minister) Charles Grey. After becoming pregnant by Grey, she was forced into exile in France for two years. Although Georgiana had welcomed an illegitimate daughter of the duke’s into her household, she was forced to give her own child up to Grey’s family.
“While we tend to think of Georgian society as liberated and hedonistic, actual sexual freedoms were more limited than we might imagine and women’s sexuality was carefully policed,” says Greig. “Several of Georgiana’s contemporaries suffered very heavily for their sexual misconduct and were really thrown to the rocks once their affairs were made public. Georgiana would have been intensely aware of this and keen to avoid the same fate.”
After returning from her French exile, Georgiana was welcomed back into London society. She continued both her writing and political campaigning. Yet, after suffering from declining health through her 40s, Georgiana died on 30 March 1806, aged 48. Chatsworth gained a new mistress just three years later, when the duke finally married his long-term mistress, Bess. Her tenure at the house lasted just two years, before the 5th duke also died and was succeeded by Georgiana’s 21-year-old son. Seven generations of the Cavendish family have lived on the estate since.
In Georgiana’s day, Chatsworth was open to visitors, and a monthly dinner was thrown for whoever came along. Sadly, with more than 600,000 visitors each year, the free dinner is no longer provided. Nevertheless, it’s still a spectacular day out.
The duchess: five more places to explore
Chiswick House, West London
Georgiana’s political hub
A Palladian villa built in 1729, Chiswick was another of the Devonshires’ spectacular properties. Georgiana called the house her “earthly paradise”, and used it as a political hub to host parties, dinners and meetings. Whig politician Charles James Fox – who Georgiana had canvassed for so enthusiastically in the 1784 election – died at Chiswick in 1806.
Georgiana’s family home
Georgiana was born and grew up at Althorp, home to the aristocratic Spencer family for more than 500 years. Dating from 1688, the current house is home to a significant art collection and sits in 13,000 acres of land. It was later home to another Spencer woman who enjoyed huge celebrity in her day – Princess Diana.
Kedleston Hall, Derby
A haven of 18th-century interiors
Built for the Curzon family in 1759, Kedleston is notable for its grand neoclassical interiors, designed by celebrated architect Robert Adam. In the film The Duchess, it stood in for the Cavendishes' London home, Devonshire House, which was demolished in 1924.
Howick Hall, Northumberland
The seat of Georgiana’s lover
This elegant 18th-century hall was the ancestral seat of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, Georgiana’s lover and the father of her illegitimate daughter. Howick is also the home of Earl Grey tea – blended for the 2nd Earl to match the water there.
Burlington House, Central London
A stylish Cavendish property
Inherited by the Devonshires in 1758, this impressive Piccadilly mansion was used by various members of the Cavendish family. One especially notable resident was Henry Cavendish, the scientist who discovered hydrogen.
Dr Hannah Greig lectures at the University of York. She has worked extensively as a historical advisor, including on the 2008 film The Duchess and the BBC’s Poldark. Words: Ellie Cawthorne
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