The Devonshires: The Story of a Family and a Nation

Hallie Rubenhold lauds a biography of a dynasty that produced some of aristocratic England's most colourful characters

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Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Roy Hattersley
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price (RRP): £25

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There once was a time when ‘family histories’ were seen as the preserve of the ‘gentleman scholar’. Viewed as little more than a hagiographical celebration of one’s ancestors, this brand of history seems to have fallen out of fashion along with the tradition of being presented at court. However, Roy Hattersley’s latest work is likely to revive its battered reputation. The Devonshires bears all the hallmarks of Hattersley’s expertise as an accomplished storyteller, as well as his uniquely modern insight into the age-old saga of power-grabbing.

The rise and wane of the house of Cavendish follows the usual trajectory of most aristocratic dynasties in England. Until the early part of the 20th century, the term ‘aristocracy’ had been synonymous with power, and accordingly, Hattersley begins his tale during the reign of Henry VIII and concludes it on the eve of the First World War, by which time the once politically influential dukes of Devonshire had assumed a largely decorative role in government.

As Hattersley explains, it was Sir William Cavendish who established his position and eventually the family name through careful strategising within the Tudor court. Cavendish profited handsomely by being made an official of the Court of Augmentations at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, a circumstance that allowed him to contract an advantageous marriage with the wealthy Bess of Hardwick.

However, a hundred years, a claim to the throne (via Arabella Stuart, Bess’s granddaughter) and an earldom later, their descendents still didn’t feel their name possessed the gravitas it merited. It was only after a ‘pedigree maker’ had been employed to create a lineage traceable to the Conquest that the family felt secure in its status.

Reassuringly, Hattersley’s work presents more than the predictable picture of a dynasty created by courtiers and male empire-builders. Readers are also introduced to several generations of Cavendish women, who, like Bess of Hardwick, rose to eminence in their own right.

Naturally, the celebrated Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire features prominently: noted for being a savvy political operator, it is argued that she did more for the Whig party than the 5th Duke, her “insensitive and autocratic brute” of a husband. Less widely remembered, but no less influential, was Margaret Cavendish, a highly regarded Civil War-era thinker, writer and lady-in-waiting to the exiled queen, Henrietta Maria.

By featuring the stories of Cavendishes of both sexes in equal measure, Hattersley has created a balanced look at a traditional tale of aristocratic power and prestige.

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Hallie Rubenhold is the author of the novel Mistress of My Fate (Doubleday, 2011). Hear Roy Hattersley talk more about the Devonshires in an episode of our podcast