"The Two Patriotic Duchess's on Their Canvass," April 3, 1784. Georgiana is shown kissing a butcher while slipping him money. Another butcher rejects the Duchess of Portland's advances. Rowlandson. BM Cat 6494.
Note on Eighteenth-Century Politics
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, lived during a period of rapid change. The population was sharply increasing, the national income was rising, roads were improving, and literacy was spreading. Britain was on the verge of becoming a great power, driven by its burgeoning factories at home and fertile territories abroad. But with fewer than ten million people, the country was still small enough to be governed by an aristocratic oligarchy.
There were roughly two hundred peers (as British aristocrats are called) when Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire. There were only twenty-eight dukes, but because of their wealth and rank they exerted a disproportionate influence in politics. As a duchess, Georgiana was one tier below royalty; below her the titles descended in the order of marquess and marchioness, earl and countess, viscount and viscountess, and lord and lady. The peers sat by right of birth in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament. The only form of retirement for a peer was death. Indeed, in 1778 the Earl of Chatham made a dramatic exit from the floor of the Lords, dying of a heart attack in mid-speech.
While the two hundred or so peers sat in isolated splendour in the Lords, their sons, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, and hangers-on filled up the House of Commons, the lower chamber in Parliament. Britain was a democracy in the sense that every five years a general election took place and voters elected 558 members of Parliament, known as MPs, to sit in the Commons. However, property restrictions kept the number of voters small--roughly three hundred thousand, or 3 percent of the population. There were all kinds of legal anomalies and customs which enabled peers and gentlemen of sufficient wealth to actually own a seat outright, or have so much influence in the constituency, that democracy did not enter into the equation at all. The peerage spent a great deal of money and effort trying to control as many seats in the Commons as possible. But aristocratic patronage never extended to more than two hundred MPs, leaving the majority open to some form of contest.
There was enough popular participation to make politics as big a national obsession as sport, if not bigger. The emergence of national newspapers turned politicians into celebrities. The talk in coffee houses and inns up and down the country was on the quality of the speeches the day before, on who had acquitted himself in the finest manner and whether the government--meaning the monarchy--had won the argument. For the aristocracy, politics was not just a sport but a business. It dominated their lives, destroying some in the process and elevating others to even greater wealth and glory.
Although women did not have the vote, were barred from the House of Commons, and could not hold an official position, Georgiana was a passionate contestant in the political arena. She devoted herself to the Whig party: campaigning, scheming, fund-raising, and recruiting for it right up until the day she died. The story of her extraordinary life is a mirror of the past; look into it and you will see the turbulent history of late-eighteenth-century politics unfold.
The Westminster Election
If Mr Fox is no longer the Man of the People, he must be allowed from the number of females who attend to give him their support, to be at least, the Man for the Ladies. The Duchess of Devonshire's attendance at Covent Garden, perhaps, will not secure Mr Fox's election; but it will at least establish her pre-eminence above all other beauties of that place, and make her a standing toast in all the ale-houses and gin-shops of Westminster.... Ladies who interest themselves so much in the case of elections, are perhaps too ignorant to know that they meddle with what does not concern them, but they ought at least to know, that it is usual, even in these days of degeneracy, to expect common decency in a married woman.
Every liberal mind revolts at the wretched abuse now levelled at the most amiable of our country women! The base and burring hand of calumny, however, is raised in vain against the lovely Devon and her sister patriots, who at this juncture, so much resemble those fair celestials of the Grecian bard, whose attributes of divinity never appeared so brilliant as when forming a shield for the heroic leader of an oppressed people!
The coalition had struggled to remain in power since driving out Lord Shelburne in April 1783. George III's hostility to Fox and his former Prime Minister, Lord North, was so marked that no one thought the Coalition could survive for long. Self-doubt and internal divisions continually undermined the new ministry. The danger of the government appearing weak formed the chief topic of Georgiana's conversations with Fox before her confinement. They both knew that without the King's support the coalition was vulnerable to challengers.
When Parliament resumed after the summer recess, the cabinet was cautiously optimistic. The ministry announced its programme of reform for the session while Georgiana was at Chatsworth. The most controversial plan was Fox's Bill to overhaul the East India Company's rights and charters. There was cross-party agreement that something had to be done. Company employees went to India with nothing and returned with vast wealth, giving rise not only to resentment but also to suspicions that fortunes were being obtained in a less than gentleman-like manner. There were stories of unbridled corruption, exploitation--even violence against the native population. But successive governments had always been wary of meddling with private business, and many MPs regarded the East India Bill as outrageous political interference. The coalition's enemies claimed that the Whigs were planning to take control of the East India Company.
Fox was jubilant when he defeated his critics: the East India Bill passed through the House of Commons in November with a comfortable majority. However, this easy victory was a smokescreen: there were secret moves afoot to break the coalition. William Pitt held meetings with the King in early December and together they formed a plot to oust Fox. When the Bill reached the House of Lords for ratification by the peers, Pitt's cousin, Lord Temple, quietly circulated an open letter from the King. It stated clearly that anyone who voted for the Bill would henceforth be the King's enemy. Lord Frederick Cavendish told Georgiana that the Duke of Portland had confronted the King in his closet about rumours of a conspiracy; the King had fixed his glassy stare on him and ignored the question. Fox refused to believe the rumours until the sight of the Lords voting down the Bill made him realize, in a dreadful moment of clarity, that he had been outwitted. George III so loathed the Whigs that when he heard the results at 10 p.m. he immediately sent his officers to Piccadilly to collect the Seals of State from Fox and North. The next morning, December 19, William Pitt kissed the King's hand and, at twenty-four, became the youngest Prime Minister in parliamentary history.
Paradoxically, the mood among the Whigs was one of exultation. Now that the King had declared open war on his ex-ministers they had proof of his despotic intentions. For the past two decades their allegations about the increasing influence of the crown had cited its "secret" patronage through the awarding of pensions and places. By issuing an order to the Lords to override the House of Commons the King had at last provided evidence of his anti-constitutional activities. Fox saw the political crisis in personal terms--as a duel between himself, George III, and William Pitt.
Georgiana had no doubt that Fox would win. As long as the House of Commons supported the coalition there was nothing either the King or Pitt could do. No bills could be passed, taxes raised, nor foreign policy enacted. "We have the majority still in the H. of C.," she wrote, "which, it is supposed, must rout them." The coalition spent the Christmas break preparing for battle. No one thought Pitt could last to the New Year: "Depend on it," joked Mrs. Crewe, "it will be a mincepie administration." But they misjudged public opinion. Between Hyde Park and Piccadilly the Whigs strutted in righteous indignation with the approval of their friends, but everywhere else they were reviled for having forced their way into power in spite of the King's objections--"storming the closet" as it was known. Fox, in particular, was cast in the role of the villain for his supposed attempt to turn the East India Company into a cash cow for the Whigs. His perorations on English liberty looked spurious next to his notorious lifestyle. Of all the political cartoons which emerged during these weeks the most effective were those directed against him. James Gillray depicted him as "Carlo Khan" striding down Leadenhall Street on an elephant to take possession of the East India Company. This, and another cartoon depicting him as a latter-day Oliver Cromwell, did him more damage than all the other cartoons put together. His motives had become suspect.
The coalition held regular meetings at Devonshire House; its palatial drawing room was the only place that could comfortably accommodate all its Supporters. They were depressing affairs: complaints and criticism drowned out constructive suggestions and fewer and fewer people turned out for each meeting. Their Commons majority remained substantial for the first week, but by the end of the second it had begun to slip. Pitt pressed on, showing no emotion at the cat-calls and hooting from the opposition benches as his measures were voted down. The combination of the King's support and Pitt's cool determination won over increasing numbers of MPs every week. It was a slow, humiliating torture for Fox but he refused to accept defeat. Pitt relentlessly eroded the coalition's majority until by the first week of March it was down to nine votes. On March 8 Fox moved that the House of Commons delay discussing the Mutiny Bill until Pitt resigned: it was carried by only one vote. This was the end. Pitt had won.
By mid-March the Devonshires were re-established in London and Georgiana was trying to make sense of her debts to Heaton. She regarded the coalition's defeat as a disaster not only for the party but for the Whole country: "If Mr Pitt succeeds, he will have brought about an event that he himself, as well as every Englishman will repent ever after," she wrote. She was in complete agreement with Fox that the King's interference with the will of the Commons had to be stopped. She drew on her contacts at the French court to urge their government not to recognize Pitt. She also forced the reluctant d'Adhemar to hold a grand dinner in honour of the coalition at his of ficial residence. He was humble to her face, but she knew he was disparaging them all over London. "He says nothing can equal le despotisme de M. Fox que la bassesse de ses amis."* ("He says nothing can equal the despotism of Mr. Fox except the baseness of his friends.")
On March 17 Georgiana went to the opera to hear La Reine de Golconde, which included a little piece she had composed herself. That night, however, the theatre was taking place not on the stage but in the stalls. Political rivalry divided the audience and there was much booing and hissing at the arrival of prominent politicians. Georgiana loved this kind of public participation. She went again on the twentieth: "It was very full and I had several good political fights." The Duchess of Rutland jumped to her feet and shouted, "Damn Fox!" at the boisterous crowd below. Lady Maria Waldegrave retaliated from the opposite box, "Damn Pitt!" "We had quite an opposition dinner [afterwards]," recorded Georgiana at d'Adhemar's, "much against the grain with him. There was Mr Fox Grenville, Ld Malden, Cl St. Leger, all our men in short...." Her unconscious use of the word "our" reveals how closely she identified with the Whigs. She was not following the struggle, she was one of the contestants. Indeed, one cartoon depicted the coalition leaders--Sheridan, Burke, North, and Fox--drumming up support by invoking not just the Cavendish wealth but Georgiana herself. "Join the Coalition and you shall be cloathed," cries Burke. "All Gentlemen Voluntiers who will serve his Majesty Carlo Khan repair to the Portland Block" shouts North. "Present Pay, good Quarters, and a handsome Landlady," adds Fox.
Rivalry between the parties spread to the streets, aided in many instances by agents provocateurs. Pitt rode down the Strand accompanied by a great mob which stopped outside Carlton House and shouted abuse at the prince. It moved on to St. James's, where with difficulty he prevented them from smashing Fox's windows. Later Lord Chatham, Pitt's elder brother, spotted James Hare exhorting a crowd of chairmen armed with broken carriage poles to attack Pitt's carriage.
They succeeded in making their way to the carriage and forced open the door. Several desperate blows were aimed at Mr Pitt, and I recollect endeavouring to cover him as well as I could, in his getting out of the Carriage. Fortunately however...by ye timely assistance of a [rival] Party of Chairmen, and many Gentlemen from Whites, who saw his danger, we were extricated from a most unpleasant situation, and with considerable difficulty, got into some adjacent houses.
A public debate at Westminster Hall degenerated into a riot and Fox was pelted with "filth" while his supporters hustled him out into a waiting carriage.
The threat of insults or worse did not deter Georgiana from venturing into this turbulent world to aid Fox. She spent a few days canvassing for her brother's constituency and then returned to London for the Westminster election. There were three candidates standing for two places: Fox for the Whigs, and Sir Cecil Wray (a Whig deserter) and Lord Admiral Hood for Pitt. Since Admiral Hood was a popular hero from the American war, it was really a contest between Fox and Wray. Because of its large franchise of 18,000 voters and its proximity to Parliament, Westminster was one of the few constituencies where public opinion really mattered. Pitt would gladly have exchanged a dozen ordinary boroughs to oust Fox from this, the "people's constituency." The King cared less about public opinion and simply wanted Fox out. Do whatever is necessary, he ordered Pitt, "rather than let him be Returned for Westminster."
Criticisms of political corruption and coercion levelled by later Whig historians against eighteenth-century elections would have puzzled Georgiana. As Frank O'Gorman has shown, although the total number of voters may have been small--roughly 300,000 in a population of 10 million--the public was not necessarily excluded from electoral politics; nor were elections simply a case of ratification. "While committees met to plot and plan," he writes, "while agents swarmed all over the constituency, and while the formal canvass proceeded, a veritable torrent of rival publicity--squibs, poems, songs, cartoons, handbills, letters, and advertisements--deluged the constituency.... Daily speeches, cerebrations, parades, displays, treats, and dinners fostered and maintained the excitement, enthusiasm of the public." Local issues predominated, but national ones were also important and could be used to discredit rivals. Westminster's large franchise spanned a broad range of occupations. They could be wooed, flattered, and flooded with inducements, but not controlled.
As at previous elections, the speaker platforms were erected in Covent Garden beside the polling booths, through which the voters had to shuffle, one at a time, to record their vote in front of the clerk. On the first day of the polls, which remained open for six weeks, the Whigs assembled for a mass canvass. Their helpers had strung up banners and coloured bunting along the main thoroughfares in an uneven zigzag from one supporter's house to another. Fox and a few friends stayed on the platform to harangue the crowd, while the men and women divided into three teams led by Georgiana, Mrs. Crewe, and Mrs. Damer. Most of the party members were busy fighting their own seats and the women were needed to make up the shortfall in numbers. Georgiana and Harriet, accompanied by several male escorts, walked through the cobbled streets, handing out specially struck medals to Foxites. The Whigs enjoyed themselves in spite of the pushing and shoving of the crowd. However, many observers were shocked to see women so cavalierly exposed to the dangers of a metropolitan election. A German tourist at the hustings watched the previously tranquil mob turn violent after the poll closed:
In a very few minutes, the whole scaffolding, benches, and chairs, and everything were completely destroyed, and the mat with which it had been covered torn into ten thousand long strips or pieces, with which they encircled multitudes of peoples of all ranks. These they hurried along with them, and everything else that came in their way, as trophies of joy: and thus in the midst of exaltation and triumph, they paraded through many of the most populous streets of London.
The London Chronicle reported that at the end of the first day Fox had polled 302, Lord Hood 264, and Wray 238. But on the second and third, Hood and Wray surged ahead. The Whigs frantically urged everyone to join the canvass. By April 5 the Duchess of Portland, Lady Jersey, Lady Carlisle, Mrs. Bouverie, and the three Ladies Waldegrave were among those parading through Westminster, dressed in blue and buff with foxtails in their hats, soliciting votes from bemused shopkeepers. According to Nathaniel Wraxall, their activities soon got out of hand: "These ladies, being previously furnished with lists of outlying voters, drove to their respective dwellings. Neither entreaties nor promises were spared. In some instances even personal caresses were said to have been permitted, in order to prevail upon the surly or inflexible, and there can be no doubt of common mechanics having been conveyed to the hustings on more than one occasion by the Duchess in her own coach."
Horace Walpole was ashamed by the way in which some of the voters took advantage of Georgiana: "During her canvass, the Duchess made no scruple of visiting some of the humblest of electors, dazzling and enchanting them by the fascination of her manner, the power of her beauty and the influence of her high rank." But others shouted abuse at her and on more than one occasion she was physically threatened. One account claimed that Georgiana thoughtlessly entered a house alone to confront seven drunken Hood supporters. They would not let her leave until they had all kissed her, by which time there was a noisy mob outside, fighting to get in. Whether or not this particular story is true, there were other, similar incidents. "She is in the street, they tell me almost every day," wote Mrs. Boscawen to Lady Chatham. "And this is her sole employment from morning till night. She gets out of her carriage and walks into alleys--many feathers and fox tails in her hat--many blackguards in her suit."
By the end of the first week Georgiana was exhausted and demoralized. Her voice was hoarse and her feet were sore and blistered from walking on the broken cobbles of Henrietta Street--incidentally home to some famous brothels and therefore a source of much coarse humour in the press. Despite all their efforts Fox was still trailing in the polls. "I give the Election quite up," Georgiana wrote to her mother, "and must lament all at has happened--however, the circumstances I was in will justify me to those it is most essential for me to please and I must pocket the opinions of the rest." The government was jubilant. "Westminster is indeed a cruel blow upon the party, " Pitt's cousin told the Duke of Rutland. "Their exertions have been incredible, particularly upon the part of her Grace of Devon, who in the course of her canvass has heard more plain English of the grossest sort than ever fell to the share of any lady of her rank.... Fox is now clearly defeated."
Pittite newspapers concentrated their attacks on Georgiana and ignored the other women. Lady Salisbury and Mrs. Hobart, who were canvassing for Pitt, received far less attention. "It is very hard," she complained, "they should single me out when all the women of my side do as much." She denied exchanging kisses for votes: it had been Harriet's idea, not hers. The men did that sort of thing at every election--candidates had to do a great deal of kissing and handshaking. Lord Palmerston heard that one butcher had made Fox kiss his wife and all his daughters in turn before shoving him out of the shop, telling him, "he might kiss his arse if he liked into the bargain; but he'd see him damned before he voted for him." Georgiana was easy to attack because she was already a celebrity. The Morning Post was the first to run the story about her kissing voters on March 31: "We hear the D--s of D-- grants favours to those who promise their votes and interest to Mr Fox." Thereafter it ran vicious stories almost every day. It concentrated on three themes: she was selling her body for votes, she was Fox's mistress, and she was betraying her rank and sex by her undignified behaviour. On April 8 it sneered, "She wore as usual the insignia of the order in her hat, and by her extraordinary beauty attracted the eyes of the gaping multitude. A band of greasy musicians struck up with marrow-bones and cleavers in honour of her Grace, and she was followed down the whole of Southampton Street, with the acclamations of her new admirers." By the twelfth Georgiana could no longer endure it and informed the Duke that she was leaving London to stay with her mother in St. Albans.
Lady Spencer was relieved when her daughter finally listened to her plea to stop canvassing. In October 1774 she herself had come in for some teasing from the press for her successful canvass in Northampton, provoking great amusement among the family: Lord Spencer thought it was a great joke. "Have you seen all the compliments, abuse and satire in the London newspapers upon her and Mrs Tollemache canvassing?" he asked Georgiana. But he had belonged to a generation which still regarded the daily reporting of events as something of a novelty. When he was a young man editors faced the risk of arrest if they reported parliamentary debates. This had not been the case since 1774. Now, the mass circulation of newspapers and political cartoons which together reached several hundred thousand readers each week ensured that the views, appearance, and debating style of all the major political figures were familiar around the country. When Baron Archenholtz visited England he was surprised by the silence which reigned in clubs, inns, and coffee houses while men read the papers. Like other foreign visitors, he was also deeply impressed by the political knowledge shown by ordinary people; such free and informal debates were not common on the Continent.
The surge in newspaper reporting since the 1770s had been accompanied by a greater boldness when it came to ridiculing public figures. This was partly because both the government and opposition were prepared to pay newspaper editors handsomely for attacking their opponents. (Lord Shelburne's ministry lasted less than a year, but still managed to spend almost £2,000 on bribes to pamphleteers and editors. The government poured money into anti-Fox and anti-Georgiana propaganda. Its tame editors on newspapers such as the Morning Herald printed as many nasty stories about her as possible, and print sellers who were close to the government sold thousands of cartoons attacking her campaign. On April 3 print shops were displaying a new and particularly offensive set of cartoons depicting Georgiana in a lewd embrace with a Westminster tradesman. Those who balked at paying a shilling could see the drawings in coffee houses, gentlemen's clubs, barber shops, taverns, and ale houses. Some print sellers had crossed the line between satire and pornography and were simply using Georgiana as an excuse for titillation.
In a world which prized female modesty Georgiana's drubbing by the press shamed her family. It was not the fact of her canvassing but her method, which was too free and easy, too masculine. Lady Spencer had not objected when her daughters trooped off to Northampton to campaign for George: there they had conducted themselves in a seemly manner. "There is a dignity and delicacy which a woman should never depart from..." Lady Spencer told Harriet. "I know it has been from the best intention you have both been led to take the part you have done, but let this be a lesson to you...never to go in any matter beyond the strictest rules of propriety." Even Mrs. Montagu, a champion of women's education as well as a member of the Blue Stocking Circle, thought Georgiana had gone too far: "The Duchess of Devonshire has been canvassing in a most masculine manner, and has met with much abuse." But her disapproval of Georgiana did not affect her own activities on behalf of Pitt: "I hope we I shall succeed at York and in the country. I have done my endeavours where I had the smallest interest and my men will all be Pittite." Mary Hamilton recorded in her diary that she had "met the Dss of Devonshire in her Coach with a mob round her, canvassing in the Strand for Mr Fox. What a pity that any of our sex should ever forget what is due to female delicacy. The Scenes the Dss has been in lately, were they noted down, would not gain credit by those not in London at the time of the Election."
St. Albans was a safe haven where Georgiana could forget the recent scenes at Covent Garden. The scent of pot pourri and wood fires replaced the odour of urine and rotting food which pervaded the backstreets of Westminster. However, shortly after her arrival she received a summons from the party. They wanted her to return immediately. As it turned out, she had left just as votes were shifting away from Wray and in favour of Fox. The Duchess of Portland wrote, "I am happy to tell you of our success today for Westminster--we beat them by forty-five, which has put us into great spirits, you may believe. Everybody is so anxious for your return that I do hope you will come to town at the latest tomorrow evemng; for if we should lose this at last, they will think it is owing to your absence.
Lady Spencer could scarcely believe the effrontery of the Cavendishes, or their willingness to sacrifice Georgiana's health and reputation for political ends. She wrote a sharp reply, her bitterness heightened by the knowledge that if her husband were alive they would not treat the Spencer name in so cavalier a fashion. Georgiana did not wish to return; she was not convinced that her efforts had been the cause of Fox's change in fortune. Her refusal horrified the Whig grandees; as far as they were concerned, the success of the election depended upon her presence. The Duke of Portland humbled himself to make a personal plea:
The state of the Polls for these last two days is a better argument than any other I can give you for refusing to concur in your opinion of yourself. Every one is convinced that your Exertions have produced the very material alteration which has happened in Fox's favour, and will continue to preserve and improve it into a decisive victory, but be assured that if...a suspicion should arise of your having withdrawn yourself from the Election, a general languor would prevail, Despondency would succeed, and the Triumph of the Court would be the inevitable consequence. However it may seem, depend upon it, that this Representation is not exaggerated.
Lord John Cavendish wrote directly to Lady Spencer on behalf of the Cavendishes to apologize for the treatment of her daughters. "It was entirely to be imputed to some injudicious advisers who conducted them in an absurd and improper manner." But he was also blunt in claiming that "the censure and abuse has already been incurred; and that if any votes are lost for want of similar application" Georgiana would be blamed. He promised her that they had changed their methods: "the Ladies go early in the mornings to such persons as they are told are likely to be influenced by them, and talk to them at their coach doors, after which they go to a shop that over looks the polling place and look out of the window and encourage their friends." He also promised that the party would mount a better defence of Georgiana; henceforth no libel would go unchallenged.
Reluctantly, Lady Spencer allowed her daughter to set off in her coach back to London. Lord John Cavendish's assurances had not convinced either of them. "You cannot conceive how vexed I am at the newspaper abuse," Georgiana told her brother. She begged him not to read the lurid stories they printed about her or, if he did, not to believe them. She blamed the Portlands for forcing her to canvass in the first place, and cited their letters as justification for her return. But even though she hated to be a figure of ridicule, she longed for the theatre and excitement of mass canvassing. St. Albans had been a welcome rest for a few days but the election made ordinary life seem insipid.
In Westminster Georgiana ignored orders to remain in her carriage. She not only chatted with voters and argued cheerfully with them, she also took an interest in their businesses and families. She met their wives and children, became godmother to tens of infants, and impressed the women with her knowledge of such homely matters as nursing and discipline. Her success lay in her ability to empathize with strangers. "I delight myself with the Idea that your unaffected good humour, civility and attention to everyone will draw all hearts towards you," Lady Spencer acknowledged. She recognized her daughter's talent and pitied those who "have not that Vivyfying spark of benevolence about them, nor know what it is to love their fellow creatures abstracted." Georgiana also understood the power of money and she went with her friends from shop to shop making enormous purchases, deliberately overpaying while hinting at the promise of more if the proprietors voted for Fox. A visit to the milliners' shops in Tavistock Street with Harriet and the Ladies Waldegrave turned into a street party, with the shopkeepers hoisting foxskin muffs over their doors as a sign of their support.
The Morning Post complained that Georgiana and Harriet were guilty of more than paying over the odds. It accused them of threatening anti-Fox tradesmen with a Whig blacklist. Just as Lord John Cavendish had promised, the Morning Heraid and Daily Advertiser riposted on Georgiana's behalf. "The interference of the Duchess of Devonshire in behalf of Mr Fox is but a counterpart of those Roman Ladies who sued to Coriolanus for the welfare of the City of Rome," it intoned. The more scurrilous the abuse and sexual innuendo levelled at them, the loftier the rebuttals of the Foxite papers. For the Whigs, the contest was about the larger issues: Liberty, Patriotism, and Duty. In contrast, the pro-government papers concentrated on Georgiana, showing her kissing or bribing electors with favours. The Whig printers tried to raise her above the fray. In the cartoon "The Apotheosis of the Dutchess" she is lifted up to the clouds by the goddesses "Truth" and "Virtue" while "Scandal" lies grovelling on the ground clutching a copy of the Morning Post. The anti-Fox propagandists linked Georgiana's genius for the "common touch" with being common, hence her nickname of "Doll Common." In its daily report on the election the Morning Post persistently associated Georgiana with free sex: she was either "granting favours," caressing her "favourite member," looking for the "right handle in politics," or grasping the "fox's tail." It also implied that her unfeminine behaviour was causing her to grow a beard. On occasion, the Post was even a little ironic: "A certain Duke is quite charmed with the public and political conduct of his amiable Duchess, and calls for the Morning Post at breakfast to read the history of her Grace's canvass."
The one effective argument in the Whigs' counter-attack was the charge of misogyny and cowardice against the other side. On April 21 the Morning Herald scored a blow with this article:
The following curious paper was found in Catherine Street yesterday evening, supposed to have dropped from the pocket of a ministerial editor in the environs of that place:
The Whigs pursued the theme with considerable success, although it meant that they had to temper their attacks on Mrs. Hobart and Lady Salisbury. But their defence of Georgiana was anaemic compared to the robust insults made by the government press. The pious images depicting her making sacrifices to the Temple of Liberty failed to neutralize those of her making love to the electors of Westminster. There seemed to be twice the number of broadsheets and handbills attacking Georgiana, who was forced to send deputies to buy up the most offensive prints as soon as they appeared in shop windows.
In the streets, earthy ballads were sold by balladmongers, who strategically placed themselves near Georgiana's canvass. Gangs of rowdy sailors followed her coach, singing at the top of their voices:
I had rather kiss my Moll than she;
Remarkably, the government's efforts failed to turn the voters against Georgiana and her energetic canvass brought in the votes Fox needed. By April 22 he was almost level with Wray. Yet he remained despondent about his chances of winning, and one of the newspapers poked fun at him for his lack of enthusiasm: "all advertisements relative to the Westminster Election should be in the Duchess of Devonshire's name. She is the candidate to all intents and purposes. Mr Fox has not of himself polled a man this fortnight. He recovered somewhat when his lead over Wray increased to three figures. By the end of April the party's spirits were sufficiently high for them to host a dinner for over 800 electors at the freemason's Tavern. Fox sat at the top table facing his constituents so that everyone could see that the gruelling election had in no way dented his confidence. The party coffers had been raided to ensure the evening's success; the Morning Herald described it as "an uninterrupted scene of convivial mirth." Captain Morris led the revellers through a number of table thumping songs, and finally the whole company scrambled to its feet to toast "The Duchess of Devonshire and Portland, and other fair Supporters of the Whig cause."
The improved morale had a noticeable effect on the tone of Whig propaganda. For the first time since the beginning of the election a note of humour crept into the party's advertisements. On May 1 the Morning Herald informed its female readers that the "Ladies of Fashion, in the interest of Mr Fox's election, are distinguished by wearing a feather in exact imitation of a fox's brush." The only purveyor of this commodity was Mr. Carbery, plume-master to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, whose shop could be found at 34 Conduit Street, near Bond Street, while stocks lasted. With only three more weeks to go, supporters in Pitt's camp were understandably sulky. Some suggested that Georgiana should be arraigned before Parliament on charges of bribery. Pro-government newspapers increased their output, but the Whig counter-offensive was now working at maximum efficiency and anti-Georgiana posters scarcely survived an hour before being spotted and pasted over. The Post and the Herald were locked in battle, devoting almost their entire news section to rebuttals and counter-attacks.
Through it all, Georgiana and the other women continued to canvass. Only Lavinia Spencer, who could not hide her jealousy of Georgiana, still thought that the election might swing the other way. "I found Lady Spencer very unhappy indeed about the Duchess and the Westminster Election," she told George. "She is so abused for meddling and so hooted at for her avowed interference that Lady Spencer is miserable about it." Lavinia had to admit that Fox was leading in the polls, but "he knows, and so do all the Party that he cannot carry it and this provokes the Dss and Lady Spencer that the Portlands and Cavendishes oblige her to interfere when they know it is for nothing."
However, by the close of polling Hood was first and Fox second, the clear winner over Wray by more than 200 votes. The final figures were: Lord Hood--6,694; Mr. Fox--6,234; Sir Cecil Wray--5,998. Lady Spencer no longer cared about the outcome and simply wanted Georgiana out of the limelight. "Why should you not shirk the winding up and say that you are unable to hold out any longer?" she asked. "There is no law against impossibilities. I am really afraid of your hurting yourselves, and shall be heartily glad if you have both the courage to withstand all the flimsy arguments...by coming down here immediately." This was not what Georgiana wanted to hear just when all her efforts were proving to be justified. The Duke of Portland also insisted that she must stay: the party could show no hint of regret or embarrassment, whatever its private feelings about the Westminster campaign. It had to be a clear-cut moral victory--especially since they had done so badly in the rest of the country. Eighty-nine Whigs, nicknamed "Fox's Martyrs," had lost their seats. Even the leadership was not immune: in a humiliating defeat for the Cavendishes, Lord John had lost his seat at York. Fox, someone had heard, "can't bear to think of politics." The future looked bleak for the Whigs, which was all the more reason for squeezing every last bit of advantage out of their victory at Westminster.
As soon as the poll closed a triumphant procession of the entire party marched from St. Paul's down the Strand, past Carlton House, the Prince of Wales's residence, which they circled three times, and along Piccadilly to Devonshire House. Twenty-four horsemen led the way, all dressed in blue and buff with foxtails hanging from their hats. Behind them followed a brass band, playing the Whig songs of the election, and then Fox in a decorated chair, garlanded with laurels and other senatorial insignia. Witnesses were shocked to see that his friends had dressed themselves in servants' liveries and were driving his carriage. Hundreds of supporters marched behind, many of them carrying banners proclaiming FOX AND LIBERTY, and SACRED TO FEMALE PATRIOTISM, in reference to the women's contribution. The aristocracy followed, dressed in full regalia, having ordered out their state carriages for the occasion. The Prince's carriage brought up the rear of the parade accompanied by every member of his household, all in uniform. Everyone was shouting and waving their hats at the thousands of spectators who watched them from windows lining the route. The Prince of Wales and Georgiana, meanwhile, had slipped through the streets in order to greet the marchers when they reached Devonshire House. According to one witness, the two perched themselves on ladders set against the walls of the house, holding on with one and and waving laurels with the other. It was a novel sight, not least because there was none of the unruly behaviour usually associated with large crowds. The marchers applauded the speeches and then departed relatively peacably leaving property unscathed, with the exception of Lord Temple's windows. The conservative London Chronicle could not help
praising the Whigs for this feat of organization: "The Festival concluded as it was conducted throughout, with peace and harmony. There was neither riot nor disorder. At night almost the whole of the windows of the principal streets were illuminated, and there really seemed to be a general testimony of joy on the occasion."
The Prince of Wales, who had been too drunk for most of the election to be of any help, opened up Carlton House for several nights of dinners and balls. All the celebrants appeared in buff and blue, which for once solved the problem of casual gatecrashers. One of the highlights was a sumptuous banquet for 600 guests. Mrs. Crewe lived up to her reputation for wit when she replied to the Prince's toast of "True blue and Mrs Crew" with "Buff end blue and all of you." If anyone remained ignorant of the purpose behind such a determined display of spirit, it was clear by the following week on the day of the state opening of Parliament. The King had to go through St. James's Park past Carlton House, to reach Parliament. To embarrass him, the Prince held a fête-champêtre in his gardens with music and dancing. The solemnity of the state occasion was disrupted by the sound of revelry coming from the other side of the brick wall.
Nevertheless, on the first day of Parliament the Whig ranks were so depleted they could only muster a miserable 114 votes against the government's majority of almost 300. Pitt's first speech to the House was relaxed and self-assured. He moved his listeners to frequent laughter with descriptions of the Westminster election and Georgiana's canvass. She would not be arraigned for bribery, but he refused to allow the election results to stand. Fox was barred from taking his seat until after an official scrutiny. It was a delaying tactic by Pitt, a piece of petty vindictiveness against the conquered. After several months the House grew tired of the game and voted to allow Fox his seat. (Fox achieved some consolation in suing the bailiff of Westminster and winning £2,000.)
Georgiana scarcely registered the fact that she had escaped prosecution; the end of the election had not stopped her hounding in the press or removed her responsibilities. Although the core membership of the party was stable, there were at least a hundred more supporters who had to be prevented from defecting. Georgiana used lavish entertainments and her own popularity to entice waverers back to meetings at Devonshire House, but turtle dinners and gambling nights could not disguise the fact that the Whigs would never be in power while the King reigned. Lord North remained loyal but many of his followers felt there was no point in supporting the defunct coalition.
The Fox-North alliance had been a disaster for the Whigs, but it was also the defining moment for their ideology. Henceforth the Foxites would always hark back to 1784: their defeat became enshrined as a near-mythological battle against a despotic King and his lackey William Pitt. For Georgiana 1784 was also a defining year--the personal cost of the Westminster election had been far greater for her than anyone else, but it also established her position. Before the election her participation in party politics had been haphazard and dependent upon circumstance. Her duties as a wife, her friendships with Fox and the Prince of Wales, and her celebrity as the leader of the ton had placed opportunities in her way. But it was only after the government had recognized her potency as a campaigner that Georgiana achieved political status in her own right. Her unofficial ties to the Whigs were now official, as the Duke of Portland had made clear when he recalled her to London. Fanny Burney explained Georgiana's position in just a few words: she was the "head of opposition public."
At least eleven women had canvassed daily, including Harriet, the Duchess of Portland, and the Waldegrave sisters. Lady Salisbury and Mrs. Hobart had run a less successful but still a high-profile campaign for Pitt. Their participation discounts the argument put forward by some historians that it was the fact that Georgiana had campaigned for a non-relative which enraged eighteenth-century society. There was no taboo on female participation in politics, only a great deal of hypocrisy.
So [Harriet teased Lord Granville Leveson Gower many years later when she heard about his method of campaigning], your Ladies assist you in canvassing? I thought, my dear Granville, you were one of the people who thought my Sister and my canvassing even for our Brother, certainly for Mr Fox, so scandalous a thing that it could never be forgot or forgiven. How I have heard you... exclaim at the impropriety and indelicacy of both our conduct and the people who could suffer us to do so horrible a thing! Yet, you see, in Election fervour you can take up the same means you were so shocked at in others.
The other women canvassers neither endured the same abuse as Georgiana, nor won the same plaudits; certainly no one libelled Lady Salisbury, who was briefly the Prince of Wales's mistress, with the accusation of nymphomania. Georgiana was marked out for several reasons. First, she brought her own personality to the campaign in an era when the only women who had public personas were actresses and courtesans. Since her marriage she had deliberately courted attention through her patronage of the arts and her flair for fashion. She had appeared as herself and not as a sacrifice to female duty, and this had affronted traditionalists and made her vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, it was one thing for Fox to recast his public image to become the "Man of the People"--the sobriquet neatly encapsulated his populist rhetoric and reforming ideas--but the term could not cross over. A "Woman of the People" meant a prostitute, hence the plethora of prints which portrayed Georgiana as sexually available.
Georgiana had also challenged eighteenth-century attitudes to class distinction. Treating the voters as her equals was a serious transgression against propriety. The accusations of bribery were mere stock in trade for every election. The Duchess of Northumberland used to drop trinkets from her window to the waiting crowd below, and those who returned them received a double bounty, but unlike Georgiana she never shared any intimate moments with the voters, chatting over a pint of ale or a tipple of gin. Indeed, the Morning Post calculated Georgiana's daily alcoholic take and wondered how she could remain standing. No one as yet had any idea that France would soon be convulsed by revolution, but Georgiana's encouragement of her inferiors still seemed very dangerous.
It was these innovations--her own cult of celebrity and her democratic approach--which differentiated Georgiana then and later as a female pioneer in electoral politics. Her methods were too modern for eighteenth-century society. She was never allowed to canvass openly in London again, nor did other aristocratic women imitate her example. It would be another hundred years before women once more ventured boldly into street politics as Georgiana had not been afraid to do in 1784.
Excerpted from Georgiana by Amanda Foreman. Copyright © 1999 by Amanda Foreman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.