ou were working on a doctoral thesis at Oxford on an entirely different subject---race relations--when you found a letter written by Georgiana. How did you find Georgiana amongst that subject?
I was writing a thesis about attitudes towards race and culture in eighteenth-century London and by sheer coincidence I happened to come across some of her letters. I was reading a biography of her lover, Charles Grey, who had proposed abolition of the slave trade. She figured quite prominently in this biography but the writer described her in a very derogatory way and he kind of made fun of her and dismissed her. I felt from the letters that were quoted in this book that the author's tone completely failed to match the intelligence and vitality of her in letters. I felt very strongly that something really wrong had taken place, a kind of historical white out; it got my blood going and I wanted to discover what she was actually like. So from that point on I started investigating her and tried to find anything I could either about her friends, her time, anything that mentioned her in any way. Before I knew it, I neglected my thesis and was only working on her. Six months later my advisors noticed; I explained and they took a kindly view and invited me back.
The Whig party was in favor of many liberal notions not least liberty for the States. Was Grey's position on abolition that of the Whig party as well?
Yes, it was a Whig position. I was always attracted to the Whigs. For one thing they had a great soft spot for America. They supported American freedom, they supported religious tolerance, and they were against the slave trade. I always felt they were my kind of people.
Was there anything in Georgiana's childhood that would suggest that she was to become so powerful and present in that world?
From the moment Georgiana was born she had a charisma, an ability to attract people. First of all, she enthralled her own mother. In fact, her mother wrote that she would never love another child the way she loved her "little G." And there was something amazingly captivating and winning about her from the age of six months. Wherever she went, whether it was to other little children's parties or to France, people thought that it was a weird phenomenon that she had an ability to attract attention.
It has been said that her self-destructive compulsions such as gambling and drinking were a rebellion against the Duke. Was he truly someone she needed to push herself so forcefully against?
It was less that she was rebelling against the Duke and more that she was punishing him for not being the ideal husband that she thought he was going to be when she married him at age sixteen. She rebelled against his family, who wanted her to be demure and obedient.
Was she an obedient child?
She was obedient. Georgiana suffered from a profound shock when she was seven years old. Her parents had suddenly gone off on a trip for a year. Her father suffered from a severe depression and her mother thought she could help him by taking him to Italy for a year but she never explained this to Georgiana. She just left her with her grandmother. As a result, Georgiana felt she had been a really bad girl. From that moment on she became obsessively obedient and terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing without actually knowing what the wrong thing was at any given time. That was what made her so obedient as a child and so easily manipulated as an adult. She had an inarticulate fear of doing the wrong thing and displeasing people. It was not a fear of doing the wrong thing socially; it was a fear of displeasing people.
So her habits were a response to the Duke because he ignored their marriage and continued the habits of his bachelorhood. He did not make her the center of his universe.
I think so.
Even as her debts mounted she distributed allowances to a roster of people of whose needs she had been made aware.
She never wanted to displease and always wanted to help people. She consistently had an amazingly humane response to anyone in need. At the same time she would borrow money and not pay it back for years.
Why did her friends keep lending her money to hide her gambling debts from the Duke?
A lot of them broke with her because of it. And a lot of them would beg with her and plead with her to stop gambling. Money was the bane of her existence. It was worse than the fly in the ointment; it was the livid scar on the face. It colored and touched and partly ruined everything she did.
These debts followed her across the sea to France. She did make remarkably close relationships with the French court upon her first visit at age twelve.
She was a best friend of Marie Antoinette. They were always exchanging letters and fashion tips. It was Marie Antoinette that sent Georgiana the muslin dress and which Georgiana wore and it became the fashion statement.
It was a fashion that could not get off the ground until she wore it and it was an extreme departure for the fashion of the day. In fact it resembled an undergarment more than a dress and was incredibly risqué.
For all that Georgiana was desperate to please, she also had an unerring ability to know how far things could go. So, though she liked to shock people--such as by wearing this dress--something within her must have known she could get away with it.
Did her relationship with the French court carry over to political involvement?
She had connections with the Royalists. I'm not sure how much influence she had politically with the French although after the revolution she had a lot of influence. She was among those who had the royal family protected and she wrote letters to Lafayette. In fact, the Marquis de Lafayette was captured many years later and was imprisoned in Austria as a revolutionary and she campaigned the British government for his release. She was very involved in international politics.
This at a time when the French and the British were bitter foes.
She never really accepted international divides. She was very popular wherever she went, in whatever country; she was a star instantly.
Why did her younger brother, George, have an almost parental authority on her and their younger sister, Harriet?
He had control over all the money; they were given their portions and that was it so he became the head of the family. They both looked up to him and admired him as a sensible person. They adored him and knew he was smart and solid and all the things they weren't. George was a straightforward politician and the avenues were very laid out for him. Georgiana had to carve things out for herself and that position can be very intimidating. Georgiana was acting in a time when women were expected to be involved in politics.
But not at the level from which she was conducting and influencing politics.
That is the story of Georgiana. She entered into the world in the way she was expected to and then she always took it to the nth degree in every way whether it was fashion, politics, gambling...she took it to another place.
Why and how did she do this?
It was because she was all heart, a big, huge heart. She had a skin missing. She was very, very sensitive. Everything was writ large for her, nothing was small. Everyone said of Georgiana that she seemed too big for any room that she happened to be in. She was this great big, raw, beating heart. I think that everyone who ever met her felt lucky that they had met her. She was an experience and everyone that came across her knew that they'd had one.
The marriage of Georgiana and the Duke of Devonshire was shared by a third party, Lady Elizabeth Foster, otherwise known as Bess. They met Bess in Bath; how did she enter their lives so swiftly and so deeply?
Bess had circumstances that made her a sympathetic figure. She was the daughter of the fourth earl of Bristol. She came from an aristocratic family but she had no money. She had married a comfortably-off Irishman and the marriage failed miserably and her husband returned to Ireland. Her husband had taken away her two sons as the father could in those days because they had control of the children no matter what. Her father was a bit of a rogue and refused to give her any income as well and so she was really living on air in a precarious situation in her sister's household in Bath. Bess's rather romantic and dreadful situation appealed to Georgiana's sense of charity, romance and justice. She wanted to help her new friend.
When Georgiana spent two years in exile for the birth of her illegitimate daughter it was written in woe that it seemed the entire world was in love with Georgiana except for her husband.
Georgiana married the Duke because she thought he was like her father, who was very reserved and very cold on the outside and very warm on the inside. The Duke was very cold on the outside and very cold on the inside. He did have an interior but it was so labyrinthine that she was never going to find her way in, though Bess would. They both needed so much attention but neither could give it because they both needed it so much. That is why the marriage was such a disaster.
He appears very cold and remote--so much so that it is a surprise that Bess could enter the fortress by sycophancy.
He didn't know what real love was; he didn't have it as a child. He had a false idea of love to begin with, a constructed idea.
How did they escape censure for their triangular living arrangement?
They got away with it socially because he was one of the richest men in England and the very rich can get away with almost anything. His own wife was prepared to countenance it as if nothing were happening to incur discord: "We are three very great friends living in a house together because we are all very great friends." No one was about to say aloud: "No, that's not true."
Do you believe that Georgiana was truly unaware of Bess's questionable character?
I think she was aware of it but she also believed that Bess's good nature was stronger and bigger than her bad nature and she preferred to believe in the good nature.
Why do you suppose that she trusted Bess as a conduit within her very own marriage when Bess was her husband's mistress and was clearly yearning to replace her as head of the household?
It is an amazing thing that Georgiana believed that Bess would do as she thought she would do and Georgiana's overwhelming belief convinced Bess, in spite of herself, that she should do what was asked. If it hadn't of been for Georgiana's extraordinary presence, her love, her charisma, her devotion to Bess, Bess would have dissed her. She would have gotten one over her all the time. Anytime she wanted to do that she would be confronted by this woman who was winning everything she wanted and yet claimed no ownership. She is like the thief in the night whose owner says, "Please, take it. You are welcome to it. You don't have to steal it." The thief doesn't know what to do. That is Georgiana and Bess.
In your portrait, Bess seems to play both Georgiana and the Duke very carefully and also seems incapable of devotion without tangible rewards, but she has a great many affairs.
I think Bess was sexually voracious and would sleep with anybody.
So much historical writing has purified and, as a result, virginized the eighteenth century.
In many ways, that particular era, the 1750s and 1800s is one of the sexiest eras in the second millennium. Everybody is overwhelmed with the idea of self-fulfillment because of the Enlightenment. They are doing the best they can to find it. It's before the age of evangelical religion and before the age of psychoanalysis so it doesn't have the self-consciousness of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are just doing it and they don't know why; they just are and I find that really fascinating.
Georgiana was the beginning and end of an era. Queen Victoria's reign shut down the liberal freedoms that marked the Enlightenment and the opportunity for a woman like Georgiana to assume a powerful role.
Georgiana defined a political era and a fashion era and for all of her mistakes, she is such a child of her time: the gambling, the sexual license, the art and the music, every thing she does defines the moment because she is so much and utterly of it.
You mention a novel written by Georgiana, anonymously, that you believe to be a roman à clef.
The romantic novel she wrote, The Sylph, is like every other terrible romantic novel written at that time but it is more terrible because they are real stories. There is one of a woman being beaten up by her husband in order to get more money out of her or a husband that sells the rights to his wife's body to his creditors to settle a gambling debt. I know it's true; it is a roman à clef and that is so extraordinary.
Generally, these novels do not remain anonymous for long, though the author may never confess to having written them and thereby exposing their contemporaries along the way. Where did Georgiana, the young bride, find the courage to publish?
She wanted to expose the hypocrisy of her surroundings. She was very young and felt unloved. Her husband was having affairs with her friends and she wrote that book out of a sense of loneliness. She wanted everyone who thought she was on top of the heap to know that the heap was a dunghill.
What is the story line of The Sylph?
A young country girl happens, by a series of coincidences, to meet a rake in the countryside. She has a fair amount of money but she has never been to London. The rake marries her and he expects her to move to London and to conform to the ways of eighteenth-century high society. She's pure and innocent and doesn't want to and the marriage falls apart in about five seconds. The story is of her travails as an unloved, pure-hearted, innocent wife in this moral cesspit.
There lies her accusation to the Duke who was a heavy drinker, a gambler and adulterer who did not depart from those activities even on their wedding night.
Well, he certainly wasn't a figure of moral rectitude but neither do I think he ever expected her to become a nun. All he wanted from her was not to get pregnant with another man's child and not to spend all the family money, which, on the face of it, is not such a terrible thing to ask.
Georgiana came perilously close to losing everything her family had to her gambling debts. There were various aspects to her. She was very needy but also greatly magnanimous. She assisted many people with annual stipends and never turned away a plea for cash and yet she allowed her friends to go belly up by not repaying her loans. She would then borrow from someone else with the understanding that the money was going toward her debts and take it instead to the table and lose it again. She fretted but never once betrayed a shred of honorable action in this regard, her family, her children and their legacy be damned.
I know, I know, it's just shameful and that is what made her family and her friends just weep for her. It was just tragic. She was completely consistent in that everything she did lost money. Gambling wasn't considered strange when everyone did it. It's like drinking where at the end of the night one person is drunk. With her it was gambling. In the night she would have gambled away everything. She has all these problems and she doesn't know what they are. We do because we have labels for them. Desperate needs create desperate acts. No one would act as she did if the cards were stacked up properly. She's a celebrity without knowing what a celebrity is. She's a gambling addict before she knows what that is. She was a bulimic before she knew what one was and the way she tries to find what she is and decide what she is and then find ways to not be what she is, all without help or guidance or hindsight or knowledge, fascinates me.
Did her involvement in political discourse and strategy consume her enough to abate her gambling patterns?
She stopped gambling upon her return from exile and the birth of her daughter Eliza by Charles Grey. First of all, she was in social disgrace so she couldn't go out. She was under lock and key which helped an awful lot. Then she was incredibly ill and she lost one eye and was disfigured and then the Whig party collapsed and there were to be no more politics. She is at her lowest point. She had no more defenses. There were no crutches. She suddenly had to be with herself. The first couple of years were kind of hard. Finally, she came to terms with who she was and then the gambling became less of a burning need. She started to become a whole person. She used to say that she felt very uncomfortable having one-to-one conversations. She could speak in front of thousands easily but one-to-one she feared they might get past her defenses. It was too intense for her. Those fears and insecurities all dissipated once she had come to terms with herself.
What did she come to terms with? What did she finally understand?
I think she understood that she didn't have to please everyone in order to be loved. She understood that it wasn't necessary and that her self-worth wasn't based on the number of people who knew who she was or shouted her name or read about her in the papers. I think that, formerly, she had come to believe that her public image was all she was.
So she not only read her tabloid press but she believed what they wrote?
Oh yes, definitely. She had the famous person's problem of not being able to tell the difference between who she was and who the public thought she was, of being confused between the two.
How would you sum her up?
If I had to sum her up, I would say that she is a woman who was born with every advantage in life and, somehow, by having been given every advantage, none of it meant anything to her. She spent the first part of her life throwing away these advantages and destroying herself. It is the rise and the fall of Georgiana. It is only in the fall, when she has destroyed everything, that she discovers what her essence is and who she really is and she can become a woman, not an idol, not a mascot, not an icon...not any of these things. She is herself and that is when she finds real fulfillment, at the end of her life.
What did you learn from her?
I learned that the struggle of becoming who you are is a) lifelong and b) universal and that was very inspiring. As much as she accomplished in her life, much of it was created under incredible limitations that she simply did not see. Hers was a great blindness.
interview by Catherine McWeeney
|Photo credit © Brian Smith|