Will the Real Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Please Stand Up?

Kiera Knightley as The Duchess of Devonshire

Movie review preface, by Maura Graber

Several weeks back, I asked Demita if she could do her next review on The Duchess. The whole conversation came up after Demita shared her OMG thoughts having recently watching the movie and I had just received an email from another etiquette consultant I trained, telling me that she had just watched The Duchess yet again, and that she had probably "watched it hundreds of times". She loves the movie, whereas I have watched it only once. Finding it so depressing, I have not been able to watch it again. Aside from a very few classics and favorites which end ominously, I prefer happy endings if I am going spend time watching a movie. The Duchess didn't fall into that category. In fact, as I have been helping Demita hone her sleuthing skills, we have found that Geogiana Spencer's life was a mess that would rival anything on reality television today.  The following is Demita Usher's review:

"Electioneering Duchess"... "Stolen Duchess"...  "Duchess as Portrayed by Hollywood"... The "Two Duchesses"…. Will the Real Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, Please Stand Up?

                             By Demita Usher 
When I first embarked on this journey to write a review about the movie based on Georgiana Spencer's life, I thought it would be a simple review to write, with  a few historical notations added for good measure, to compare her real  life to the Hollywood version. I quickly discovered nothing could be further from the truth. The more I investigated (thanks for the continual push for more research, Maura) the deeper the rabbit hole became. I found the movie depiction of the Duchess of Devonshire was a bit like reading the Cliffs Notes of her life, skirting over huge amounts of information about who she really was historically.

There were many complexities that made up the life of this fascinating woman. I understand that there is only so much you can share in less than two hours without making it a "Harry Potter" movie or "Lord of the Rings", but there is so much that was either unknown or overlooked about her life, I feel the need to bring the real story of Georgiana's life to our readers.

The Hollywood version presents viewers with a fresh faced Georgiana, enjoying a life of privilege with her young friends at her parents’ home. She is summoned by her mother who informs her that her marriage to the Duke of Devonshire has been arranged, and she soon will be the Duchess of Devonshire. She expresses a joyful excitement at her future royal position. After her wedding, she discovers the Duke to be cold, distant, and lacking in the affection that would assist in developing a loving bond with his new wife. She shares her concerns with her mother who assures her that once she produces a male heir, her husband’s cold approach to  intimacy will no longer be a problem as those encounters will lessen over time.

As she prepares to produce a male heir for her husband, the Duke presents her with the first of her royal duties, stepmother to his young daughter who is a product of a liaison with his maid. She is uncertain how to be a mother to the child and if she expresses any opposition, it is clear that there will be no negotiation. Her husband expects her to raise this child as her own. It is during this time her husband’s infidelity comes to the forefront and she is confronted with yet another situation that she must adjust to and accept.

The movie fast forwards to a few years later, and we find the Duchess has given birth to three daughters, but alas no male heir. In addition to her duties as a wife and mother, she is also a member of an elite sisterhood of women who were known as “Political Hostesses”.  Hannah Greig,  historical advisor for the film, stated that, “Aristocratic women in the 18th century were responsible for the political life of the nation.”  This group of women were wives of royalty and aristocrats and wielded much influence and had the power to sway elections in the favor of certain candidates through the elaborate dinner parties and social gatherings they hosted. It seems that good food, drink and stimulating conversation could almost buy an election. These women knew the power they held.

During this time Georgiana befriended Lady Elizabeth Foster who was estranged from her husband and children. After inviting Lady Foster to stay at the manor she shares with the Duke and their children, Georgiana experiences a very painful betrayal. The Duke and Elizabeth have an affair. With careless disregard for his wife's feelings, not only does the Duke refuse to make Elizabeth leave, but they continue the affair. With Lady Foster's three sons also living in the home, a polygamist lifestyle is suddenly the new normal in Georgiana's life.  

In the midst of all this chaos, Georgiana eventually bears the Duke a son and begins an affair with politician Charles Grey. She becomes pregnant by Grey, is forced into exile until the child is born and then commanded to give the child to Charles’ family to raise. It was made clear that she had to end the affair with Grey, or face divorce and permanent separation from her other children. She complied, settled back into her role at the manor, and somehow made peace with Elizabeth. The movie ends with the two women and their children playing happily on the manor grounds. This saga defies all logic, and would have a long run as a daily soap opera or popular reality show. Where are the cameras when you need them?!?
Indiana County Gazette, 1892

In reality, the Duchess was truly a fashion trendsetter for her time. So much so, that women’s fans had her likeness printed on them. In the movie she was called “The Empress of Fashion”, though I have not located any historical evidence to support this moniker. In fact, there were times when her fashion statements caused her to be publicly censured because she wore garments that had such a masculine influence, it sent the upper crust of society into a real tizzy.

Quizzically, after her death in 1806 and throughout the 1800s, Georgiana was referred to as the “Electioneering Duchess” in newspapers and periodicals. Why she was given this name in the political arena, above all of the other political hostesses of her time, is a bit of a mystery. Though she was charming and influential, her actions many times got her into hot water. She was accused of overstepping her bounds to get votes. She was accused of trading  kisses for votes. Some went so far as to accuse her of having slept with men to sway their votes. Whatever her methods, the results spoke for themselves and I am not certain if the title given to her as the “Electioneering Duchess” was a compliment or an insult. If the caricatures of her at the time were any indication, it seems more like a slap in the face, so to speak. By the end of the 1800s, a portrait of the Duchess, painted by Gainsborough, had been stolen.  For the better part of the early 1900s, Georgiana was referred to as the "Stolen Duchess", referencing the painting.
The real woman who went from being a “rock star” of her day to a missing relic in the form of a painting in the 20th century was a lot more diverse and complex than any movie could accurately articulate. What I enjoyed most about  the movie was  beautiful costuming and the opportunity to view intimate snapshots into 18th century life. I found the undertone of the movie to be more bitter than sweet, because the social norms of the time greatly restricted Geogiana's freedoms to make healthy and happy decisions for herself, something my 21st century mind could not live with if I were in the same position today.  The movie also  gave me a profound appreciation that I do have the freedom to choose who I love and who I marry. I highly recommend viewing the commentaries that accompany the movie. Ralph Fiennes, as well as the historians who worked on the film, provide some very helpful insights with regard to the attitudes and mindsets that shaped that time in history.
As I reflected on what I thought to be injustices that could have easily been resolved if she had just divorced her husband, taken her kids and sued for alimony and child support, I discovered that in order to understand her story, you have to put yourself the frame of mind of the 18th century, the protocol of the time. The expectations, the roles of men and women as they truly were, and not how Hollywood spoon feeds it to us, nice and neatly package with just enough tension to keep us watching while omitting the harsh reality of what is was really like to live in a world where privilege could be a prison and true freedom was a fantasy.

The etiquette for the time dictated to men and women so differently. When it came to infidelity and child custody for example, it clearly benefited the men.  Though it was a known fact that men and women took on lovers though married, women were judged more harshly in the court of public opinion when it came to such matters and were not as easily forgiven. If a woman took a lover before producing an heir for her husband, it could land her in a world of trouble. The Duke kept the Duchess in exile for two years after she gave birth to her lover's child, while he was able to freely continue to have an adulterous relationship with her best friend and father children with her. 

After Geogianna returned from exile, she resumed her life, which included continuing to accommodate her best friend sleeping with her husband. These types of arrangements must have been accepted as normal by those in society. Even Napoleon, when writing to the Devonshire manor, addressed both Georgiana and Elizabeth by the term the “two Duchesses”. It seemed to be common knowledge that there were two women there, both living as the Duke's wives.

When it came to financial rights, the women had a lot more to lose. If divorce was eminent, custody of the children was given to the man automatically, something our 21st century minds cannot comprehend in this era where women seem to get the kids, the house, the car, the dog, and even the cat 99% of the time. During that period, if a man divorced you,  the poorhouse could be your next residence.   

Before she produced a male heir, Georgiana had written to her sister that though she loved living at Devonshire, she did not feel as it was really “her” home too. The tone of the letter made it clear that technically she did not  have a “claim” to her home until she bore her husband a son, despite the fact she had borne him three daughters. 

When it came to politics, women were not taken seriously and had no right to vote so they wielded their voting power through their feminine influence which proved to be a powerful force to be reckoned with because again due to the protocol of the time, opportunities for women were limited so they had to get creative to make their voices heard.

The more I read, the more I see that in many ways  her story could read like the life of any woman in a influential but limited position in the 21st century; Georgiana had a drug problem and was addicted to laudanum, she battled infertility, she had a cheating husband, she developed a gambling problem, she had affairs, she bore an illegitimate child and was heavily involved in politics. She was indeed a walking reality show waiting to happen. The Real-Housewives-of-Name- Your-Favorite city or state, have nothing on her. 

After her death, her name was not  mentioned in popular conversation for close to 60 years. When her name did resurface, it was in reference to a painting of her that had gone missing for many years and resurfaced. No mention of who she really was, what she contributed in her lifetime was even really discussed, just a painted portrait of her that people fought and /or debated about.
Gainsborough's famous portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire
  During this excavation, I discovered that Georgiana was more than a pretty lady in pretty clothes. She was also a songwriter, a poet and a published author.  She was a lady of many talents and many sorrows who died blind and in debt, but despite her difficulties, she lived her life despite the boundaries that the social graces of the time that surrounded her, but her life was far from perfect and there was no Hollywood ending with a round of tag on the manor grounds.


  1. Another crackerjack review by Demita Usher! She is very astute. I loved the fashions in the movie and the period settings. I have to admit that I too have watched the movie many times. Dax thought the husband a horribly vain brute which is a blessing. If he had liked this man, I would have wondered who exactly I have been married to these many years!

    Fond regards-
    Mira & Dax

  2. Great info on the 18th century royals. Drugs, scandalous affairs... just like modern day reality shows. Too bad this woman lived in the era she did. No rights at all. I would have given the Duke the boot and took the kids with me.

  3. Had to Google Laudanum. Sounds like it was some very addictive medicine. Wow. Amazed she got anything done.

  4. The entire article was lost on me after the author claimed Georgiana gave birth to three daughters. In fact she only gave birth to two daughters by her husband the Duke, the third daughter she was raising was his by a maid, born before they were even married. The girls mother died and the child, Charlotte, was brought into the home and Georgiana was expected to raise her as her own, which she did, and came to love the child. Georgiana did give birth to a third daughter, fathered by Charles Grey but only after she provided a male heir for her husband, the Duke.


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