Last spring, on the same trip where I slogged through the rain in the Lake District, I also had a posher interlude. I visited the Chatsworth Estate in the Peak District. (Notice how many Districts they have in England?). This is not normally my cup of tea. (Sigh, puns already.) I *prefer* hiking 15 miles a day through the mud to museums, galleries, plaque-reading & etc. But several years ago, I came across pictures of the estate online and was smitten. Add the fact that Chatsworth was likely the inspiration for Pemberley, that the current Duchess is an actual Mitford sister, and you can actually stay in the Hunting Tower on the estate, and…well. When I found out that it was an easy distance from my in-laws in Yorkshire, I knew we had to go.
One of the most well-known residents of Chatsworth was Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. By the standards of any era, Georgiana was a larger-than-life figure. Like any properly fascinating personality, she was a heady mix of admirable and out-of-control:
Society beauty & fashion trend-setter. She set the fashion for extravagantly high wigs sprouting ostrich feathers. Whatever she wore was reported in the newspapers and copied slavishly.
Compulsive gambler. From the beginning of her marriage, Georgiana could not resist the card table. She repeatedly ran up debts, begged money from friends to pay them off, lied about them to her husband, and ran up more. The outstanding debt upon her death totalled nearly 20,000 pounds. Wikipedia estimates this amount as today’s equivalent of £3,720,000.
Best friend of her husband’s mistress. The Duke, the Duchess, and her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (‘Bess’), lived and traveled as a threesome for 25 years. In 1785, both Georgiana and Bess were pregnant by the Duke at the same time. When Georgiana was in the doghouse with the Duke for her gambling debts or other indiscretions, she appealed to Bess to keep peace in the household.
Political hostess and fundraiser. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the Whig party, arranging for rivals to meet, for strategies to arise, and money to flow. She was also the first woman to campaign for a political candidate, in an election in 1784, for which she was castigated and caricatured in the press for her unwomanly-ness.
Unfaithful wife. The Duke was not the only one to find comfort outside their marriage. In 1792, Georgiana gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Eliza Courtney, fathered by future Prime Minister, Charles Grey. The Duchess was forced to give her up to be raised by Grey’s aunt and uncle, though she visited her daughter in secret.
Diarist & writer. She found time to write a novel, ‘The Sylph,’ in 1780. As a close confidante of the Prince of Wales, her diaries were invaluable to modern historians in reconstructing the happenings in the palace during the Regency Crisis & the serial illnesses of King George the III, presented to modern audiences in the fantastic, “The Madness of King George.” What-what?
Rockhound, mineralogist, & amateur chemist. I can’t really get behind her personally with the chemistry, but I think it’s a pretty impressive hobby for an 18th century noblewoman, and I do like a good rock. So did Georgiana. She “endowed Chatsworth with a collection of stones and minerals of museum quality,”* many of which are displayed in the halls of Chatsworth House, near the Faerie Queen portrait.
I leave you with more views of the estate
*Amanda Foreman, The Duchess, p.269