Lady Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, duchess of Devonshire (detail)
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Lady Georgiana Spencer: charisma and unhappiness of a duchess

Let’s talk about her, the iconic Lady Georgiana Spencer (1757-1806), first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire.

Familiarly called Lady Gee (a strange coincidence that a famous descendant of the Spencer family, Lady Diana, was called Lady D.), Georgiana Cavendish was an English noblewoman who enjoyed great popularity among her contemporaries for her beauty and elegance, for her charisma, intelligence and sagacity, for her exquisite and extravagant taste in dressing and high hairstyles (she introduced, for example, the three-foot tower headdress).

One of the compliments that she remembered most often was given to her by an Irish dustman, who – as the Duchess was getting out of the carriage – exclaimed: “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes! “.

Georgiana married the Duke of Devonshire on 6 June 1774. The wedding was considered an event of great charm and prestige in England at the time but it turned out to be very unhappy, as the couple was divided by incompatibility of character and also due to the initial duchess’s difficulties in having children, especially in giving birth to the much desired male heir.

The Dukes of Cavendish had two daughters, Georgiana in 1783, Harriet in 1785, and the longed-for heir William only in 1790.

Up to now it’s almost everything normal, if it weren’t for the fact that Georgiana’s best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster “Bess”, arrived at the Cavendish house, becoming the duke’s official lover, in a ménage à trois recognized and tolerated by all three protagonists.

Bess had two children by the duke and Georgiana herself had an affair with Charles Gray, giving birth to a daughter, Eliza Courtney (do you know that Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, descends from Georgiana’s illegitimate daughter?)

An important friend in Georgiana’s life was her peer age Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Together with Madame de Polignac (“Petit Po”), the two friends exchanged gifts and locks of hair as sign of friendship. In the Duchess’s letters, the Queen was referred to as Mrs Brown and the two remained linked until the Queen’s sad death.

Both style icons, they were a constant source of inspiration for each other. The use of feathers among the hair, for example, was a trend introduced by Georgiana, who had received a feather from the Queen with which she had immediately adorned her hairstyle. On the other hand, it is known that Marie Antoinette had a weakness for the British style.

The Cavendish were often guests at Versailles and they were there in 1789, experiencing firsthand and with concern the rapid deterioration of the Revolution.

In a letter from the Duchess to her mother, Georgiana describes the appearance of the French Royals as follows: “The King, unlike the Queen, looks better than I expected. She (Mrs Brown / Marie Antoinette) received us very nicely, although she was very depressed. She looked at the children’ portrait and was very complimented. She has changed painfully, enlarged in the belly, without hair, but she still retains a great splendor “.

In the aftermath of Marie Antoinette’s tragic death, Georgiana wrote to her mother: “The answers, the skill and the greatness of her mind shone doubly, given the circumstances in which she found herself … the horror of making her believe that her son was against her it was something that one would have hoped the human mind was not capable of ”.

Georgiana Cavendish died in 1806 at the age of 49, alcoholic and overwhelmed by gambling debts, leaving the field free to her husband’s lover, Bess, who would become the new Duchess of Devonshire in 1809. Needless to say, as soon as Bess became the Duke’s new wife, he immediately got a new mistress!

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