Hi everyone! Today I will be reviewing a novel called “The Duchess” written by Amanda Foreman. This is a pretty hefty book, clocking in at almost 400 pages with about 40 pages of Notes in the back. To keep the length of this post down, I tried to keep the re-telling of the story to a minimum and spoilers at bay. This is basically exactly what my notes were as I read. Without further ado…
Foreman wrote this biography based on her doctoral thesis & is supposedly the only person to have ever turned their thesis into a best selling biography. I thought this was commendable as I’m considering going to Grad school, but the idea of having to write a thesis is very overwhelming. I admire Foreman’s dedication to her education and her passion for the topic. I wanted to read this to get an idea of what a thesis looks like and I wanted to find out more about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I had seen advertisements for the film, “The Duchess”, many years ago when it was released and thought the plot seemed intriguing, but wanted to read the book first.
“The Duchess” is the biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, circa 1774. She was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Princess Diana of Wales and was just as big a celebrity. The biography, obviously, tells the story of Georgiana’s life and the dichotomy of her public and personal life. From the outside looking in, Georgiana had it all, money, fame, and popularity. Inside, she was a deeply unhappy woman, plagued by years of insecurity and people pleasing that led her down a dark road of addiction and misfortune. It’s pretty interesting how popular and involved in shaping history she was, yet I’ve never learned about her. Foreman addresses some reasons that shed light on how history has been RE-WRITTEN by our ancestors and we’re not always getting the full story about how things happened. I guess this bio is good for conspiracy theory fans too, haha!
– Georgiana Spencer Cavendish is obviously the main character. We share a birthday, June 7th, woo hoo! separated by a few hundred years. When her father died he left behind a fortune that today would equal $74 million, so she was certainly well off and used that money to educate herself in several avenues. Georgiana was like 1700’s Barbie, she did everything. Not only was she involved in politics, fashion, etc, she was a published author, and also “…an amateur chemist & mineralogist of note…” (p 269), among other accomplishments. She openly participated in political campaigning even though it brought her much negative attention. For every person that admired her involvement, there was someone else smearing her name. Despite her wealth, education, and popularity, you have to feel bad for this woman’s personal life. Her husband had a child by a mistress before he & Georgiana were even married. Their marriage was a train wreck, they both cheated, had children with other partners, and came very close to divorcing which was practically unheard of then.
– The Spencer, Cavendish, and other popular families of the time remind me of the Kardashian family. Super wealthy, spoiled, the center of attention and scandal, involved in each other’s business – & that’s just the way they wanted it.
– A passage on page 153 shows how attacks on women haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. It lists specific reasons Georgiana was so heavily criticized by certain members of the public for her political involvement. She was criticized for bringing “her own personality to the campaign in an era when the only women who had public personas were actresses & courtesans…”. There were also double standards between her and male campaigners. For a male to associate with the common people and treat voters as equals earned him the title of “Man of the People”. When Georgiana did the same & earned the title, a “Woman of the People”, it meant she was a whore.
– In a way, the reader never really gets to know Georgiana because everything she did was scrutinized & she had to act a certain way. For example, in a one letter, she writes about how the last few months were the best of her life, then at the end of the letter she complains that she’s never been sadder (p 273). Her emotions ranged so wildly, it was hard to tell how she genuinely felt or if she was just acting.
– P 382 gives a very inspiring and flattering description of Georgiana, listing all her accomplishments and contributions to society. She should be proud to be remembered that way & you can clearly see why Foreman was so passionate about her.
– This biography is not for everyone. It’s certainly not light reading for most. I found it hard to keep track of the family trees, relationships, and the timeline of Georgiana’s life. There are huge sections of history information, and while I understand its inclusion, it’s not what I wanted to read about. I wanted to get to the juicy stuff about Georgiana!
– Another aspect of the book I found hard to follow were the footnotes. The print was super small and you had to find the correct footnote that corresponded with the number in the main text – it was a lot of back and forth reading of small print. Why not just include the footnote in the main text? I figured that’s the way a thesis is set up, but I’m not sure.
– While the historical content did become overwhelming, I did enjoy learning about the way women’s rights and family dynamics have changed, or not, since Georgiana’s time.
Honestly, this book didn’t do much for me because I was more interested in the woman, not the time period and you get “too much” of the latter. I can’t fault Foreman for that, she did an amazing job doing her research, I just wasn’t terribly interested. As I mentioned above, this biography is best suited for someone that has a genuine interest in the time period and political happenings within it, not solely interested in Georgiana’s life. I gave it a low B because I admire Foreman’s work, but I couldn’t get past the abundance of historical material rather than focus on Georgiana’s personal life, so the story didn’t really grab me. I feel like I would be more interested in the film version of the bio which of course will be highly sensationalized to grab viewer’s attention.
Have you read “The Duchess”? Have you ever heard of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire? Please share your thoughts on this review or the biography in the comments down below! As always, I welcome any and all book suggestions you might have – until next time, hit that FOLLOW button on the top right to stay updated with all my posts!