“Georgiana” by Brian Masters

September 28, 2009 at 12:00 am 4 comments

georgianaGeorgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Brian Masters, for all its lack of title-creativity, is apparently the definitive biography of Georgiana. Linda Colley, my own personal idea of the be-all and end-all in making this distinction, highly recommended Masters’ version of Georgiana’s life in her Britons and it is because of that recommendation that I sussed Georgiana out of the Strand sometime last fall. For those of you out of the historic loop, Georgiana (pronounced jor-JAY-na, not jor-ji-AH-na) was basically the eighteenth-century’s slightly more substantive answer to Paris Hilton. At base level, Georgiana was famous simply for being famous, fabulous, and rich. She married the taciturn 5th Duke of Devonshire at seventeen and proceeded to rule English society in almost every way possible: she defined what was socially acceptable in terms of fashion, conversation, etiquette, and society (who was in and who was out depended a great deal on who was at Devonshire House and who was not). Even beyond what “Society” thought, Georgiana also held a good deal of sway over the politics of day, campaigning for famed Whig Charles James Fox and, many would argue, winning him his seat in Parliament. On top of that, Georgiana also managed to gamble away ten fortunes, somehow deal with her husband making her best friend his live-in mistress, and survive in France on the cusp of and during the French Revolution. She is an absolutely fascinating woman, no doubt about it, and Masters’ biography is apparently the closest we shall come to knowing her.

What made Masters’ book so amazing at the time of its publication (1981) was that he was the first biographer given access to many of Georgiana’s personal letters and the letters of those around her. What makes Masters’ book age so poorly is simply the discipline of history (and, I like to think, society at large) moving on from such blanket statements as “she had a man’s instinct and a man’s intelligence.” For all its newly-uncovered primary source material, Masters’ book still positively sprints through this fascinating life, stopping only fleetingly to draw one-sentence portraits of the people Georgiana knew and to examine major events in her life and in the world for even shorter amounts of time. It was wholly disappointing to read this supposedly amazing book and find it so cursory.

On the bright side, anyone writing about Georgiana would be hard-pressed to make it boring, so even Masters’ jog through the life is very interesting. The context he provides can at times drag (particularly when he’s explaining the political climate of the 1780s in England) as he loses his subject to keep him focused and interested. Despite this, Masters’ book is a good introduction to the period and to Georgiana. I would never recommend this book as a sole source for either, but he does give a good overview. His assumptions about readers’ knowledge of the time and people hanging around could be frustrating for non-eighteenth-century enthusiasts, but, on the whole, the book is inherently interesting and written at such a clip as to keep the excitement level high throughout. Just don’t base your term paper on it.

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Entry filed under: Biography. Tags: , , , .

Tess of the D’Urbervilles The Second Book Syndrome

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  September 28, 2009 at 10:27 am

    After seeing The Duchess on a plane, I have to say that Georgiana is one of my new favorite historical people, way cooler that Marie Antoinette, at any rate. I will definitely have to check out this book!

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  September 28, 2009 at 1:36 pm

      Oh man! I saw The Duchess well before reading this and it just made me see Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes around every corner in this book. It wasn’t such a remarkable film, but it really made an impression on my perception of Georgiana and her set. It’s funny how that can happen so randomly with a film/book. Meanwhile, I am primarily unaffected by the Harry Potter movies, which you would think would do more in this vein. Quite curious.

      Reply
  • 3. Mike  |  September 29, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Did Georgiana choose to have her name pronounced like that as part of her cultural impact? It seems more highfalutin that way. Or was that just the way of the times?

    Reply
    • 4. Corey  |  September 29, 2009 at 7:47 pm

      It’s unclear to me. The entire social set she ran with had crazy ways of pronouncing things (like “goold” for “gold”), so it could have just been an affectation or it could genuinely have been how the name was pronounced in the eighteenth century. Good question!

      Reply

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