Thursday, July 23, 2009

Painted Lady of Passion: The Life of Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford

Ah, everyone loves a Duke, don't they? Or want to marry one. Romance novels are littered with rich, handsome Dukes, and the heroines who are vying for their hand and noble estate in marriage. A Dukedom is the highest peerage in a long list of titles of the aristocracy, and the most rare. Dukes belong to a long list of rarities, like white truffles, flawless diamonds, and Hermes Kelly bags. There are generally only 26 non-royal dukes at any one time. To be given a dukedom means that one has performed some extraordinary service to the crown (the Duke of Marlborough and his victory at Blenheim, the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo), or one is the bastard son of a King (the Duke of Richmond, the Duke of St. Albans). The last non-royal dukedom was created for the Duke of Wellington in the 19th century.

Dukes were, for the most part rich, and they had fabulous estates. Think of Blenheim Palace, Floors Castles in Scotland (where Prince Andrew proposed to Fergie), and Goodwood House (home of the Duke of Richmond, Gordon and Lennox). Some English Dukes owned huge tracts of land in London, like the Duke of Devonshire (who still owns huge parts of Mayfair, including the land that the American Embassy sits on). Becoming a Duchess meant that one would live one's life on display, being addressed as 'Your Grace,' it was as close to being royalty asone could get without marrying a prince. It took a strong stomach, and loads of strength to be married to an English Duke. But every woman worth her salt wanted to be a Duchess.

So one can imagine the match-making mamas salivating whenever an heir to a Dukedom or a Duke himself was available on the marriage-mart. And there was no more ambitious mama in the 18th century than Jane, Duchess of Gordon. After all, plain Jane Maxwell as she once was, the daughter of a lowly baronet, had managed to snag the wealthy and handsome Alexander, Duke of Gordon for herself. And despite the bitter pill of her marriage, Jane was determined that her five daughters would manage to snare Dukes themselves.

If there was such a thing as a school for Duchesses, Jane, Duchess of Gordon ran it. She raised all five of her daughters to be witty, charming, able to flatter without being swarmy, intelligent (but not bluestockings) and unafraid to say whatever they thought. Her daughters were able to converse with the lowliest peasant on the estate as well as with princes. None of them were snobs, they treated everyone exactly the same. In short, she raised them as mirror images of her.

In the end, 3 out of 5 daughters managed to marry Dukes. After dangling her eldest Charlotte in front of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, who didn't take the bait, Jane managed to marry her off to the Duke of Richmond and Lennox. Her second daughter Susan was soon married off to the Duke of Manchester. Out of the other two daughters, one married the Marquis of Cornwallis, and the other a plain baronet, but it was the youngest and prettiest daughter, Georgiana (born June 23, 1781) or Georgy, who managed to snare the affections of the 6th Duke of Bedford, who owned vast tracks of Convent Garden, Russell and Bedford square in London, as well as the magnificent Woburn Abbey.

But before Georgiana ended up his radar, her mother tried to snag his older brother, Francis, the 5th Duke of Bedford for Georgina (her political rival Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was also trying to snag him for her daughter). Despite the fact that the Russell family were unrepentant Whigs and the Gordons were staunch Tories, Jane wasn't about to let a little thing like political differences getting in the way of marital ambition. Francis was a bit of a libertine, now in his thirties, most of his mistresses had been older women. Georgiana seemed to be winning over his heart but he inconveniently died of peritonitis in 1802 before the engagement could be announced. Still, Jane dressed Georgy in mourning clothes and told everyone who could listen that the two were engaged. However, the new Duke wasn't willing to acknowledge Jane's claim to an engagement.

Smarting from the embarassment, Jane took Georgy off to France where she tried to marry Georgy off to Napoleon's step-son, Eugene de Beauharnais. Napoleon, however, had more ambitious plans for his step-son. Still, Jane remained an ardent admirer of Napoleon for the rest of her life. But Jane's luck was about to change. The new Duke of Bedford, who had been widowed two years before, arrived in Paris. Georgy expressed sympathy for his dual loss of wife and brother in such a short amount of time. The Duke was soon won over by her vivacious personality, and beauty, which was so different from his own. He was a shy, quiet man, who liked fishing, hunting, the country and books. He'd been a Whig MP until he inherited the Dukedom from his brother, and was a strong supporter of Charles James Fox (the Duke and Georgy even named one of their sons Charles James Fox Russell).

The couple were soon engaged, and they were married in 1803. Although the Duke and Duchess learned to love each other deeply, the marriage wasn't a love match. The Duke had married his first wife, Georgiana Byng, at the age of 19. They were passionately in love, but Georgiana suffered from ill-health after giving birth to three sons, and the couple soon grew apart. She wrote apologetic letters to him, feeling that she was letting him down. Georgy's personality complimented the Duke's. He adored her, deferred to her, and allowed her to dominate their marital life.

In 1806, Georgy and the Duke moved to Ireland, where the Duke was posted as Lord Lieutenant. They were a huge hit, the Duke was sympathetic towards the idea of Catholic emancipation, and Georgy proved to be a just as astute a political hostess as her mother with her warmth, charm and energy. However, the Duke's political ideas about reform were not welcome in London, and he resigned as Lord Lieutenant after a year, much to the dismay of the Irish people. Disillusioned, it was the end of his political ambitions (his third son by his first wife later became Prime Minister).

Over the next twenty years, Georgy busied herself with giving birth to a large family (she eventually had 12 children, 10 who lived to adulthood), managing their estates, including Endsleigh House (now a hotel) which they built in 1812 as a more of a family home, compared to the grandeur of Woburn Abbey. The couple entertained often and lavishly. Like her mother, Georgiana introduced Scottish reels and music at her parties, there were amateur theatricals and charades, as well as the usual country pursuits. Invitations to Woburn were much sought after. Only good friends were ever invited down to Endsleigh. The couple also bought a house near their good friends Lord and Lady Holland in Kensington. Like her mother, and many other Scandalous Women, Georgy preferred the company of men to women, although she was close to her sisters, and Lady Holland.
Georgiana's relationship with her step-children was the only mar on her happiness. The Duke's heir, Francis, spent most of his time complaining about the amount of money they spent, accusing the Duchess of ruining the Duke (although the Duke's tastes were just as expensive as his wife's). But it was her relationship with his middle son, William, that caused the most pain. Georgy and William had a cordial relationship until he married, and his new wife decided that she hated Georgy, considering her to be flamboyant, and lacking in morals. Of course, William took his wife's side, while his father defended his wife. The feud at one point was so bad, that William and his wife Elizabeth tried to get people to take sides against the Duchess. It was even reported in the newspapers.
After twenty years of marriage, the Duchess met the love of her life, Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), an artist twenty years her junior. They met in 1823, when the Duke engaged Landseer to paint a portrait of the Duchess. Georgy had been depressed after the recent death of her father (Jane had died in 1812). The affair lasted for over thirty years until Georgy's death. The attraction between the two was immediate, they both had a mutual interest in art. Landseer taught Georgy to etch, and he sketched her frequently, the pictures shockingly intimate. Her last child, Lady Rachel Russell (born when she was 45), was more than likely Landseer's child. Landseer was a brilliant artist, especially of animals. He'd been a child prodigy, and later became the favorite artist of Queen Victoria.

The Duchess and her lover spent several months of the year together in Scotland. Georgiana rented a love nest called Doune, where they could be alone, without causing too much suspicion. Of course, they weren't really alone, because the children also were there. Georgiana was a devoted mother, who breastfed all her children, her rooms at Endsleigh House were close to the nursery so that she could keep an eye on them. The Duke became friendly with Landseer, whatever made Georgiana happy, made him happy. He had his own flirtations with Lady Holland, among others, but Georgiana was always his first priority. Still, the gossip was rife about the relationship between the Duchess and her much younger lover.
While the Duke was very mellow and tolerant, giving Georgiana stability and position, Landseer gave her passion and excitement. There was no thought of divorce or seperation between the Duke and his Duchess. Georgiana had seen what had happened to her mother, when Jane and the Duke of Gordon finally seperated. Jane had complained bitterly about how little money the Duke gave her per annum. She had also seen what had happened to her sister, Susan, Duchess of Manchester who ran off with the gamekeeper (shades of D.H. Lawrence). Susan had lost her children and her position in society. As long as Georgiana and Landseer were discreet, there would be no divorce.
Thanks to Georgy introducing Landseer to the Scottish highlands, his work changed. The backgrounds to his paintings, which had been a particular weakness of his, became rich and atmospheric. For Georgy, who was facing middle-age, his love for her changed her from a woman whose life was almost over, to the passionate vibrant woman she'd been in her youth. The Duke, who was 15 years older than his wife, had suffered a debilitating stroke before she met Landseer, and Georgy had nursed him diligently. Despite her lover, Georgy was still attentive to the Duke, and both men worshipped and adored her. However, Landseer at times was jealous of her relationship with the Duke, so he needed a bit more quality time. Although neither man was probably particularly happy about the whole thing, neither did they want to lose this woman that they both loved.
Georgina's love affair was scandalous for many reasons. Not only was her lover younger, but he was also of a different class, an artistic genius, and unmarried. When the Duke died in 1839, Landseer even proposed to Georgy but she turned him down. Her biographer, Rachel Trethewey believes that it was because she knew that Landseer was mentally unstable. He'd had two serious head injuries, and as he grew older, his condition got worse. He was also very interested in the occult, which worried Georgy. After Georgy's death, he began to drink and to rely on painkillers such as laundanum. Georgy had been everything to him, mother, lover, muse. Although he was much sought after by women in society, he never married. He died insane at the age of 71.
After the Duke's death, Georgy began to spend more time abroad in Nice or in Ireland, where her daughter Louisa and her husband, the Duke of Abercorn lived. Unlike her mother, Georgy encouraged her children to marry for love and not dynastic alliances, despite the fact that her own marriage had been so happy. She is buried in Nice.

In 2008, romance novelist Virginia Henly published a novel called The Decadent Duke, about Georgy, Francis, 5th Duke of Bedford, and John, 6th Duke of Bedford. Although I have enjoyed novels by this author before, I cannot recommend this novel. Not only does she get the name of John's first wife wrong, his personality is changed into Mr. Darcy, the typical brooding, alpha male Duke. There's also an incredible amount of unnecessary information dumping that slows down the novel.

Rachel Trethewey's 2002 biography of Georgiana, Mistress of the Arts: The Passionate Life of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford, is worth ordering from She gives the reader a remarkable portrait of the woman who should be as well known as the other Duchess named Georgiana.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Fascinating! I hadn't known anything about this woman--will have to look up the biography.

Ms. Lucy said...

What a fascinating account of this Duchess' life. I never knew of her before this. Thanks for this character highlight- I really enjoyed it. (Boy there were a lot of Georgiana's back then...can imagine the confusion!)

dave hambidge said...

Applause for yet another tale well told.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks guys. I really liked the Georgiana's story because unlike the Duchess of Devonshire, she had a happy ending. She had two men who adored her. Who wouldn't want that?

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks so much Lizzy. I'll have to check it out.