Since reading Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which includes much of the infamous duchess’s letters and journal entries, I’ve been fascinated by the Devonshire family. The only thing missing among the highly dramatic history of this noble, highly-esteemed family—possibly the wealthiest in England in the Georgian era—is a happy ending. The Devonshires of this period are prime examples of failed British aristocratic marriage and family values. With a seemingly endless source of income and the highest social status, why were these people so desperately unhappy?
It also begs the question that if we all truly believe that money and possessions not only do not make us happy but tend to bring along with them worries and responsibilities to weigh us down, then why do so many of us never seem to have enough? How much is enough? A comfortable life with enough income to cover the bills sounds reasonable. But does that mean stately homes, expensive cars, and a yacht to sail around the world? If you have that, would you be satisfied, or would you yearn for even more? If the billionaires of this world were truly happy, then why do they keep going after more and more? What do you do with a billion dollars anyway, especially with tax loopholes that the ordinary citizen does not enjoy? In the end, do you get a solid gold casket or something? Do you get special privileges in heaven?
Enough preaching. I wanted to write about my Chatsworth experiences this week. Yes, there are lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, most people aren’t inclined to learn from the past, and thus we keep making the same mistakes over and over.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire
Pronounced George-ayna, by the way. Georgiana was the oldest daughter of the First Earl Spencer and his wife, also Georgiana. The Earl and his wife were childhood sweethearts. If you visit Spencer House on St. James Place in London (see my Pinterest board here), you will be told about their great love and shown all sorts of decorative features that proclaim their love match. It truly warms the heart of a romance addict. Except that…it doesn’t ring true when you realize they subjected their beloved seventeen-year-old daughter to a loveless marriage that brought her much unhappiness. What went wrong?
Well, perhaps it wasn’t entirely their fault. Young Georgiana probably thought it was a dream come true to marry the richest man in England who also happened to be a duke (the 5th Duke of Devonshire). It must have been a shock, though, to discover that her husband had no intention of being faithful, that even at the time of their marriage, his mistress gave birth to an illegitimate daughter who was eventually brought into the Devonshire family to be raised after her mother died. Georgiana herself found it difficult to conceive and suffered miscarriages before producing three children, two daughters, and finally a son, sixteen years after her marriage.
William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
Georgiana enjoyed her life as a leading lady of fashion and politics in the ton. A friend of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, they copied each other’s fashions, including excessively tall hairstyles and large hats. Georgiana was also a leader of the Whig movement, hosting popular salons at Devonshire House in London for all the prominent Whigs of the time. (See a blog post here about her political exploits.) But with all this, she wasn’t happy. She spent lavishly, and gambled excessively (see post about her gambling exploits here), to the point where even the coffers of the richest man in England were seriously threatened. Her mother, the Countess Spencer—who also gambled beyond her means, particularly after her beloved husband died—warned her to be honest with her husband and to be more prudent in her gambling. Didn’t happen. The duke only found out the truth about her debts after her death. I guess they didn’t have Gamblers Anonymous in those days, or they’d know an addict isn’t able to manage his addiction prudently without giving it up entirely.
Georgiana seemed to have everything, and yet, she didn’t. Desperate for a close friend, when she met Lady Elizabeth Foster, who was separated from her husband and sons and seemingly destitute, Georgiana insisted she reside with them, and so began the ménage à trois. Lady Foster bore Georgiana’s husband two illegitimate children, who were brought up in the Devonshire home with their half-siblings, and Georgiana didn’t seem to mind. She and Bess were the best of friends, although many, including Lady Spencer, believed Bess to be a con-artist of the worst kind.
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and later Prime Minister
After the birth of her son, who later became the 6th Duke, Georgiana felt free to have love affairs of her own. She fell in love with Charles Grey, later to become an earl and a prime minister, and bore him a daughter, who was raised by the child’s paternal grandparents. Her husband was enraged and exiled Georgiana to France for three years, during which time she worried that her son would never know her. (Okay, the duke was a man of his time and perhaps not so terrible as he seems today, but punishing his wife for something he’d been doing for all their marriage just does not give a good impression of his character. Maybe it’s just me?)
Georgiana died in 1806 at 48 of a liver abscess (an eerie coincidence since I had this same affliction last fall, but am completely healed, thank heavens), and three years later, Lady Foster married the duke and became the second duchess, whereupon she admitted the paternity of her two illegitimate children and demanded that the duke provide for them as handsomely (or more so) as his legitimate children. (No, I don’t like her. Can you tell?)
Elizabeth Cavendish, second wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire
The 6th Duke
Georgiana’s son was sixteen when his mother died and twenty-one when his father died and he inherited. He was active in Whig politics, but his special interest was landscaping and architecture. He had a north wing added to the house and an extensive renovation of the gardens. He spent lavishly to improve the property, which at that time included about 83,000 acres. William never married, having courted Georgiana’s sister’s daughter, Lady Caroline Ponsonby (yes, the one who went nutso over Lord Byron) and lost her to William Lamb, who undoubtedly regretted his marriage in retrospect. Perhaps His Grace realized his good fortunate in escaping a miserable marriage and couldn’t bring himself to risk it again. Certainly the marriages in his own family must have given him quite a few qualms!
The Devonshire Arms
Described as “a picturesque country pub at the heart of village life, offering the charm and character of an historic inn with a contemporary twist,” the Devonshire Arms offers comfortable rooms, superb food, and a quaint, medieval building that won’t fail to inspire any dedicated history lovers who book rooms here. Check out my Pinterest board here. And the village of Beeley is equally charming.
Chatsworth is such a beautiful place, filled with such priceless art and furnishings (see Pinterest board here), that one can’t quite understand how so many of its inhabitants, possessed of great wealth and just about anything they wished, were so obviously unhappy. I thought about this a great deal as I took my time touring the rooms and listening to the audioguide, and even as I walked among the rolling hills and sheep from my lodgings to the house. So much beauty and wealth, and yet, I am not envious. At this point in my life, I don’t aspire to such heavy responsibilities, no matter the grandeur and glamorous lifestyle. It is enough for me to have the privilege of seeing it and experiencing it this one time.
Lovely ceilings throughout the house
Sketches Room (my favorite)
Countess Spencer, Georgiana’s mother
Devonshire family portraits
On With the New: Wall sculpture of DNA maps of current Devonshire family
What do you think? Would you like to live the life of a wealthy celebrity? I’m curious to know if others feel as I do that “enough is enough”, and that happiness is not found in great wealth and possessions.