Friday, April 10, 2009

Georgiana and Elizabeth: A Strange Friendship

Painting of Bess Foster by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Beautiful Georgiana,the Duchess of Devonshire, had many talents. She wrote novels and plays, held political salons and helped the Whigs win elections, and she was a fashion icon. However, this woman who could be quite forthright, also famously lived in a menage a trois with her husband and her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, for many years. Many people wondered why.

Georgiana's marriage was not a happy one. The Duke was a cold and very reserved man, who had a mistress when he and Georgiana married. The warm-hearted, friendly and much younger Georgiana found her husband difficult to understand. His family blamed Georgiana for not providing him with an heir until she eventually had one and constantly complained about her excessive gambling and debts.

The young duchess needed a good friend and thought that she'd discovered one in Bess Foster. Georgiana felt very sorry for Bess. Bess's husband had an affair with a maid and retained custody of her two sons, Frederick and Augustus, after they separated. Bess took advantage of this and manipulated her way into the household, becoming very friendly with the Duke.

Georgiana's mother, Lady Spencer, was not impressed with Bess from the start. Bess came from the notorious, libertine Harvey family. Georgiana wrote to her, begging to bring Bess with them when they stayed at her place. Lady Spencer noticed that Bess and the Duke went out riding together alone every day.

Bess was a man-eater and had many affairs. Her lovers are said to have included Count Axel Fersen, the Earl of Dunraven (who was married), and even a man of the cloth, Ercole Cardinal Consalvi. She was also extremely good-looking and seemed to be able to handle the Duke. She had two children to him and eventually married him after Georgiana died, against the wishes of Georgiana's children.

Georgiana was not faithful to the Duke, understandably. Her most famous affair was with Charles Grey, the Second Earl Grey, who eventually became Prime Minister. They had an illegitimate child, Eliza, who the Greys adopted. When the Duke found out, he was quite cruel to Georgiana, forcing her to separate completely from Grey and give up the child.

Except for her affair with her husband, Bess actually was a good friend to Georgiana. She helped her persuade the Duke to forgive her large debts and she travelled abroad with her when she had Grey's child. It was a very big exception, however! Georgiana had her reasons for putting up with this situation, but people down the centuries have found it hard to understand.

What do you think about this odd situation?


Ms. Lucy said...

Thank you for this post:) I've read a lot about the Duchess but didn't know that much about Bess.

Viola said...

I am so glad that you enjoyed this. I am listening to The Duchess but I'd like to read some books with more about Bess!

Matterhorn said...

Very strange friendship, indeed. All these situations with affairs and unhappy marriages seem really sad to me...

Thanks for the post.

Viola said...

It is very sad, Matterhorn. Georgiana should have had a kind and good husband.

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