T7anny Burney said of "Fox's Duchess" that "the epithet 'charming' might have been coined for her." Walpole called her 'a phenomenon." Even Dr. Johnson praised her. To be sure, earnest clergymen wrote pamphlets in the form of letters to her, criticising her conduct, and warning her that she would hear of them again, and that it depended on her conduct whether they would praise or blame her. She was, in fact, the most famous woman in English society at one time, and, as such, was bound to be the object of both censure and praise.
A Devoted Daughter
She was the elder daughter of the first Earl Spencer and his beautiful wife, and was born in June, 1757. Her childhood was uneventful, and at seventeen she married "the first match in England," in the person of William, fifth Duke of Devonshire. This gentleman, so far as one can judge by comparing reports of his character, was a serious, rather stiff-necked, cold, worthy, dull person - the kind of man who is considered by slight acquaintances "very estimable," and by his wife's admirers "a lump of clay." At any rate, what warmth there was in his nature seems to have been spent upon Lady Elizabeth Foster, his wife's close friend, who became his second duchess.
He married a child, high-spirited, with a sense of fun, lovely, fond of admiration, and at an age when she needed love and care. She was still studying, and the months after her marriage were spent at Chatsworth and Hardwick with music and drawing and language masters, and a great scheme for studying the history of Greece and France under Louis XIV. at one and the same time, "as these, being so far apart, will not confuse me."
Our best picture of the duchess herself comes from her letters to her mother, to whom she was passionately devoted. Indeed, Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, in his dry and rather pompous way, tells us that "to her mother she was attached by more than common filial affection, of which she exhibited pecuniary proofs rarely given by a daughter to her parent." Countess Spencer wrote to her in answer to her almost daily letters, and from her motherly admonitions we can learn what a child the young duchess was. After a series of country balls, we find Lady Spencer writing: "our dresses were very pretty. Why did you not rather dance with some of the gentlemen of the county than with Mr. Wyndham the second night?" One can quite imagine the lovely duchess preferring brilliant Mr. Wyndham to the fox-hunting "gentlemen of the county."
Life in a Free Age
The Devonshires came to town in the following year, and she conquered all by her beauty and charm. She became a leader of fashion, and abolished the ridiculous hoop. She became a desperate gamester, and her debts were prodigious. She was also a political power, and a patron of the arts. Among her friends were Fox, Sheridan, and Dr. Johnson - of whom, by the way, she wrote, "He din'd here, and does not shine quite so much in eating as in conversation, for he eat much and nastily." Her letters abound in little sketches of people she met. Here is a pretty little incident: Miss Mary Walpole is one of the gravest girls I ever saw, and when she does speak, which is seldom. it is in the sharpest.. shril'est voice those days of strong speech, that "she is devilish ugly."
It was a free age, not only in speech, but in manners, and getting drunk was the favourite occupation of the men. Here is the account of her first ball. It is extraordinary to our notions to see how calmly the young girl of seventeen takes some of its features:
From a painting in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire
I ever heard. However, I took a resolution to get the better of her gravity, and I so effectually fastened myself on her that before the end of the evening we were great friends. and she even condescended to laugh."
Of a French lady we read the emphatic statement, not, perhaps, so emphatic in
"I was Drest in a demi-saison silk, very like one I brought from abroad and wore at Bath, Pink trim'd with Gauze and Green Ribbon. We met F. on the stairs extremely Drunk, and I stood up with young Mr. Coke for almost ten Minutes in the middle of the Room before they could wake the Musick to play a minuet, and when they did they all of them play'd different parts. I danc'd Country Dances with Mr. Coke, but as nobody was refus'd at the Door the Ball Room was quite full of the Daughters and Wives of all the Voters, in check'd Aprons, etc., etc."
Her mother writes to her sometimes, warning her to be nice to the right people, and civil in the right places, and not to be too civil to all the men and put on that ' frozen, cold look you have sometimes " to the women. Yet others have said that she never seemed conscious of her rank.
A Devoted Mother
She seems to have been one of those women whose looks vary greatly from day to day. In Gainsborough's picture she is very lovely, in one of Romney's passable, and in another quite plain. There is a sort of childlike wistfulness about her under Gainsborough's brush. She impressed people differently, too - Walpole said she was not a beauty, and Miss Burney found her at the first meeting not so lovely as she had expected. Later, however, Miss Burney met her again, when she was in good spirits, and said she was indeed lovely, but required vivacity to show her at her best, as that was the distinguishing trait of her character.
She was not a happy woman, for she was formed for love and affection, and she was tied to a man who had no appreciation of her nature. When he was roused from sleep and told that Chatsworth was on fire, he simply said he hoped they would put it out, and went to sleep again. He was no husband for a brilliant young girl whose loveliness was in everybody's mouth. Disappointed in her married life, she tried to find other interests. She dabbled in chemistry, and had a laboratory fitted up, until the duke forbade her to visit Frederick Cavendish's laboratory at Clapham, on the grounds that "he is not a gentleman - he works!" She wrote poetry, she painted, she played the harp, and was an adept in languages. She was a devoted mother in an age of great laxity, and set the fashion of nursing her babies herself. Her friendship with Lady Elizabeth Foster was such that for nearly twenty-five years they lived under the same roof, and when the duchess feared to lose her sight, the poems she wrote to her friend were touching in the extreme.
Of course, she flirted; that was a foregone conclusion when flirting was as much the fashion as drinking or card-playing. At the latter she got into many scrapes, fearing to tell her cold husband of her debts, and haunted by the fear of bailiffs. At one time she was in such sore straits that she had to make a hasty dash across the hall of Devonshire House every time she went out, for fear she should be arrested before she could reach her carriage.
She interceded for the life of Marie Antoinette, but fruitlessly.
She was the head of the party which wished the Prince of Wales made Regent, in opposition to the Duchess of Gordon and Pitt. All the world knows that her party succeeded. But her most famous exploit was the great Westminster election, when she canvassed for Fox. She sportc ! his emblem - a fox's brush in a wreath of laurel - she entered the lowest houses in Long Acre; she cajoled, smrled, argued, even kissed, for votes. For forty days Covent Garden, where the battle raged, was in a ferment and crowded with all the scum of London.
The political squibsters wrote sarcastically or admiringly of her, according to their party.
Here are quotations from both sides:
' E'en cobblers she canvass'd, they would not refuse, But huzza'd for Fox, and no wooden shoes; She canvass'd the tailors, and ask'd for their votes, They all gave her plumpers, and cried,
' No turncoats ! ' "
"Array'd in matchless beauty, Devon's fair In Fox's favour takes a zealous part;
But oh, where'er the pilferer comes, beware ! She supplicates a vote and steals a heart."
The Press reviled the duchess for taking part in the election, till she longed to retire, but could not for her party's sake. She went on, and finally Fox was triumphantly returned with a majority of 250 votes. The duchess rode in a six-horse coach, and there were great scenes of rejoicing.
She it was who led Mrs. Fitzherbert in to have the betrothal ring placed upon her finger by the Prince of Wales. She was the shining light of Mrs. Montagu's salon. Now and then she retired to Chiswick House to rest, where she built two new wings and decorated some of the rooms in the Italian style.
"Generous, High-minded, Glorious"
She died before she was forty, her beauty dimmed by worry over her debts - which, however, her husband at last settled for her two years before she died - and by the chill of her private life. She was a good friend and a splendid mother, and her faults were all on the surface. She had great courage; during the Gordon Riots she wrote: ' I was very much frighten'd yesterday, but kept quiet, and preached quiet to everybody." What a treasure of a woman in an emergency! When she went into camp with the duke, she wore the Derbyshire regimental uniform, and roused great enthusiasm.
Lord Ronald Leveson-gower says of her that she was a " generous, high-minded, glorious woman." Of not every historic beauty can a tenth of that be said.