Famous for her iconic hair styles, lavish soirées, and political activism, Georgiana Cavendish was the toast of the town. But as the high society beauty struggled with her cruel husband, illicit affairs, and gambling addiction, her popularity plummeted. Banished, mistreated, and heartbroken, Georgiana would learn that money and parties can’t buy happiness.
Like her tragic descendant Princess Diana, the Duchess of Devonshire led both a charmed and a cursed life. So raise your glass and powder your hair: Here are 46 extravagant facts about Georgiana Cavendish, the scandalous Duchess of Devonshire.
Georgiana Cavendish Facts
1. Once Upon a Time
Born in Northamptonshire on June 7, 1757, Georgiana Spencer was her mother’s absolute favorite “dear little Gee.” As a young girl, Georgiana knew nothing but comfort and love. Her family was wildly wealthy and her parents enjoyed a very happy marriage. If only life would continue this way…
In 1761, when Georgiana was still a child, her father (already incredibly rich) became officially fancy. He received the title of Viscount Spencer, basically elevating the whole family to a new level of hoity-toity nobility. Even wee Georgiana got a promotion: she was now the Honorable Georgiana Spencer. Not bad for a toddler, really.
3. High Demand
As the first daughter of a super-powerful and rich family, Georgiana was one heck of a catch. The heiress’ beauty also brought her bonus points on the marriage market. With her long auburn hair, fair skin, and almond-shaped eyes. Georgiana was a full-on babe. Can you blame suitors for wanting her hand in marriage?
4. Off the Market
Unfortunately for Georgiana’s male fans, the heiress wasn’t on the market for long. When Georgiana was still a teenager, a loaded aristocrat came knocking: William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire. While the 25-year-old Duke’s money and prestige definitely enticed her family, Georgiana became interested in her suitor for emotional reasons. Unfortunately, it would cause her a world of pain.
5. Daddy’s Girl
To Georgiana, the Duke reminded her of dear old dad. Like Viscount Spencer, the Duke was very shy and reserved. But while the Viscount’s mild manners masked genuine love, the same could not be said of the Duke. He was less “shy on the outside, nice on the inside” and more “what you see is what you get.” With his selfishness and quiet cruelty, the Duke would break young Georgiana’s heart.
6. Yes, Yes, a Thousand Dollar Signs, Yes!
After dancing with the Duke at various balls, naive Georgiana quickly became enamored with the idea of a well-respected husband. Seeing their daughter so besotted, Georgiana’s parents felt they had the best of both worlds. Not only had their daughter caught the eye of England’s most eligible bachelor, but the young couple actually liked each other.
Tragically, they were so, so wrong. The Duke’s proposal came—but for all the wrong reasons. He wed Georgiana for her social position and her youth. In a dark twist, the Duke believed that even if he didn’t like Georgiana now, she was young enough to mold into his ideal wife.
7. Bait and Switch
Two days before her wedding, Georgiana woke up to a nasty surprise. She wasn’t getting married in 48 hours; she was getting married today. Because there hadn’t been an official Duchess of Devonshire in a good long while, the public eagerly awaited the marriage ceremony, and Georgiana’s parents feared that the church would be mobbed with crowds.
But their fear led them to hatch an ingenious plan. They secretly pushed the wedding two days earlier than the official date and moved it to the local church. No one would ever expect such a high-profile ceremony to take place in the neighborhood chapel.
8. Sweet 17
Georgiana’s wedding to the Duke all went down on her 17th birthday.
9. I Do, Do I?
Sadly, after that ring slid onto Georgiana’s finger, everything changed for the worse. First, the Duke went to the notorious “pleasure gardens” to drink and debauch himself a mere three days after the wedding. Then, when the couple was supposed to be presented to the Queen, he showed up four hours late. Not a good start, my dude.
10. Campaign Trailblazer
In the late 1700s, the Duchess translated her social prowess into political savvy. While women couldn’t directly participate in politics, Georgiana began to campaign on behalf of the Whig political party in 1778. She visited houses, conversed with commoners, attended speeches and rallies, and funded various profile-raising events for the party.
11. How the Mighty Have Fallen
Georgiana wrote desperate letters to her mother, begging for advice about how to entice her husband. She even tried to join in on his hobbies—but he’d rather go hunting with the boys. She also emphasized her young wifely virtue—but the Duke preferred to gamble all night. Just a few months ago, Georgiana was the most eligible woman in England. Now her own husband barely looked at her.
12. Fashion Icon
Even though she was married to a dullard, the Duchess became England’s first It Girl. She sparked outrageous fashion trends like wearing enormous ostrich feathers as hair ornaments and going wild with three-foot-tall hair-dos. Society women tripped over themselves to imitate Georgiana, with many sitting on the floors of carriages so that the vehicle could accommodate their extraordinarily high hair.
13. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword
The Duchess was an avid reader and writer. She wrote “pretty” poetry (as the famous writer Horace Walpole judged her efforts) and published scandalous novels. Georgiana followed up her literary debut with a barn-burner of a second act. In 1778, The Sylph explored the debauched upper classes through the eyes of a “fictional” young lady. The graphic novel sent shockwaves through England.
14. My Girl Wants to Party All the Time
After marrying the Duke, Georgiana was constantly out on the town, shopping, going to plays, and of course, exploring the notorious “pleasure gardens” where sex workers, actors, and the upper classes mixed and mingled. But Georgiana didn’t have to go out to party: Her wildest nights were spent at home, where she attempted to soothe her pain with alcohol and high-stakes gambling.
15. It’s Not You, It’s Me
Historians believe that the Duke’s distaste for Georgiana can be chalked up to three factors. First, he was naturally cold and unresponsive. Second, husband and wife were very different (but kudos to Georgiana for at least trying to connect with him through his hobbies). The last reason was a dark secret: The Duke already had eyes for another.
16. Did I Not Mention?
The Duke enjoyed an intense flirtation with Charlotte Spencer, a hat-maker with no relation to Georgiana’s family, despite the weird coincidence of their identical last names. Showing a fiery side that Georgiana rarely saw, it seemed that the Duke actually felt passion for Charlotte. The secret couple even had an illegitimate daughter, Charlotte Williams.
17. The Fall
A fellow socialite and noblewoman described Georgiana’s routine as haphazard at best. Apparently, the Duchess would party for days on end, then completely retreat to her home, refusing to see anyone. She’d have “hysteric fits” in the mornings and gamble until her pockets were empty at night. She would also starve herself for days and then binge on food and alcohol.
18. Subtlety Is Key
Scholars often consider The Sylph to be a chilling peek inside Georgiana’s mind. Her vulnerable heroine marries a so-called “noble” and quickly learns about the coldness and depravity that takes place behind ornate closed doors. Full of manipulators and heartless bullies, the world of The Sylph was a blistering indictment of Georgiana’s “friends.”
One reader called it “obscene,” but few people could resist turning the page. Publishers reprinted the book multiple times, and suddenly Georgiana had written a salacious best seller.
19. Double Life
In letters to her mother, Georgiana tried to hide her misery with the Duke. She emphasized how much she loved spending time with her husband (sure, Jan) and hearing weekly sermons. But behind closed doors, her life was falling apart. Georgiana’s out-of-control lifestyle had terrible consequences: The young Duchess suffered multiple miscarriages.
20. The Worst Two-for-One Deal
As though miscarriages weren’t traumatic enough, the tragic events also angered her husband and made her already-tense marriage even more unbearable. As the wife of a nobleman, her unofficial job was to bear him an heir, and it seemed that Georgiana couldn’t fulfil her duty.
21. Help a Girl out?
In April 1776, a heavily-pregnant Georgiana reached a breaking point. Thanks to her gambling habit, she was in severe debt—so severe that she felt too terrified to tell her husband and ask for the funds she so desperately needed. Georgiana’s plan was to wait until she gave birth and, while the Duke basked in the glow of his newborn son, reveal her predicament.
Unfortunately, everything went terribly wrong.
22. We Need to Talk
Georgiana went into labor early and once more lost the baby. Paralyzed by indecision and grief, the Duchess felt completely stuck, leading a friend to intervene and ask the Spencer parents to bail her out. They were furious, but they agreed. However, they had a terrible demand: Georgiana had to come clean to the Duke.
When she admitted that she was, in modern day figures, about $300,000 in debt, the Duke responded in utterly chilling fashion. He nodded, left the room, and sent his in-laws the money. He barely even talked to Georgiana. Even though she didn’t need any more proof of her failed marriage, this sealed the deal. Her husband would never esteem her now.
23. Pay Them No Mind
Georgiana learned the hard way that society doesn’t exactly have a great track record of respecting women in politics. In an effort to throw shade on the Whig party, satirical illustrations depicted “the Devonshire Method,” which had a horrific meaning. The sketches showed Georgiana exchanging “bedroom” favors for votes.
24. Well, This Is Awkward
Years after their marriage, the Cavendishes still had no heir. That’s when the Duke finally revealed his secret. He told Georgiana about his illegitimate daughter Charlotte—and asked her to tidy up the spare room, because she was on her way to join the family. Yup, when his old mistress died, the Duke acted honorably for once and took his love child in.
25. The Bigger Woman
Surprisingly, Georgiana adored Charlotte, treating the young girl as though she was her own daughter. In a letter to her mother, Georgiana called her “the best humored little thing you ever saw.”
26. A New Friend
While visiting the city of Bath in 1782, Georgiana met a woman who would bring her the greatest joy—but also the most brutal pain. Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster was basically living out the plot of a tragic novel. After separating from her husband, Bess lost custody of her children. It was a terrible blow, but it had a strange silver lining. When Bess met Georgiana, the women’s shared pain instantly bonded them as close friends.
Georgiana was prone to fits of passion, often becoming supremely affected by books and poetry, so you can only imagine her reaction to hearing Bess’s tale of woe. Georgiana immediately invited her new friend not just to visit, but to full-on live with herself and the Duke. Spoiler: This was not Georgiana’s best idea.
28. Three’s a Crowd
Shortly after Georgiana invited Lady Elizabeth Foster to live with her, Foster and the Duke started a steamy affair. Yes, right under Georgiana’s nose. For historians, it’s hard to grasp Bess’s motivations. Did she spin a tragic yarn to manipulate Georgiana, hoping to live off her new friend’s wealth instead of eking out a living as a vulnerable single woman? We may never know.
29. Dirty Laundry
Georgiana was no fool. She knew what was going on between her husband and her best friend. But she let it continue for a truly heartbreaking reason. Georgiana felt so isolated and sad in her marriage that she couldn’t let go of her new friend, no matter what Bess did. Soon enough, everyone in the town knew about the trio’s, um, unconventional household situation.
30. Boudoir Shots
In the 1770s, Georgiana wore a dress that scandalized London. While noblewomen were expected to wear heavy gowns and restrictive corsets, Georgiana took a cue from her friend Marie Antoinette and opted for simpler fare. The “chemise à la reine” (or “the dress of the queen”) was little more than a glorified slip.
Made of soft, almost translucent muslin fabric, Georgiana’s revealing garment was the 18th-century equivalent of a Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
31. Freaking Finally
In 1783, Georgiana (finally!) gave birth to her first child. The Duchess loved her daughter Lady Georgiana (nicknamed “Little G”) and even nursed her baby herself, thank you very much. Two years later, Little G met her little sister Harriet (called “Harryo”). And at last, in 1790, a whopping 16 years after marrying the Duke, Georgiana produced a male heir: William George Spencer Cavendish. Major sigh of relief.
33. On the Prowl
An aristocrat’s life got a lot better after she gave her husband a legitimate heir. First and best, women no longer had to risk their lives to childbirth, but second, it was now A-Okay for the Duchess to have some fun and, heaven forbid, maybe kiss someone she actually liked. By 1791, Georgiana found a man to call her own: Charles Grey, a prominent Whig politician.
33. Out of My Sight
Historians aren’t sure about when Georgiana’s relationship with Grey began, but the reason we know it was serious by 1791 is clear enough. The Duchess became pregnant—and (Maury Povich voice) the Duke was NOT the father. Furious with Georgiana, the Duke sent his wife away to France where she would give birth to her illegitimate child in secret.
34. Double Standard
Georgiana gave birth to a daughter, Eliza Courtney, while abroad in 1792. While the labor was mercifully easy, everything else would bring Georgiana a world of pain. Even though Georgiana raised her husband’s love child as though Charlotte was her own flesh and blood, the Duke refused to return the favor. Instead, he issued a terrifying threat.
If Georgiana did not give little Eliza to Charles Grey’s parents, the Duke said he would divorce Georgiana and bar her from ever seeing any of her children.
35. Family Secrets
Georgiana had very little contact with her illegitimate daughter. From Eliza’s perspective, that was fine. She believed Georgiana was a kindly aunt figure. As for Charles Grey, Eliza was told that he was her much older brother. Imagine Eliza’s surprise when she learned that Grey was actually her father, while her mother was the century’s most scandalous woman.
36. I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
It was only after Georgiana’s death that Eliza learned the truth. When she finally discovered her real lineage, Eliza gave her mother a heartbreaking tribute. She named her own daughter Georgiana.
37. Heartbroken Again
When the Duke banished Georgiana to France, he made her miserable in more ways than one. Not only did Georgiana have to bear with giving away her baby, she also had to say goodbye to the only man she had ever loved. When writing about the end of her relationship with Charles Grey, Georgiana said that, “I have in leaving him for ever, left my heart and soul.” Pass the tissues.
After Georgiana gave birth to Eliza and broke off her relationship with Grey, the Duke still wasn’t satisfied. He demanded that his wife stay abroad in Europe, effectively banishing her to a pretty sweet vacation (weird flex, Duke). But clearly, the whole experience influenced Georgiana to change her life. When the Duchess finally returned to England in 1793, she gave up her hard partying ways and turned to more respectable pursuits.
39. Back at It
In her later years, Georgiana was involved in politics, but stayed behind the scenes. She also dabbled in the sciences, collected crystals, wrote novels and poems, and spent time with her beloved children. Evidently, Georgiana also rose to saint-like levels of charity. When the Duke contracted gout, instead of pushing him out a window like I would have done, Georgiana cared for him.
While Charles Grey should have been Georgiana’s knight in shining armor, even he dealt her a cold-hearted betrayal. He blamed Georgiana for all the trouble with her husband, and even got engaged without giving Georgiana a heads up. But Georgiana, in accordance with her new vow to be the most forgiving woman ever, managed to let that snub go.
In time, she and Grey even became friends. If you ask me, Georgiana’s too good for all of these guys.
41. Glass Half Full
In her late 30s, Georgiana received an odd blessing. After an eye infection left the Duchess half-blind and plagued by facial scars, her reputation as a great beauty seemed to be over. But instead of bemoaning her lost looks, Georgiana felt liberated. After all, it was kind of cathartic to no longer have to live up to all the hype.
42. Everyone Has a Weakness
For all the positive changes Georgiana implemented, she still had one crutch: gambling. She just couldn’t stop, begging her own mother for bail-out money when she was deep into her 40s. This was not a point of pride for the struggling Duchess—but her embarrassment would soon be over. No one knew it yet, but Georgiana was very, very ill.
43. You’re Simply the Bess-t
Some historians believe that Georgiana had an even more tragic reason to keep her friend Elizabeth Foster around. Based on some of the extremely emotional letters sent to Bess, some critics think that Georgiana was bisexual. Was the Duchess desperate to hold onto Bess because she was actually in love with her best friend?
44. Shout out to My Ex
There’s one more important clue to Georgiana’s love for Bess. To put it simply, Bess wasn’t the first woman courted by the Duchess. Back in 1777, Georgiana became fixated on Mary Graham, a well-known beauty. She wrote her passionate letters, with one nighttime missive mentioning Georgiana’s desire to “kiss [her] tenderly.”
45. Too Soon
On March 30, 1806, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, died suddenly of an abscess on her liver. She was 48 years old. While everyone expected the Duchess’s beloved children to mourn their mother’s passing, someone else’s response was surprising. After a mostly miserable marriage, the Duke seemed genuinely sad to lose his wife.
It’s like they always say, if you’re struggling with your marriage, contract gout and make your spouse wait on you until you like them again.
46. Famous Descendent
Georgiana has gained a legacy as a fashion icon turned tragic poster girl for debauched nobility. If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Georgiana’s great-great-great-grand niece Princess Diana repeated the Duchess’s stormy life in an eerie way, sharing many of her troubles with the cruelty of the aristocracy.