Painstaking scholarship produced Georgiana, Amanda Foreman's biography of an 18th-century duchess, but the book transcends the academic, depicting a complex woman thoroughly and with style. Lady Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. The story of her life provides a fitting prologue to that of her famous descendant, but more importantly stands on its own as a portrait of a politically and socially active woman who, as Foreman writes, possessed a single-minded determination to be the heroine of her own story.
Georgiana was a duchess and a mother, author and trendsetter, political authority and leader. She was involved in contemporary politics at their highest levels, and Foreman writes of her contributions that It was these innovations her own cult of celebrity and her democratic approach which differentiated Georgiana then and later as a female pioneer in electoral politics. In her personal life, Georgiana dealt with difficult situations including gambling debts, trouble bearing children, gossip, an unfaithful husband, and the gnarled male-female relationships of her class and station. The accounts of her struggles simultaneously demonstrate the paradoxical depths of both dependence and independence attained by the 18th-century noblewoman.
The immediacy of Foreman's book comes from her liberal use of Georgiana's own words and those of her friends and family. Since the figures often speak for themselves, the language and concerns of the period stand out. Georgiana writes her dear friend Bess a poem letter which concludes, "Thy watchful affection I wait,/And hang with Delight on Thy voice;/And Dependance is softened by fate,/Since Dependance on Thee is my choice." The elegant form and deep feeling this poem evinces illustrate Georgiana's affection for her friend and the importance of even quotidian writing in her world.
These moments of authentic expression elevate Georgiana to more than a historical account. Instead, it is a thoroughly contextualized portrait of a fascinating woman. As Foreman writes of her own interest in her subject, I was struck by her voice, it was so strong, so clear, honest, and open, that she made everything I subsequently read seem dull by comparison.
Eliza R. L. McGraw teaches English at Vanderbilt University.