An Unconventional Life

The particular relationship between Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, her husband William, Duke of Devonshire and Lady Bess Foster has fascinated historians for generations. While married women often had to tolerate their husband’s mistresses, it was unheard of to place her in the same house as the wife. The scandal was even more juicy because Georgiana and Bess were best friends… or could they have been something more?

We still consider polyamorous relationships unconventional today, let alone in the 18th Century. But the relationship between the three would last 24 years and survive numerous bumps in the road. This article will mainly focus on Georgiana as she is the main connection between the three

Born in 1757 as a member of the Spencer family, Georgiana came from an old aristocratic British house. Her parents, John and Georgiana, unlike many marriages of the time, were genuinely in love. They raised Georgiana alongside her siblings in a family of warmth and closeness at their estate, Althorp. Although her parents were anxious about her marriage, they made an exception for an outstanding match. Duke William Cavendish was one of the wealthiest men in Britain and society’s most eligible bachelor. The two married on Georgiana’s seventeenth birthday, in an intimate ceremony.

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Like many marriages of the era, Georgiana and William did not hit it off. Georgiana had been used to her close-knit family and found the Duke emotionally reserved. As her own father had been shy in public but affectionate in private, she believed William would be the same. They also had little in common. Whereas Georgiana was a naïve romantic, the jaded William had already produced an illegitimate daughter with his mistress. While noblemen could take mistresses as they pleased, Georgiana would need to produce a legitimate male child before any affairs. Her pregnancies had resulted in either a miscarriage or stillbirth. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a husband who wanted little to do with her, Georgiana felt trapped.

If William did not want to bother with her, Georgiana sought to keep herself occupied. She became a dedicated campaigner for the Whig political party, a hostess of the arts, and a leader of fashion. While publicly Georgiana copied with her marriage, internally she was in turmoil. She drank to escape, but this was nowhere near as damning as her gambling addiction. Within the first few years of her marriage, her debts surpassed the annual allowance William gave her. Even when Georgiana surpassed £300,000 in debt, she would not tell him. She begged her parents for a loan. Tey agreed only on the terms that Georgiana would tell William. He discovered the debt anyway and paid it off.

Frustrated, Georgiana wrote to express herself. She secretly published The Sylph in 1778 with the authorship attributed to ‘A Young Lady.’ The protagonist, Julia has multiple parallels to Georgiana. Julia is a beautiful young woman married to a rich aristocrat. While her husband spends his wealth on gambling and mistresses, Julia illustrates her tragic miscarriage and her disillusionment with the society she married into. The “Sylph” of the novel is a mysterious guardian who helps Julia navigate high society, who only appears once at a masquerade ball. At the end, Julia’s husband kills himself over his gambling debts and Julia returns to her family. The ending still fascinates historians today as Georgiana had a terrible gambling addiction.

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In 1782, Georgiana and William were on holiday in the leisure city of Bath where she met Lady Elizabeth Foster. Widely known as “Bess,” she confessed to Georgiana that after an affair her husband had thrown her out. Not only was she barred from visiting her sons, she was homeless and destitute. The pair shared their traumas with each other and formed a bond. Bess showed an incredible loyalty to Georgiana; she was willing to do anything Georgiana asked of her. Georgiana became so quickly attached to Bess that she asked the Duke if Bess could live with them. Soon after Bess joined the Cavendishes, she and William began a relationship.

It was not scandalous for men (or even women) to enter into adulterous affairs in the 18th Century. What was unusual is the mistress living in the house with the married couple. Georgiana was so emotionally dependent on Bess that to reject her would mean cutting off her best friend. Therefore, Georgiana had to accept the relationship between William and Bess. Although some have called this arrangement  a ménage à trois, there’s no concrete evidence Georgiana and Bess ever had a romantic relationship. But, it is also absurd to argue that two women who openly expressed their feelings and lived together could have never engaged in a romantic relationship.

Despite Bess’ relationship with her husband, Georgiana still considered Bess her closest friend. In one letter, Georgiana wrote, “My dear Bess, Do you hear the voice of my heart crying to you? Do you feel what it is for me to be separated from you?” Popular gossip maintained that Bess envied Georgiana and wished for her position. Others accused Bess of only pretending to be Georgiana’s friend to use her high-profile connections. That Bess began other relationships whilst in the “love triangle” gave this theory further credence. But, the hostility towards Bess could have been a lack of understanding about the Cavendishes and their set-up. From the outside looking in, it would seem Bess was only the mistress, and an obstacle between Georgiana and a happy marriage.


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The relationship between Bess, Georgiana, and William became a notorious topic; it was such an irregular arrangement in a high-profile marriage. However, there is also no evidence the three were unhappy with this situation. In the 18th Century, society allowed a married woman to establish a romantic relationship with another woman. The main reason for this acceptance was more practical than progressive as this relationship could not result in any illegitimate children. In fact, it’s possible William tolerated this relationship with Bess to keep Georgiana from seeking a relationship with another man.

Georgiana thrived on the companionship Bess offered. She gave birth to her first child in 1783 (named after her) and soon bore Harriet, in 1785. William and Bess also conceived two children during this time, Caroline in 1785, and Augustus in 1788. To maintain secrecy, Bess delivered them abroad. Eventually, Caroline and Augustus joined the Cavendish household as playmates for William and Georgiana’s children. They were raised together never knowing they were siblings. Augustus and Caroline were illegitimate, so the Duke still needed a male heir to continue his line, whereas Georgiana needed a male heir to secure her freedom. After sixteen years of marriage Georgiana gave birth to William in 1790. After the birth she confessed the extent of her gambling debt to William. Bess stood by her through his fury. Now she had finally had birthed a son, Georgiana could take a lover. She fell in love with Charles Grey, the prominent politician and namesake of the Earl Grey tea.

In 1791 she become pregnant with his child. William gave Georgiana two options; she could choose either William and her three children, or Grey and the unborn child. William also informed her that if she chose Grey, she would never see her other children again. She travelled to France to give birth in secret with Bess. By choosing Georgiana over William, this proves Bess was not out to betray Georgiana. She bore her illegitimate daughter in 1792 and handed her over to Grey’s family. While Georgiana could never reveal her identity to Eliza, they allowed her to visit her daughter and bond with her. William, however, was still furious. Georgiana and Bess remained in France for another year, during the height of the French Revolution. When they returned in 1793, Georgiana was heartbroken to discover she was a stranger to her four-year-old son. Interestingly, the three continued their ménage à trois.

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After her ordeal in France, Georgiana resolved to begin anew. Many portrayals have depicted Georgiana becoming a pitied wallflower, but the reality is far different. She overcame the self-destructive urges which had almost ruined her. While she also lived with the regret of her actions, she sought to make things right. William suffered from gout, and Georgiana stayed by his bedside to comfort him. For the first time in their marriage, Georgiana and William became close to each other. Georgiana even met and become friends with the wife of Charles Grey, her former lover. Slowly, but gradually, Georgiana rebuilt her public life.

However, as Georgiana entered her early forties her health failed her. She had an operation on her eye then developed an abscess on her liver. Georgiana died in 1806, at the young age of 48. Her family was inconsolable over her death. Even William was emotional, as a peer wrote “The Duke has been most deeply affected and has shown more feeling than anyone thought possible—indeed every individual in the family are in a dreadful state of affliction.” Bess herself would mourn Georgiana’s passing in her own words “[Georgiana] was the constant charm of my life. She doubled every joy, lessened every grief. Her society had an attraction I never met with in any other being. Her love for me was really ‘passing the love of woman.” Thousands arrived at the Cavendish home in London to pay their respects to her.

Even after death, Georgiana continued to look after Bess. She had appointed Bess the sole guardian of her will, knowing this would give her some stability until her testament was sorted. Not only does this prove Georgiana never resented Bess but she also trusted her to uphold her wishes.

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Three years later, William and Bess married in 1809. Bess and William’s decision to wait shows a clear respect for Georgiana’s memory. It also disproves that Bess was merely waiting in the wings to become the next Duchess. The marriage dismayed Georgiana’s children, as they never liked Bess. When William died two years later in 1811, conflicts with Georgiana’s children came into full effect. Now Georgiana’s son was the new Duke and sought to rid himself of Bess. He evicted Bess from the Cavendish properties and denied her children the right to use the Cavendish family crest. In response, Bess publicly declared that William had fathered her illegitimate children. Desperate to get rid of her, the new Duke paid off Bess.

She lived in luxury by herself in Piccadilly before moving to Rome in 1816. She dedicated herself to archaeology by providing valuable funds to excavate precious Roman ruins. Bess herself outlived William by thirteen years, dying in 1824. At her deathbed, they found a bracelet containing Georgiana’s hair. Bess also wore a locket with Georgiana’s hair inside. After years of gossip about her supposed backstabbing of Georgiana, her death proved her innocent.

Over 200 years on, the relationship between Bess, Georgiana, and William still astounds those who discover it. Were all three players equally happy in their relationship? Or did the Duke have his cake and eat it by keeping his wife and mistress in the same house? Likewise, was the relationship between Georgiana and Bess purely platonic or did something more romantic bloom between them? As always when investigating the past, we probably won’t ever know what truly went on in the Cavendish house. But what we do know is that this was no ordinary 18th Century household.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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2 thoughts on “An Unconventional Life

  1. Jaime

    It sounds to me that Bess and Georgiana had a very co-dependent relationship, which most psychologists now believe is unhealthy, before she moved in with them. Georgiana’s whole life makes me sad. We often think that aristocrats in the past had luxurious lives full of freedom but the truth is that many of them were living in gilded cages. I do not envy them.

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  2. Charity Post author

    I haven’t studied them much (outside “The Duchess” movie, which I know is a bit inaccurate) but their relationship dynamic struck me as strange. Certainly out of the norm, although I would agree with you that I don’t think Bess set out to displace Georgiana — I think it was a friendship-romance that just happened to suit her, financially (giving her a home and stability).

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