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Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Amanda Foreman. HarperCollins. [pounds]19.99. 463 pages. ISBN 0-00-255668-5.

Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire, is the first biography since Brian Masters' 1981 book and will replace it as the definitive study of the 'beautiful duchess' who still fascinates after all these years. Georgiana Spencer was born into aristocratic society, wealth and what we now call 'privilege.' After her marriage to the Duke she established herself as a 'trend-setter' when it came to the important things of life: hair styles, clothes, hats etc. She also established herself as the leading member of the late eighteenth century fast set which thrived on tittle-tattle, gambling, adulteries and bastards. She dabbled in politics as if it were a game. (Perhaps this may indicate a gene in the Spencer family.)

Dr. Foreman is superb in recreating the small, privileged world in which Georgiana thrived. So skilled is she that this reviewer wondered why he was wasting his time reading about a woman whose claim to fame lay in her hair and whose home life was a menage a trois. Then the book changes as did its subject. Bad luck, ill health, an unhappy marriage and unbelievable indebtedness all had their effect. The beautiful duchess becomes more likeable and one realises that reading about her life, and the life round about her, is worthwhile after all. We realise that her 'politicking' was not just a game but a serious commitment although it is a pity that she could not have found a more worthy idol than Charles James Fox.

The book is graced with an imprimatur by Michael Holroyd praising the author, inserted perhaps at the instigation of the publisher to reassure potential buyers. It is totally unnecessary: this is a masterful book which is well written and widely researched. It brings to life not only an interesting woman but a fascinating period in our history.

The second book in our trilogy is Kate Chisholm's biography of Fanny Burney. To historians Fanny is best remembered for her marvellous journals and letters which give us superb insights into eighteenth century life while to general readers she is famous for her novels, especially for Evelina. Fanny was the daughter of the famous musical historian, Dr Charles Burney and was introduced through him to the world of musicians and to European travel. She largely educated herself and achieved fame through her fiction. This in turn got her, in a roundabout way, an appointment to the Royal Household, as Second Keeper of the Queen's Robes. Her letters and journals from this period in her life are some of our best sources for George III's family life.

Through Fanny Burney we also get a superb glimpse of much of eighteenth and early nineteenth century life - not only of the Royal Family but of musicians, writers - including the great Dr. Johnson - actors and politicians. She left behind a wealth of material which the author has used to great effect to give us an engaging biography which makes us realise that Fanny Burney was much more than just a recorder of events.

The third book in our trilogy is not a biography but something of a biographical study. Amanda Vickery has examined the lives of a certain number of Georgian ladies who were not at Court, did not write novels and were not beautiful duchesses. This is the world of what she calls 'genteel' ladies, the wives of solicitors and barristers, of merchants and of 'gentlemen' - a status no longer recognised on census forms. The author has, like the other two authors, done an immense amount of work pouring through diaries, letters and financial records to reconstruct the life or rather, lives, led by middle-class women in Georgian England.

The author argues that her book is 'a study in seemliness; a reconstruction of the penalties and possibilities of lives lived within the bounds of propriety.' The world she recreates - the world of provincial society in the North of England - is, she argues, far wider than many, including the more doctrinaire Feminists, would have us believe. 'Masculine authority,' she writes, 'was formally honoured, but practically managed.' It was the women who set the tone, controlled the passions of their menfolk and made English civilisation possible. Women's lives were varied, wide, interesting and challenging and this book, by careful study of surviving materials, allows us to see these truths. What the first two biographies did in particular, Miss Vickery's book does in general. Like the other two, it is masterful in its treatment of its subject.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Previous Article:Over Here.
Next Article:Fanny Burney: Her Life, 1742-1840.

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