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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Georgiana Cavendish

b. 1757, Wimbledon, Surrey, England; d. 1806, London

Georgiana Spencer was born into one of England’s most influential families. In 1774, she married William Cavendish, duke of Devonshire, and for the next few years led a sumptuous life as a trendsetter in fashion and manners. As hostess to the Devonshire House circle, which included the distinguished as well as disreputable, she introduced outlandish costumes such as the three-foot ostrich-feather headdress. Horace Walpole called her a “phenomenon.” But all was not well. An addiction to gambling produced mounting debt; disgust at her dissipated existence led to a profound malaise. She exorcised a few demons in the anonymously penned The Sylph (1778), a novel-cum-exposé of her aristocratic cohorts, depicted as libertines, blackmailers, and alcoholics. The same year, she threw herself into the political arena, organizing battalions of women in support of the Whig Party and canvassing for votes. During the 1784 election campaign, her success in bringing converts into the party spurred a government-orchestrated attack on her character in which she was portrayed as a dissolute nymphomaniac. The defamation campaign drove her into temporary retirement, but she returned to party politics in 1788, working behind the scenes. For much of the 1790s, plagued by debt and personal unhappiness, she lived abroad or in seclusion. Her last years were dedicated to rebuilding the fractured Whig Party, to no avail.