Sunday, 2 December 2018

Scandal: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the British Election of 1784

The Westminster parliamentary election of 1784 is famous for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably for the active involvement of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806). Her political activities were the stuff of scandal. At the time, British women were unable to vote or run for Parliament. They would not gain those rights for more than a century. Georgiana's scandalous behavior was not to defy the electoral laws but the convention that women, at least "respectable" women, should not actively canvas for votes on behalf of men. [Below: Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough]

Georgiana's marriage to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, was not a happy one. The Duke was unemotional and adulterous. The Duchess sought refuge in society, the theatre, gambling, and visiting pleasure gardens. Gambling became an addiction, and she racked up enormous debts. 

As celebrities do today, she attracted the attention of the media, in press and print. Artist Thomas Rowlandson produced many cartoons in which she was the subject, such as the two below showing her at the gaming table and at Vauxhall (in center of the crowd with her sister). Many other notables are pictured at Vauxhall, including Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell, seated at the left.

The candidate Georgiana helped was Charles James Fox, leader of the parliamentary Whigs. In 1780 she had stood on the hustings with Fox. In 1784 she went much further. She went about the streets of Westminster, canvassing voters and trying to convince them to cast their vote for Fox. He was not only running to keep his seat as an MP, but hoping that the Whigs he led would gain enough seats to allow him to replace his rival, William Pitt the Younger, as Prime Minister. 

The Westminster electorate was relatively large for the time and included men of the middling and lower ranks. For a duchess to mix and touch -- some claimed even kiss -- such folk seemed scandalous to many contemporaries. Cartoonists had a field day, notably Rowlandson. The image below, "The Devonshire; or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes" shows the Duchess kissing a butcher. 

More licentious, and completely fanciful, "The Poll" shows Georgiana and Albinia, Countess of Buckinghamshire, on a see saw trying to "tip the balance" between the two leading candidates, Fox and Sir Cecil Wray. Albinia openly supported Wray, and met the same criticisms as Georgiana. Both women are shown exposing their breasts, symbolizing their scandalous behavior. Fox is on the right with his hands in the air. The phallic-shaped rocks the seesaw rests on add another level of suggestiveness.

The image below shows Georgiana processing to the hustings with other canvassers, including other women.

Despite all the negative publicity Georgiana received, Fox was reelected as one of the two Westminster MPs. Who knows, her efforts may even have helped him win over voters. His goal of becoming Prime Minister was thwarted, however, because Pitt gained a solid majority of supporters in Parliament.

Georgiana did not enter the political fray again so publicly. She continued for years to mix with and influence Whig leaders like Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. 

She also had an affair with a member of the Whig inner circle, Charles Grey, with whom she had an illegitimate daughter. The affair ended when her husband threatened her with divorce and never seeing her children again. Georgiana, who had strong mothering instincts, chose her children over Grey. He was furious at the rejection, but had some compensation. He later became an earl, Prime Minister, and had a tea named after him. 

The portrait below by Joshua Reynolds, shows the Duchess playing with her daughter, also named Georgiana. 

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