Susan C. Shea was a non-profit executive for more than two decades before quitting her day job in 2006 to become a full time fiction writer. Her first mystery, Murder in the Abstract, comes out in June this year, and she is finishing the second in the series and working on a short story this spring. Here Susan writes about Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
Susan C. Shea on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman
Fiction writers all hear the question, 'Where do you get your ideas?' My guess is we answer somewhat the same way: from what goes on around us, from weird newspaper items and endless true life tragedies covered in the media, from our own frustrations and sympathies, from history and, above all, from our imaginations.
Murder mystery writers ask 'What if...?' and build lethal hypothetical answers based on snippets of conversation in the grocery line, stories of missing children, or the odd bank clerk whose eyes flit around in apparent nervousness while she counts out our money. Writers of historical crime novels look at real lives in an alternative context, one in which the subjects might have acted differently - or been acted upon differently - than what history recorded.
All of which brings me to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the powerful and wildly popular wife of one of England's richest men, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, and the subject of Amanda Foreman's eponymous biography. Georgiana's life is catnip from start to finish for mystery writers. The Whitbread Prize-winning book reads like a Jane Austen novel turned on its head for good reason. Austen and Georgiana both lived in England at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th and used the language of their era in their written work.
Austen saw the world from the perspective of a genteel, impoverished spinster and a dryly humorous observer of human folly. Georgiana was the intensely engaged committer of follies. Austen's fictional characters encountered roadblocks, financial distress, embarrassment, arrogance and misunderstanding. So did the real life Georgiana, G to her intimate friends. She lived in a cauldron of scalding relationships, financial and romantic temptations, power plays, revolution, and intrigue where emotions ran high and seeming disaster lay around the corner.
When I re-read Austen, which I do regularly, I never feel her characters would kill to escape their troubles. Austen plays out her 'what if's at the level of small communities and even smaller annuities, albeit with big stakes for her characters. Murder is too radical a gesture, too gross, too upsetting to the order of their lives for the author or the characters to consider.
On the other hand, having read Foreman's extensive quotations from letters and journals and her impressively annotated recounting of Georgiana's life, I'm amazed no one in Georgiana's circle committed murder. Take this episode in which she, perpetually in debt, begged her friend the Prince of Wales in 1789 for money to cover some of her gambling debts, which she was hiding from the Duke, as well as from other friends who had lent her money:
I am quite mad and distracted at what I am doing... I don't dare read over what I have written and if I did not think I could depend on you I should go quite mad... I don't sign my name in case of accidents.
Was she afraid of blackmail, afraid her husband might divorce her if he found out how much money she owed? After all, he had already insisted that his mistress, a.k.a. her former best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, live with them. What if said poisonous friend had intercepted and used the letter to force the divorce, or to exert pressure over the Prince of Wales for some political purpose?
Infidelity was not uncommon in the Duke and Duchess's circle, and bastard children of the aristocracy popped up everywhere. Early on, the Duke had an illegitimate daughter whom Georgiana accepted into the family. When Georgiana's affair with a political protégé, Charles Grey, led to a pregnancy in 1791, her world didn't end. Her husband sent her abroad to have the child, a girl whom she had to give up immediately to Grey's parents, writing a poem that included the lines, 'Unhappy child of indiscretion... pledge of reproof of past transgression...'
But what if the Duke had killed Georgiana in a rage when she first told him? What if Georgiana had panicked at the thought of losing the Duke's protection and poisoned him before he could act against her? Might the Duke have called out Charles Grey, or Grey eloped with Georgiana? (He didn't suggest it. He sounds like a bit of a cad, although G apparently loved him dearly.)
It's provocative to realize that Jane Austen and the Duchess were both resident in Bath in 1803, Austen because her family had settled there to her chagrin, and Georgiana because she and the Duke were ill and spent an entire season taking the waters. Austen wrote caustically about Bath society and the aristocrats who set the fashion rules there. The Duchess was the reigning socialite in England and, well or sick, her very presence in Bath must have been a topic of conversation in the town, chatter that the writer Austen surely drew from only a few years later when she wrote her great novels.
G was the acknowledged leader of fashion of her day. A few of Austen's least attractive characters may have chased Georgiana's style in hats and gowns, at least during the time of the Duchess's greatest impact on public life, before she became ill in the first years of the 19th century, but their very pursuit of G's look made them targets of Austen's satire.
What Austen saw from the bottom up and found ridiculous, the Duchess saw from aristocratic heights and apparently accepted as normal. While neither Austen the writer nor Georgiana the historical figure apparently considered murderous actions, I have the best proof of my thesis about fiction writers and their fervid imaginations in Fanny Burney, a novelist of the era who met G and her family and closest friends socially in Bath and, knowing all the gossip about them, took the opportunity to watch them like a hawk and write down her 'what if's.
I fancied all sorts of things about Lady Eliz Foster - I fancied that while - from some inevitable compact with the Duke, - she [Georgiana] consented to countenance her, and receive her as her own guest, she was secretly hurt, offended and unhappy...
Burney went on to conjecture at some length how this ménage à trois came to be, what pressures were exerted on the Duchess, and how Bess might have been manipulating the situation and even blackmailing G.
Reading these passages in Foreman's biography of Georgiana, I smiled. We novelists are all the same, standing somewhat apart, watching for signs of things out of order, looking for clues that pressures are building, unacceptable conditions that will lead to mayhem of some kind. For Austen, it was enough that a woman's sole chance for happiness and security might slip away because of a misunderstanding. In Georgiana's world, where the events and emotions happened at fever pitch, Fanny Burney and I agree that the consequences might have been scandalous, even fatal.
Frankly, I still am not sure her sister's ill-tempered husband didn't try to poison his wife. But that's another story.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]