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Chiswick House and Gardens

Historically, same-sex female attraction or sexual contact was not a criminal offence. Because it wasn't recognised, evidence for lesbianism or female bisexuality is often difficult to find. However, in the 18th century, amongst fashionable women, a cult of same-sex 'romantic friendship' was accepted, even if to some contemporary observers it appeared 'queer'.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

One of the most charismatic figures in Georgian society was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Affectionately known as Gee, she was renowned for her style and her involvement in politics.

In 1774, at the age of 17, she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. The marriage would prove to be an unhappy one. Nevertheless, as the wife of one the richest men in the country, Georgiana could indulge her passions for fashion, introducing the vogue for elaborate and tall hairstyles. She also loved gambling - running up huge debts.

Satrical Print showing Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire Canvasing for Votes, hand-coloured engraving
R. Lyford, Satrical Print showing Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire Canvasing for Votes, hand-coloured engraving, 1784, Private Collection

Her husband's status meant that Georgiana could also take part in political life. Although women could not vote and could not become members of parliament Georgiana became a central advocate for the Whig party. Her highly visible campaigning on behalf of the party, during the 1784 Westminster Election, secured victory for the reformist Whigs.

‘My earthly paradise’: Georgiana and Chiswick House

Although the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire was Chatsworth in Derbyshire, Georgiana spent much time in London at Devonshire House and also at her own, more private residence Chiswick House.

Chiswick House, view of the West Elevation
Chiswick House, view of the West Elevation © Historic England Photo Library N071022

Chiswick House had been designed and built by Lord Burlington and was completed in 1729. One of the greatest examples of the Neo-Palladian style in architecture its English landscape gardens had been designed by William Kent.

Georgiana restyled the interiors (mainly in the no-longer extant wings that were a later addition by the Cavendish family to Lord Burlington's original building). She was also responsible for planting lilacs, honeysuckle and climbing roses beneath the windows of her rooms. She called Chiswick House her '...earthly paradise…' and used it to entertain her close circle of friends as well as to receive members of the Whig party.

Devonshire House no longer stands, Chatsworth was never her place. At Chiswick House and in its gardens we come closest to Georgiana.

Romantic female friendships: Gee and Bess

As well as being reformists, the radical Whig aristocracy were notable for their 'lax' approach to traditional sexual codes.

There has been much debate regarding the nature of Georgiana's own emotional and sexual life. Although she took male lovers, it is clear that she also subscribed to the fashion for 'romantic female friendships'.

Indeed two of Gee's close friends, the French Queen Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Polignac, both led the fashion in this. Later, during the Revolution, their political enemies would accuse them of having a sexual relationship.

 The Duchess of Devonshire Trampling Scandal, etching
William Humphrey, The Apotheosis of the Dutchess [sic] , or The Duchess of Devonshire Trampling Scandal, etching, 1784, Private Collection

Georgiana's own romantic infatuations could sometimes be disconcerting to their female recipients. They went beyond the conventional terms of endearment used between two women of the period.

Having received a romantically emotional note from Gee, Lady Jersey replied: '…some part of your letter frightened me.' However, on two occasions the female subjects of Georgiana's Romantic Friendship and infatuation were more willing parties.

Gee's first, great crush was on the much admired Mary Graham, known as 'The beautiful Mrs Graham'. Gee's letters to Mary reveal the depth of feeling she had for her:

…you must know how tenderly I love you…I am falling asleep and must leave you now, but I want to say to you above all that I love you, my dear friend, and kiss you tenderly

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana's infatuation with 'The beautiful Mrs Graham' ended when, visiting Bath with her husband in 1782, they were introduced to Lady Elizabeth Foster (known as Bess).

Bess was estranged from her husband and in financial difficulty. Gee and Bess struck up a very close friendship to the extent that she was invited by Gee to live with her and her husband.

This developed into a type of relationship that approached what today we might call 'polyamorous'. The arrangement lasted 25 years and Bess and the Duke had two illegitimate children.

Portrait of Jean-Urbain Guérin, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Elizabeth Foster in profile
Jean-Urbain Guérin, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Elizabeth Foster, 1791, M177 © The Wallace Collection

Gee's own 'romantic' crush on Bess is made clear in the fervent letters she wrote to her (despite the fact that she was very aware that Bess was her husband's lover):

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? […]Oh Bess, every sensation I feel but heightens my adoration of you.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Following Gee's death in 1806, Bess was moved to write:

[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’

Lady Elizabeth Foster

In her will, Georgiana left her personal papers to the care of Bess, who destroyed many. What the exact nature of this love 'passing the love of woman' was we can only guess.

Bess moved into Georgiana's 'earthly paradise' even going so far as to try to have Chiswick House made over to her in perpetuity. In 1809, Bess married William Cavendish to become the Duchess of Devonshire in her own turn.

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