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Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer; 7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806) was an English socialite, style icon, author, and activist. Of noble birth from the Spencer family, married into the Cavendish family, she was the first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, and the mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire.
As the Duchess of Devonshire, she garnered much attention and fame in society during her lifetime. With a preeminent position in the peerage of England, the duchess was famous for her beauty, charisma, and leading fashion and style; political campaigning; emotionally and psychologically conflicting marital arrangements and love affairs; and socializing and gambling.
She was the great-great-great-grand-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. Their lives, centuries apart, have been compared in tragedy in contemporary time.
In 1782, while on a retreat from London with the duke, the duchess met Lady Elizabeth Foster (widely known as "Bess") in the City of Bath. She became close friends with Lady Elizabeth who had become destitute after separating from her husband and three sons. Given the bond that developed between the two women (and the difficult position her new friend was in), with the Duke's acquiescence, the duchess agreed to having Lady Elizabeth live with them. When the Duke began a sexual relationship with Lady Elizabeth, a ménage à trois (love triangle) was established and it was arranged that Lady Elizabeth live with them permanently. While it was common for male members of the upper class to have mistresses, it was not common or generally acceptable for a mistress to live so openly with a married couple. Furthermore, the duchess had become emotionally dependent on Lady Elizabeth whom she believed to be her best friend. Having no alternative, she became complacent over the matter. The arrangement among the three is more commonly referred to as a ménage à trois, but, while the relationship between the duke and Lady Elizabeth was obviously sexual, there is no concrete evidence of anything beyond emotional dependence, and a particular and open affection, on the part of the duchess, towards Lady Elizabeth. In one of her letters, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to Lady Elizabeth, "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?" Nevertheless, Lady Elizabeth Foster herself was said to actually envy her and wished for her position. (Evidence Lady Elizabeth shared a love for her either way was proven at her death years later when a locket, containing a strand of the duchess' hair, was found around her neck, as well as a bracelet also containing hair of the duchess on a table beside her deathbed). Lady Elizabeth was reported to have insinuated her way into the marriage by taking advantage of the duchess's friendship and love and having "engineered her way" into a sexual relationship with the duke. Lady Elizabeth engaged in well documented sexual relations with other men while she was in the "love triangle" with the duke and duchess. Among their contemporaries, the relationship between the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Elizabeth Foster was the subject of speculation which has continued beyond their time. The love triangle itself was a notorious topic; it was an irregular arrangement in a high-profile marriage. Lady Elizabeth's affair with the Duke resulted in two illegitimate children: a daughter, Caroline Rosalie St Jules, and a son, Augustus Clifford.
Georgiana Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire died on 30 March 1806, at 3:30, at the age of 48. She was surrounded by her husband, the 5th Duke of Devonshire; her mother, Countess Spencer; her sister, Countess of Bessborough; her eldest daughter, Lady Morph (who was eight months pregnant); and Lady Elizabeth Foster. They were all said to have been inconsolable over her death. For the first time, the duke showed moving emotion towards his late wife, as a contemporary wrote, "The Duke has been most deeply affected and has shown more feeling than anyone thought possible--indeed every individual in the family are in a dreadful state of affliction." The late duchess's eldest daughter furthermore poured out her feelings, "Oh my beloved, my adored departed mother, are you indeed forever parted from me--Shall I see no more that angelic countenance or that blessed voice--You whom I loved with such tenderness, you who were the . . . best of mothers, Adieu--I wanted to strew violets over her dying bed as she strewed sweets over my life but they would not let me." Her distant cousin, Charles James Fox, for whom she had triumphantly campaigned, was noted to have cried. The Prince of Wales himself lamented, "The best natured and the best bred woman in England is gone." Thousands of the people of London congregated at Piccadily, where the Cavendish home in the city was located, to mourn her. She was buried at the family vault at All Saints Parish Church (now Derby Cathedral) in Derby.
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