MISTRESS OF THE ARTS by Rachel Trethewey


The Passionate Life of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford
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Scrupulous, smoothly presented biography of a flamboyant Regency aristocrat.

Moving at the center of a decadent society, Georgina, sixth Duchess of Bedford (1781–1853), had it all: wealth, position, personal magnetism, and a measure of political influence. She was, writes British political journalist Trethewey in this admiring portrait, a social climber, but not a snob, thanks to the influence of her unconventional mother, a Scottish noblewoman who taught her that “with great privilege came responsibilities to those who were less fortunate.” Yet Jane, Duchess of Gordon, also made sure her children married well, in Georgina's case accomplishing through the most exquisite diplomatic delicacy a union with John, Duke of Bedford. The marriage was mutually supportive and deeply affectionate, though that didn't preclude the Duchess's long liaison with the artist Edwin Landseer. “Affairs were commonplace in Regency society,” writes Trethewey; though outward conventions could not be violated, the Duke was “a loving but not a passionate man and so jealousy was not a natural emotion to him.” The author covers considerable political territory: feuds between the Whigs and Tories, the Bedfords’ support of Queen Caroline over the Prince Regent, the satirical hammering the couple took in the pages of John Bull, the fight against Parliamentary bribery spearheaded by Georgina’s stepson. But mostly this is the story of a Regency family’s “unashamedly hedonistic” lifestyle, much of it centered around their 3,000-acre estate at Woburn (“run like the most exclusive hotel”), with more intimate moments at Endsleigh, their palatial rustic cottage. The death of the Duke brought less secure financial times for Georgina, but Trethewey suggests she handled those with her usual aplomb. The fact that she was an attentive mother—unusual for a woman of her class—also helps attract readers to the appealing duchess.

Tactful yet open: much like Georgina’s personality. (16 pp. color and b&w photos, illustrations)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7472-5476-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Headline
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2003