Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Georgiana the Author

"I should be very happy if I could borrow some friendly Sylph (if any are so kind to hover about Hardwick)..."
-Georgiana, in a letter to her mother

When Georgiana was a naive, young girl of sixteen with her whole life ahead of her she did something unusual for a daughter of an aristocrat: she wrote a book. Emma was published anonymously and tells a story similar to Austen's Pride and Prejudice in that first impressions are not always reliable. It tells of a young woman who finds herself in love with a man but forced to marry another. The book is often forgotten and there is little knowledge it in history.

Georgiana's second book was published during the height of her popularity when she was newly married and had just made her name for herself as a fashion icon (think: Victoria Beckham when she was a newlywed). Again, she published it anonymously, which given the scandalous details, could have ruined the reputation Georgiana was enjoying. It was called The Sylph and was so popular it went through four editions quickly. It was written in the form of letters, just like Fanny Burney's Evelina.* The story is that of the naive country girl, Julia, who marries a rich aristocrat but soon discovers him to be a rake who spends all his money on gambling and mistresses. To distract herself from her woes, Julia involves herself in the ton and fashion, making friends and frenimies with the elite. Meanwhile her home life only gets worse when her husband gets more and more abusive. Her fellow wives of the ton bring little consolidation because they are just as ill-used by their husbands. In her worst time of need an anonymous person calling himself The Slyph (a sylph was a mythical invisible spirit) writes to her offering her advice. Eventually, Julia is forced to run away from her husband (who promptly commits suicide) and she discovers the true identity of The Slyph and the two wed. Does the story sound familiar? The first half it anyway.

The Sylph was based on Georgiana's personal experiences as a debutant in high society. It didn't take a genius to recognize the similarity between the fictional Julia and the young Duchess of Devonshire so it wasn't long before everyone had figured out who the author was, although Georgiana would never publicly admit it. This only helped sales. Another part of the book's success was its scandalous details which were were labeled "obscene" by the Blue Stocking Group (one of the first feminists groups). The Gentleman's Magazine was made uncomfortable by the author's knowledge of the ton and the details of the physical and sexual abuse.

Although fiction, The Sylph stands as a great contemporary document into the ton. It is made up of many stories from Georgiana's personal life, stories of the abuse her friends suffered and the snobbery she herself was involved in. That, is possibly why the book was received with such shock. People to this day, always seem more frightened by fact than fiction; even if that fiction is fact.

pollcode.com free polls
Would you be interested if we began reading The Sylph here? (ie: a chapter a week)
Yes! I need more scandal! No thanks, it doesn't tempt me.

*When it was first published, many thought The Sylph was Burney's work which her publisher didn't negate, only boosting sales further.


  1. I have The Sylph sitting on my ever-rapidly-growing 'to read' shelf. (Which is as full as my 'already read' list. Geez.) Has anyone here read it? Maybe Heather?

  2. It's a shame and I'm rather embarrassed to admit it but I also have it on my to read shelf, next to Emma. I get so distracted by biographies!

    However I was considering doing a read along or something of the like on the blog but I don't know if that will catch many people's fancy.

  3. Oh, what a stroke of genius! Where do I sign? I bet many of us would enjoy it, but the (so predictable!) problem is having the time. Maybe if a schedule were set out well in advance?

    Glad I'm not alone in my shame ;)

  4. Fantastic idea! I'm definitely up for it. When do we start? :D

  5. p.s. I'm over half way through 'Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire'. My eyes are really being opened. I didn't realise that drugs, drink and gambling were such an enticement to the upper classes. I have been very naive. I thought they all had to behave 'properly'. :O) When I think of it, they were exposed to all the temptations that pop/film stars of our day are.

  6. I have it on my wishlist on a bookshopping site, so I'm looking forward to purchase it. It would be really nice with one chapter in the month here!

  7. @Lesley- Yes, that was one of my most emphasized points in my thesis on her and the celebrity image of the 18th century! I wish the Duchess film was more about that.

    @Ninon- I was thinking maybe a chapter or more a week, with some discussion. I'm glad readers seem pretty enthusiastic about it!

  8. I've yet to see the film Heather. I'm taking your advice and waiting until I finish the book first, but I'm looking forward to watching it..... for better or worse. :O)

  9. I'd love to read along but could we maybe start in a couple of months? I'm costuming a musical and an opera and I have a full load of classes this semester so free time isn't exactly in abundance at the moment...

  10. I'd love to be able to read along, but I don't have the book..I'll check if I can find it online. In any case, keep me posted-I think it's a great idea. Thanks:)

  11. The book is actually on Googlebooks. So when I figure out how to run this potluck, that might be one means.

  12. If that's the case- count me in:)

  13. I am new to your blog...all very interesting. Like Leslie, I too am naive of the life lived by this intriguing Duchess.
    I look forward to furthering my knowledge of this lady and this period in history.
    Enjoying your blog.

  14. Kjirsten Gustavson, Curator of Education, Clermont State Historic SiteMarch 31, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    This post had me intrigued given the timing of the book's release and the use of the name Julia in the Nancy Shippen diary that I've been chronicling in my blog. It's nothing concrete, but contextually it lead to some interesting questions.

    See here: