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Privilege and Scandal by Janet Gleeson

Posted: Mon September 1st, 2008, 9:38 pm
by Telynor
History, especially that which is viewed through the eyes of women, has always fascinated me. Over the last decade, one period of history that has really started to interest me is that of Georgian England, during the reigns of the five Hannoverian kings -- George I, George II, George III, George IV, and William IV.

While at the time, women could not vote, directly own property, and legally were considered to be children -- they were able to have influence on, and at times manipulate, the world around them. In <i>Privilege and Scandal</i> author Janet Gleeson shows the life of one woman who did just that.

Henrietta Frances Spencer, the youngest surviving daughter of the Earl Spencer and his wife, was beautiful, smart and possessed of a great deal of charm. As with her elder sister, Georgiana, she was expected to marry well, produce children, and be a credit to both her family and her new husband. She grew up very close to her older sister, a bond that would last all of their lives together. But Harriet, as she was known, was also passionate, determined and craved excitement in her life, all of which would eventually prove her undoing.

She married, after several failed courtships, Lord Duncannon, the heir to the Earl of Bessborough and a wealthy Irish peer. And Harriet, with the help of her sister, Georgiana, now the Duchess of Devonshire, entered into London political society with full abandon. Once she had produced the necessary heirs to her husband, two sons and a daughter, she also gave into the admiration of the gentlemen around her, affairs that she tried to keep discreet, but sometimes got a bit out of hand, especially when it came to the playwright and politician Richard Sheridan.

If this sounds shocking to twentieth first century readers, in a time when marriage was made more for financial gains and family connections, if the partners were discreet, and quiet about it, affairs could be tolerated. Unluckily for Harriet, her husband was very possessive and jealous, and Harriet did her best to keep things quiet. That is, until she met Lord Granville Gower, the younger son of a noble family who was possessed of outrageous good looks, a great deal of charm and brains to boot. While Harriet tried not to give in -- by this time she had given birth to a fourth son -- soon enough there were whispers of an affair, and Harriet was terrified that word would get back to her husband.

And that marriage was shaky. There were rumours that there would be a divorce, and Harriet's health was already undermined from stress, several miscarriages, and what appears to be a series of strokes. She had already courted scandal by overspending, a bad habit of living and gambling on credit -- enough to where the Bessborough estates were mortgaged to the hilt, and the family was about to declare bankruptcy -- and her outspoken support of liberal politicians such as Fox and Sheridan. The pamphleteers and cartoonists of the day found both Georgiana and Harriet prime targets for satire and there were times when both women, with sometimes children, mother and servants in tow, would escape to the Continent to evade scrutiny.

Then the worst happened -- Harriet found herself pregnant by Lord Granville....

I'm not going to reveal much more of this story, as how it all worked out for Harriet, Georgiana, their husbands and children does make for remarkable reading. I had always wondered why the women of the Regency period had such loose reputations, especially with the later Victorians, but now, it becomes much more clear. Women were finding a new freedom, in the press, in the arts and in politics. And Harriet, determined to enjoy it all, did just that.

Author Janet Gleeson creates a vivid portrait of Harriet Spencer, using Harriet's letters, those of her contemporaries, and the history of the times to write this story. The depictions of high society life in London and France are particularly strong, and compelling to read. The writing style and pacing get somewhat dry at times, and slow the book down about a third of the way through, but once Harriet meets Lord Granville, the story truly picks up again.

I found Harriet to be a very interesting woman to read about, complex and at times maddening, but also very sympathetic. Gleeson, to her credit, doesn't go too far in making her subject unbelievable or overly romantic, but stays within what is known, and only rarely goes and makes conjectures about Harriet.

If the name Spencer is familiar, yes, this particular Spencer family were the ancestors of that Lady Diana Spencer who would live and die so tragically.
For those who would like to learn more about the Spencers and the world that they lived and moved in, I would recommend two other biographies, [a href="http://www.epinions.com/content_29573680772"]Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire</a> by Amanda Foreman (republished as The Duchess and made into a film starring Kiera Knightley) and [a href="http://www.epinions.com/content_93569126020"]Elizabeth and Georgiana: The Duke of the Devonshire and His Two Duchesses[/a] by Caroline Chapman and Jane Dormer. All three books provide a well-rounded picture of turbulent times and a fascinating group of people.

As well as the story itself, there are ample notes, two inserts of black and white photos showing portraits and places, as well a bibliography that gives hints for further reading. Happily, a genealogical chart unsnarls the complicated relationships.

Four stars overall, and recommended for those interested in this period of time.

Privilege and Scandal: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, the sister of Georgiana
Janet Gleeson
2006; Three Rivers Press, New York
ISBN 978-0-307-38198-9