The Duke of Wellington loved the company of women; that can hardly be disputed. He especially enjoyed the company of women who were not his wife and had several mistresses during his lifetime. Prominent society ladies such as Harriet Arbuthnot and Frances Wedderburn-Webster are remembered now almost solely because of their connection to the Duke, one of Britain’s first real ‘celebrities’.
It was one of these ladies, Georgiana Lennox, daughter of the 4th Duke of Richmond that was the subject of my latest read for Women’s History Month. Invariably addressed across decades by Wellington as ‘My dearest Georgy’, Alice Marie Crossland’s book outlines the ‘life and loves’ of Georgiana; centred around her lifelong friendship with Arthur Wellesley.
Georgiana’s mother was the Duchess of Richmond whose ball just before the battle of Waterloo has become practically mythologised. Before he departed, Wellington – who had taken Georgiana as his guest to reviews of his troops in the preceding weeks – gifted Georgiana a miniature of himself, signifying that their relationship was, if nothing else, one of unusually strong friendship. Whether their relationship ever blurred the lines beyond that is only pure guess-work: she certainly was besotted with him and there are several gaps in their correspondence where letters seem to have been destroyed. Reading her letters, you get the sense that being part of Wellington’s circle around the time of Waterloo must have been like hanging out with the very highest A-Lister today.
The narrative is biographical but with a fair amount of speculation as to the emotions and reactions of Georgiana to the ups and downs in her eventful life. In some ways, you might fancy yourself in a Jane Austen novel – the domineering Duchess of Richmond has shades of both Mrs Bennett and Sir Walter Elliot, while the financially straitened Lennoxes had, as well as the lively and spirited Georgy, an eloping daughter to contend with.
The whole books is centred around Georgiana’s correspondence with the various society personages of the day, thankfully meticulously preserved for the most part by her daughter. Wellington was one of her most frequent correspondents and it made for a really interesting insight into the personality of the Iron Duke. It painted him as a thoroughly warm and human man, as opposed to the hard-to-please conqueror of Bonaparte or the standoffish snob he’s often portrayed as.
I really enjoyed this insight into Wellington’s personal life; that he was a bit of a gossip, that he enjoyed playing a variant of Chinese Whispers with Georgiana (they would make up a story to tell someone at a ballroom and watch to see how fast the rumour spread) and that he was more than willing to partake in frivolous parlous games with the many ladies who visited him. The correspondence also highlights that Wellington, however cold he might have seemed to some, was unfailingly supportive and generous to those that knew him well. The Lennox family benefitted from his kindness on so many occasions.
Georgiana lived an uncommonly long life for her time and, after Wellington’s death, devoted herself to preserving his memory and any tokens she had received from him. In her nineties, she noted that she still received visits from Wellesleys, Field Marshals and had even been invited to tea with Queen Victoria as people eagerly lapped up the memories she was able to share of the great victor of Waterloo, especially that famous glittering ball.
Although Crossland’s research was still meticulous, I found it a lighter read than many other biographical works and a very humanising peek into the life of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest men.
My rating: 3.5/5