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Privilege and Scandal

The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, Sister of Georgiana

Privilege and Scandal by Janet Gleeson
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Sweeping and scandalous, rich and compellingly readable, here is the first biography of Lady Harriet Spencer, ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, and devoted sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Harriet Spencer was without a doubt one of the most glamorous, influential, and notorious aristocrats of the Regency period.

The second daughter of the prestigious Spencer family, Harriet was born into wealth and privilege. Intelligent, attractive, and exceedingly eager to please, at nineteen years of age she married Frederick, Viscount Duncannon, an aloof, distant relative. Unfortunately, it was not a happy union; the only trait they shared was an unhealthy love of gambling. The marriage produced four children, yet Harriet followed in the footsteps of her older sister and began a series of illicit dalliances, including one with the prominent and charismatic playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Then she met Lord Granville Leveson Gower, handsome and twelve years her junior. Their years-long affair resulted in the birth of two children, and all but consumed Harriet: concealing both pregnancies from her husband required great skill. Had the children been discovered, it surely would have resulted in divorce—which would have been disastrous.

Harriet’s life was dramatic, and the history-making events she observed were equally fascinating. She was an eyewitness to the French Revolution; she participated in both the euphoria following Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and the outpouring of grief at his spectacular funeral; she was privy to the debauchery of the Prince Regent’s wife, Princess Caroline. She quarreled bitterly with Lord Byron when he pursued her young daughter (rumor had it that he was truly interested in Harriet herself). She traveled through war-torn Europe during both the rise and the fall of Napoleon and saw the devastating aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, where her son was gravely injured. Harriet, along with her sister, was one of the leading female political activists of her day; her charm allowed her to campaign noisily for Charles James Fox—while still retaining influence over supporters of his rival, William Pitt the Younger. Harriet survived Georgiana by fifteen years, living to see the coronation of George IV.

Janet Gleeson’s elegant, page-turning style brings Harriet’s story vividly to life. Based on painstaking archival research, Privilege and Scandal gives readers an inside look at the lives of the British aristocracy during the decadent eighteenth century—while at the same time shining the spotlight on one of the era’s most fascinating women.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: Privilege and Scandal
Author: Janet Gleeson

The Eligible Match


I must put down what I dare tell nobody. I should be ashamed were it not so ridiculous,” wrote Harriet to her lover. “. . . In my fifty- first year I am courted, followed, flattered, and made love to... thirty-six years, a pretty long life, I have heard and spoken that language, for seventeen years...”

Love of one form or another was always to be the force that fashioned Harriet’s existence. Tall of stature, yet voluptuous in her figure, she was a woman of haunting allure. Her high-cheekboned narrow face was dominated by features that seemed over-large in their fragile surroundings—a slender aristocratic nose, a provocative full-lipped mouth, and huge dark almond-shaped eyes that could grow warm, amused, intelligent, or dreamy according to whim. The portraitist John Hoppner, famous for his portrayals of glamorous aristocrats, painted Harriet in her mid-twenties, just as fashions in portraiture became less formal and more revealing. She is shown in profile, arms stretched protectively around her two eldest sons, delicately chiseled features and slender neck emerging from the froth of a deep collar. Her hair dark, unpowdered, adorned only with a simple band, tumbles naturally about her delicate face, giving her the air of a glamorous latter-day Venus rather than a Madonna—the usual allusion for mother-and-child portraits. Slanting eyes gaze at one of her sons, but focus in the distance, and something in this come-hither look exudes the intellect, artlessness, and allure that made Harriet so compelling to friends and lovers alike.

The admiration that Harriet received at an early age sprang from her social standing as much as from her unusual looks. She was born Lady Henrietta Frances Spencer,* in Wimbledon, on June 16, 1761, into one of the wealthiest and most venerable dynasties in England. As she was the third of John and Margaret Georgiana Spencer’s children,† her birth received less attention than did her older siblings’. Fair- haired, blue-eyed Georgiana, who would achieve future fame as the fashionable Duchess of Devonshire, had been born in 1757 and was doted on by her mother as her favorite and firstborn child. George John (who would become Viscount Althorp) had arrived a year later, six weeks prematurely, and was celebrated as much for surviving as for being the only male heir. But Harriet failed to rouse the same passionate affection and, despite the fact that her mother claimed to have “uncommon tenderness...for my children,” the only surviving reference she made to Harriet in her early days is one of coolness rather than warmth:

The child (who by the bye is a little ugly girl) and myself are thank god as well as our situations will permit us to be. I cannot say she is quite so small or so frightful as George was, though she has not much less of either of those commodities she one beauty to brag of but an abundance of fine brown hair.

Harriet may have taken third place in her mother’s affections, but Lady Spencer had strong views on how she wanted Harriet to be raised, even from the earliest days of infancy. Producing legitimate children had always been key to an eighteenth-century aristocratic wife’s existence, although many mothers relinquished their responsibilities with the baby’s safe delivery, leaving breast-feeding, care, and education to others. But by the time of Harriet’s birth, ideas about motherhood and child-rearing were changing. The writings of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that the expression of passion and emotion was something to be desired. Bound up with this was the fact that children were to be viewed as individuals who were entitled to kindness, and the bond between a mother and her children was something to nurture and encourage. Mothers should enjoy treating their offspring with affection and play an active role in their care and education.

On a more practical level, changes were also under way. Conventional thought had always deemed babies to be hungry from the moment of delivery. In addition to breast milk, infants were often fed “pap,” a confection of bread and water, or of flour, sugar oil of almonds, butter, and sugar. Alcohol was also regarded as being beneficial. A letter from Jonathon Binns, a medical expert, written in 1772, advised the mother of a baby to “give him a little red or white wine every day. He may at different times take about one glass; but be very cautious of it if his eyes be somewhat sore and inflamed. Red port is preferable to white, provided he is sufficiently open in his belly.” Babies’ clothes were similarly outlandish: swaddling bands of cotton ten or twenty feet long were often wrapped tightly from the armpit to below the hips to keep the spine straight and protect the legs from damage caused by kicking. Cleanliness was also viewed warily —infants were seldom washed or changed, for it was believed clean linen sucked the strength from a body.

New theorists now began to advocate kinder and more natural methods. Dr. William Cadogan, an eminent physician of the day, championed the benefits of fresh air and loose clothing and cleanliness. Rousseau echoed these notions, calling upon aristocratic women to abandon swaddling and return to breast-feeding themselves rather than employing others. But the shift did not happen overnight and, in the Spencer nursery, tradition was modified with the new, rather than wholeheartedly embraced. Like most aristocratic mothers Lady Spencer had a wet nurse to feed Harriet, but the child was not given pap. Neither was she swaddled in dirty rags; she was washed regularly— often with cold baths, which her mother thought advantageous to good health—and dressed in exquisite baby clothes: caps and gowns of fine cambric and lawn trimmed with lace and delicately embroidered, as befitting her rank and status.

It was not only with exquisite clothes and a coterie of nursemaids that Harriet was pampered from her earliest days. Luxury surrounded her. Her father, John Spencer, the great-grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and the intrepid Sarah Jennings, was the possessor of 100,000 acres of land, a string of noble residences—including Althorp, the three-centuries-old family seat in Northampton—and an income said to be worth more than £17,000 a year (over £1 million today).* With so much wealth at his disposal, John Spencer had made a career out of spending his fortune on every conceivable luxury. Wimbledon Park,† the house in which Harriet was born, was designed by Lord Burlington as a Palladian temple to pleasure and good taste. Interiors were extravagantly embellished with carved and gilded woodwork. Walls were lined in silk, damask, or hand-painted papers from China, and every room used by the family was bedecked with the most sumptuous furnishings and works of art available.

Set upon high ground, overlooking the grounds where the tennis championships now take place, Wimbledon Park, with its columned portico, loomed over the surrounding 1,200 acres, much as the Spencers themselves held sway over the world they inhabited. In the parkland more vast sums were lavished on improvements to conform to the Spencers’ desire for a pleasingly picturesque and “untamed” wilderness. This was an age in which the educated and wealthy elite had begun to react against the formalities of civilization, to appreciate natural and sublime landscapes and to see the countryside and country pursuits—whether farming, walking, fishing, gardening, hunting, or riding—as being healthy and spiritually beneficial antidotes to the artificiality and excesses of life in town. Thus a serpentine drive was cut and coverts were installed to encourage partridge, pheasants, and hares, so that Lord Spencer and his guests might amuse themselves shooting.

Lady Spencer was a firm advocate of the pleasures of country living, claiming to detest city life: “a sink of sin and sea coal,” she would call it. Wimbledon was only an hour’s easy drive from London, yet it provided a sanctuary from the bustle, and clean air in which to bring up a young family. “I did not think there could have been so beautiful a place within seven miles of London. The park has as much variety of ground, as if it were an hundred miles out,” wrote Hannah More, one of Lady Spencer’s friends, admiringly after a visit to the house. As a small child Harriet, standing at the large sash windows, could gaze down upon grassland and copses that had been “improved” by “Capability” Brown; she could amuse herself with visits to the family’s menagerie, which contained an assortment of exotic birds and animals, including two pet monkeys; or she could go boating and fishing on the lake—which the family termed a “pond.”

However much the Spencers loved country living, city life was an inevitable part of rich aristocratic life and one that they also wholeheartedly embraced. During the earliest years of Harriet’s childhood, the Spencers occupied themselves with the finishing touches to the family’s new London residence. The palatial Spencer House in St. James’s* was intended to exalt its owners and overawe visitors fortunate enough to be invited to enter its massive doors. Designed by John Vardy and James “Athenian” Stuart, who had just returned from Greece, the house’s interiors were the first to incorporate Greek architectural detail accurately, thus introducing to London the fashion for neoclassical styles. The house had a library thirty feet long, a saloon that was almost twice that size, and public and private interiors adorned with finery. Exquisite antique treasures were amassed from Europe and arranged in the hall. Vast collections of rare books filled the library; cupids, celebrating the theme of love, cavorted around the looking glasses in the Great Room, magnifying and multiplying the Spencers’ opulence, grandeur, and good taste. Even the walls of Lady Spencer’s dressing room—a room not intended for public display—were hung with masterpieces by Titian, Leonardo, Rubens, Poussin, and Veronese. “I do not apprehend there is a house in Europe of its size, better worth the view of the curious in architecture, and the fitting up and furnishing [of] great houses, than Lord Spencer’s in St. James’s Place,” wrote one overawed visitor.

But for all his vast wealth and the opulence with which he surrounded himself, Harriet’s father was not a man at ease with life, and his unhappiness was often to cloud the Spencer family’s existence. Gainsborough’s portrait of him, painted when Harriet was two, shows a young man with a wide forehead, large dark eyes, and a hawkish nose, who bears more than a passing resemblance to his youngest surviving daughter. There is a diffident set to his thin-lipped mouth, and a certain brooding gleam in his eyes that hints at a melancholic side to his character rooted in a childhood blighted by ill health, an excess of wealth, and little parental supervision.

Born a sickly baby, John Spencer had surprised everyone by surviving childhood, and was only eleven when his alcoholic father died and he came into his vast fortune. His mother remarried soon after, leaving her son’s upbringing largely to the haphazard care of servants and tutors, and paying little attention to his education or moral upbringing. The interest in art that was to feature so prominently in his later life manifested itself when he joined the Dilettante Society, a dining club based in St. James’s Street; founded in the interests of promoting classical connoisseurship, in reality it was notorious for drunken excesses and embellishing memories of foreign amorous conquests over copious glasses of port. “The nominal qualification for membership is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk,” sneered Horace Walpole, who never joined the select band.

As he grew up, John Spencer was afflicted by a variety of troublesome maladies. He suffered from gallstones, gout, and difficulties in breathing, as well as from deafness, which made him withdrawn and impaired his relationship not only with his friends and peers but also with his family. Lady Spencer would later write movingly of how his deafness prevented him from attempting to talk to his grandson John for fear he would not understand the reply. Added to this, his life was obstructed by an unusual limitation of his inheritance* that forbade him from taking an active role in government. Thus the only way he could exert influence was indirectly, by spending large sums of money to assist the candidates he supported—often members of his family—or in lavish hospitality to encourage political debate and so promote his interests. Otherwise he filled his days traveling about his various houses or abroad, and in self-indulgence—eating and drinking to excess, which further damaged his health, or sitting up till dawn over hands of faro or whist.

But Harriet’s father was much more than a moody libertine; beneath his profligate and prickly exterior lay an affectionate heart that found fulfillment in his blissfully happy marriage. He had married for love in what became one of the most romantic unions of his day. Harriet’s mother, Margaret Georgiana Poyntz, was seventeen when he, a young man of twenty, was first captivated by her. She was the daughter of Stephen Poyntz of Midgham in Berkshire, a successful career diplomat and courtier who had risen to become ambassador to Sweden and a Privy Counselor to George II. Margaret Georgiana was attractive rather than beautiful, with coppery brown hair that she wore swept back from her face, and large thoughtful dark eyes. Her warm outgoing character, lively intelligence, and ease swiftly melted John Spencer’s reticence. “I do not wonder at your liking Lady Spencer,” wrote Lady Stafford to her son years later; “all men formerly liked her and she was most captivating and pleasing. But the beauty of it was that she managed them all without their knowing it...she some how or another has the art of leading, drawing, or seducing people into right ways.”

The Spencer marriage represented a coup of the first order for Lady Spencer’s socially ambitious mother, Mrs. Poyntz. Determined that her daughter should marry as well as possible, she had used any means at her disposal to propel her into the right social spheres. Travel on the Continent was one way in which she gained entrée to high society and mingled with the elite without going to the trouble and expense of entertaining, and it may have been through their travels that the Poyntzes gained an introduction that brought them to one of John Spencer’s entertainments at Althorp. “Tis her way to beg letters to the most considerable people wherever she comes, and she always stays to dine or sup with them, that she may talk of it in the place she goes to,” said the diarist Lady Mary Coke, describing Mrs. Poyntz’s shameless modus operandi.

From the Hardcover edition.

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