As we all know the ‘well to do’ women of the Georgian era were regarded as objects of beauty that simply swooned and fainted at the sight of a gallant gentleman. They wore stunningly beautiful clothes and shoes and spent hours on their hair and beauty regime. They paraded around Georgian London, Bath, Brighton etc. in their finery and partied into the early hours, but on the whole, they were regarded as fairly vacuous creatures.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
OK, so we’ve done the whole film thing, now let’s move on and dispense with that image. If we’re being totally honest that is, to a certain extent, the stereotypical image held of women from that period as, let’s face it, they had very few, if any ‘rights’ during that time. Only those in what was regarded as the lower class, worked, the remainder were kept in comfort by their spouses or parents if not married, they had no voting rights, rarely any disposable income of their own unless they had inherited money that was solely for their use and their husband could divorce them with minimal discomfort on their part.
Whilst women were maybe not able to publicly ‘have a voice’ in the world around them and how it worked it, appears from reading the newspapers of the day that actually they took more than a passing interest in the arts, science and politics. Many of the names we have become familiar with over the years did, in fact, take a more active role in politics than we had at first assumed with many of them engaged in gathering support for their chosen politician during elections using whatever methods were at their disposal.
One of the most famous election campaigns that took place was that of the 1784 Westminster election. If you thought politics and political campaigning today was vicious then take a look back to the Georgian era when things were far worse! We came across a book written October 1784 that provides a detailed account of all the events during the campaign – History of the Westminster Election from 1st April to the 17th May.
The Westminster election was of paramount importance as this was one of the key boroughs for two reasons – firstly every male homeowner could vote and secondly due to the number of voters it was equally important to both the Whig and Tory parties. There were two seats to be had and three candidates, so the battle was between Cecil Wray and Lord Hood, both Tory’s, and Charles Fox, Whig, therefore the candidates needed to use every weapon in their armoury to achieve success; none more so than Charles Fox. The battle then commenced.
The Duchess of Devonshire led the female canvassers accompanied by her sister Lady Harriet Duncannon, as she was titled at that point, later to become Lady Bessborough. The list of women involved in the election included Albinia, The Countess of Buckinghamshire, the Duchess of Portland, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s wife, Elizabeth née Linley, Lady Jersey, the Honourable Mrs Bouverie and the Scandalous Lady Worsley.
Others including Perdita aka Mrs Robinson, The White Crow, aka Maria Corbyn, The Bird of Paradise aka Gertrude Mahon, Lady Archer, Lady Carlisle, Mrs Crewe, Mrs Damer and the Miss Waldengraves, Lady Grosvenor and Mrs Armistead, the future Mrs Fox, so quite a little collection.
The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser of 6th April 1784 confirmed that the
‘Duchess of Devonshire along with Lord Derby & Lord Keppel are the firm of Mr Fox’s responsible committee.
This seems to imply that her role was a little more than just to ‘look pretty’; presumably, she was there to help to obtain votes however she could. It is reported that she canvassed every day and that she arranged for a thousand coalition medals to be struck, one of which she gave to every voter who agreed to support Fox.
Just over a week later The Bath Chronicle reported that
‘ It was observed of the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Duncannon, while they were soliciting votes in favour of Mr Fox, on Saturday last, they were the most lovely portraits that ever appeared upon a canvas’.
Like most people we had heard the story that the Duchess secured votes for Charles Fox by offering kisses in exchange for their vote, but until now we had assumed this was simply a myth that has evolved over time due to the astounding number of caricatures of such a scene, but it does seem from this letter written by a certain Duchess to Fox that there was some truth in it*.
Yesterday I sent you three votes but went through much fatigue to procure them. It cost me ten kisses for every plumper. I’m afraid we are done up – I will see you at the porter shop and we will discuss ways and means’.
NB Clare Market is a filthy place – keep up your spirits. I have a borough – you know where.’
The was much printed in the newspapers about her ‘method’ and many derogatory comments made about morals. The reality, however, was that amongst the public she was a very popular figure, not only because of her looks but also because she did actually engage with the public and by all accounts was able to discuss eloquently and put forward information about what Fox stood for.
As a campaigner for Wray we have the much quieter and more demure Duchess of Rutland, needless to say, we don’t have a plethora of caricatures for her!
‘we can assure the public, that the beautiful and accomplished Duchess of Rutland does not drive about the streets and alleys, or otherwise act in a manner unbecoming of a lady of rank and delicacy’.
Despite the mocking and caricatures of these women, predominantly of the Duchess of Devonshire, and the vile abuse they apparently received from Wray’s supporters and the press, the only person who apparently clearly objected to her participation in the election was her mother who felt that she was being used by Fox, no-one else appeared to have any objection which is quite telling; it appears that even the Queen was a supporter of the Duchess of Devonshire:
‘Her majesty has all the morning prints at breakfast every day and the Princesses are permitted to read them. Her eye caught the indecency of that one which attacked the Duchess of Devonshire. She gave it to an attendant and said let that paper never more enter the palace doors. The story got round and the same orders were given everywhere else.’
There were even comments made that women’s participation in politics could result in them wanting to vote – shock horror, how times have changed!
The Duchess of Devonshire suffered greatly at the hands of the press, but she clearly had a passion for politics and felt that the country would benefit from Fox’s appointment. We are aware from The Cavendish Family by Francis Bickley, that she wrote to her mother advising her of how miserable she was, but that she had begun her involvement and that she would see it through to the end. Given that the odds were stacked against Fox winning the election from the beginning, it could be argued that a win from Fox was highly unlikely that without the help of these women!
15th May of 1784 The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser printed the following letter purporting to be from Lady Worsley to the Duchess of Devonshire, whether it was genuine or not we have no idea, but it is nevertheless interesting
Before the General Election in the year 1780, the name of Lady W____y stood fair and respectable; the gay world derives no entertainment from her follies. The forms of decency and decorum had not been neglected, and, therefore men of gallantry felt but little encouragement to make approaches. Sir Richard found not Cassio’s kisses on my lips, for neither Cassio nor Roderigo revelled there. But, Madam in the general Election of that day I acted like yourself – like a woman of life – a woman of spirit, but how unlike a politician! As you set your face against Sir Cecil Wray, I opposed my influence to that of Jervoise Clerk Jervoise. I coaxed, I canvassed; I made myself, in the language of Shakespear ‘base, common and popular’. I was charmed with the public attention I received from the men; they talked to me of irresistible graces; the pressed my fingers; they squeezed my hand and my pulse beat quicker; they touched my lips, and my blood ran riot; they pressed me in their arms and turned my brain. O, the joy! The rapture, the enchanting, thrilling, aching sensations, which beset my soul! They banished in an instant, all ideas of a cold, a formal education; they drove from my mind all decent forms which time and observation had copied there. Your Grace is apprized of the sequel. Before the canvas – Was your Grace strict? So was I. Was your Grace modest? So was I. And if after the canvas, your Grace should find a violent metamorphosis in your feelings; I am ready to confess – so did I.
I am, Madam
If you found this article interesting then you might also enjoy our book, A Georgian Heroine, about an 18th century woman who lived life on her own terms and who took far more than a passing interest in the politics of the day!
* History of the Westminster Election, 1784