A quick explanation of the terminology
Tory Party: the equivalent of today’s Liberal party
Pitt: the current prime minister and leader of the Tories
Whig Party: the equivalent of today’s labour party
Charles Fox: the leader of the Whigs
King George III: the current king
Pittites: supporters of Pitt
Georgiana Cavendish, ie. The Duchess of Devonshire: the wife of the main financial supporter of the Whig party. Young, beautiful, society’s first celebrity (Lewis), and seriously into politics.
Setting the Scene:
The Westminster Election of 1784 was only a constituent election, and not a general one, making the events and public backlash that happened so much more interesting. In the previous election, George III had engineered the dismissal of the Whig party in the as the ruling party, making him decidedly Pittite, and incurring public disapproval because he ousted their elected party. Fox had a reputation as a gambler, womaniser, and general ruffian, which was really played upon in propaganda by the Pitts.
Georgiana didn’t have the most sterling reputation either, since she was an avid gambler, her husband was involved with her best friend, and she was leaving her children at home with the her husband’s mistress to go out and canvass. This variety of issues made moral attacks on Georgiana and Fox the easiest path to discredit their success.
What role did Georgiana play?
Georgiana was perceived to be the deciding factor in this election, due to her population with the general public. Newspapers published at this time were printing that “all advertisements relative to the Westminster Election should be in the Duchess of Devonshire’s name. She is the candidate to all intents and purposes- Fox himself has not polled a man this fortnight” (Hartley).
She would take her carriage around the constituent of Westminster and mingle with the voters, especially the lower class ones, like butchers and shopkeepers (this is described in detail in a book of her letters). It is important to note that Westminster was a different electoral demographic than most: while it held many elite members of society, there were a great number of members of the lower class, providing ammunition against her due to her fraternisation with them, especially as she even went so far as to drive voters to the polling booth in her carriage.
So she was involved in politics? What’s the big deal?
While at this time in history it was really common for women to canvass on behalf of family members, Georgiana went above and beyond what was expected of eighteenth century noble women. Considering that fox was merely a friend and not a direct relation, the fact that she was canvassing for him was a direct display of her autonomy (a fantastic book on this is ‘Elite Women in English Political Life, c.1754-1790’, by Elaine Chalus).
In addition to this, it was the method in which Georgiana canvassed that made her susceptible to slander. By walking around Covent Garden (a well known haunt of prostitutes), she made herself accessible to the lower classes, leading to claims that she was prostituting herself to the lower classes (Hartley). This resulted in Pittites producing caricatures in which she was exchanging kisses for votes in favour of Fox. These also played on the number of butchers within Westminster, and referred to her as the ‘butcher-kissing Duchess of Devonshire’.
Did she actually use her sexuality to influence the election?
While there are admissions to her mother that she did exchange kisses for votes, where she complained that ‘it is very hard they shd single me out, when all the women of my side do as much’, there a number of factors which resulted in the published reference to her a prostitute. Her accessibility to the lower classes by conversing with them and convincing them to vote was believed to be unseemly behaviour for a women of her standing, and the independence in procuring votes for Fox. This is in sharp contrast to women who canvassed for Pitt, such as lady Salisbury and the Duchess of Rutland: they remained in their carriage, and merely threw money out the window, as opposed to kissing the voters.
In addition to this, she was a celebrity in an age were the only well known women were actresses and prostitutes, making the comparison incredibly easy to make. It is also incredibly important to keep in mind that the caricatures and rumours were spread by the Pittites as a method of discrediting the Whig party and Georgiana’s efforts.
It has been deduced from all the research that the reason for all this backlash was her success: it was believed by everyone, including Fox, that it was the success of Georgiana that determined the outcome of the election in favour of the Whigs. So while she did use her sexuality to some extent, it was perpetuated as a method of discrediting her success that leads to current beliefs about her sexuality.
The letters of Georgiana provide a really interesting insight into what she believed her role was – Cavendish, G. Georgiana: Extracts from the Correspondance of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire. London: John Murray, 1955.
Pretty much anything by Elaine Chalus
A fantastic look at the moral issues surrounding the election is explored in Deutsch, P. ‘Moral Trespass in Georgian England: gaming, gender, and electoral politics in the age of George III,’ The Historical Journal 39(3) (1996): 637-656
Foreman, A. The Duchess. London: Harper Perennial, 1998 provides a fascinating insight into the life of Georgiana, and was recently turned into a movie. While the movie is rather accurate, it hardly focuses on her political role, and instead focuses on her personal life and marriage.
A compilation of most of the sources from the election. Hardly a light or interesting read, but a fantastic source to use for further research – Hartley, J. History of the Westminster Election, Containing Every Material Occurrence, From its Commencement on the first of April, to the Final Close of the Poll, on the 17th of May . . . By Lovers of Truth and Justice, 2d ed. London: J. Debrett et al., 1784
Hunt, T. Defining John Bull: Political Caricature and National Identity in Late Georgian England. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003 provides an analysis of all the caricatures of the election, and how they relate to and challenge the English sense of identity. While very important, this blog post is not really the place to go into an in depth source analysis of caricatures.
Lewis, J. ‘1784 and All That: Aristocratic Women and Electoral Politics’ in Women, Privilege and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present, edited by Amanda Vickery, 90-122. California: Stanford University Press, 2001