The Sylph
Tby Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

The Sylph - by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

Georgiana’s extraordinary influence on fashion first became noticeable during the ‘feather headdress affair’. These were three-foot ostrich feather headdress which she imported from Paris. They were so scarce in England that fashionable women resorted to bribing undertakers for their horses’ plumage. The following year, in 1775,  Georgiana initiated the craze for extravagant hair towers of preposterous designs. One day she would appear sporting a pastoral tableau, complete with miniature wooden sheep; the next she might wear a nautical theme with storm-tossed ships and sailors artfully placed among the curls. Later on, she introduced the ‘picture hat’ and, in 1783, again transformed women’s fashion with the free-flowing muslin dress that was simply tied by a ribbon around the waist. There was the ‘Devonshire brown,’ a ‘Devonshire hair powder’, even a ‘Devonshire minuet’ which Georgiana created with Vestris, the leading dancer of the day.

Georgiana’s social success, however, disguised a hideous and degrading private life. Within a few months of her marriage she had become a heavy drinker, drug-taker, and, worst of all for her later peace of mind, a gambling addict. By the time she realised what had happened to her it was too late. ‘When I first came into the world the novelty of the scene made me like everything,’ she wrote in 1778. “But my heart now feels an emptiness in the beau monde which cannot be filled…nobody can think how much I am tired sometimes which the dissipation I live in.” She also blamed herself for leading her beloved sister, Harriet, into the same lifestyle. Feeling trapped by the world she inhabited, Georgiana chose to write about her situation anonymously. The result was the publication in 1778 of The Sylph, by ‘A Young Lady’,  a roman-a-clef about high society in general, and the Devonshire House Circle in particular.

The novel was a great success, going through four editions in quick succession. Part of its allure was the mystery behind the author’s identity. At first, people believed that Fanny Burney was the author, and Burney’s publisher tried to hint as much in order to increase his sales. But soon Georgiana’s friends recognised some of their more intimate details in the book, and the secret was out. It was not difficult to spot the clues to her authorship. Georgiana had hardly bothered to disguise the names in some cases, nor could she resist putting in a sly reference to herself: the heroine’s hairdresser protests that “he had run the risk of disobliging the Duchess of D----, by giving me the preference of the finest bunch of radishes that had yet come over from Paris.”

The critics were appalled by the novel: could it be true they wondered? The Gentleman’s Magazine opined that the ‘young lady’ showed ‘too great a knowledge of the ton, and of the worst, though perhaps the highest part of the world.’ Mrs Thrale, the doyenne of the intellectual Blue Stocking Circle, labelled the book ‘an obscene Novel.’  The Sylph shocked readers because it portrayed the aristocracy as a collection of drunks, blackmailers, wife beaters and adulterers. Written in a series of letters, the story follows the misadventures of  the young and beautiful Julia Stanley, a naïve country girl who has married the cruel and reckless Sir William. Having only known her husband for a short while, Julia discovers too late that Sir William is a rake whose only interests are fashion and gambling. But she tries to keep his affections by learning the ways of the Ton. At first she is gauche and timid, but slowly she becomes adept at living a la mode: she can talk, sing, dance, dress and think like a fashionable person. But during the process she realises that her soul is being corrupted by the cynicism and heartlessness which characterises the Ton.

The heart of the novel is Julia’s struggle to remain true to herself while those around her either submit or are beaten down into embracing an immoral life.  The Sylph’s merit lies more in its subject matter than in its execution. Georgiana obviously wrote the novel in a hurry, which is not surprising given the pace of her life during these years. There are lapses in style and one or two silly contrivances which are out of character with the literary grace of Georgiana’s later writings. However, it remains a true picture of her state of mind as a jaded and disillusioned twenty-year-old.

The Sylph  is a unique, insider’s glimpse of eighteenth-century High Society.  Georgiana describes a competitive, vicious world where opportunists, liars and bullies flourish. It is a world which rewards vice and values hypocrisy; where women have few rights and must defend themselves in any way they can. The irony is that even as Georgiana was protesting against this world, she was also its creature. However, with the publication of The Sylph, she had made her first step towards independence. Her own career as the Leader of the Ton would be vastly different from her heroine’s but, after suffering disgrace and exile, Georgiana would eventually emerge as the most successful female politician of her era.

Copyright© Amanda Foreman

The Sylph - by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Foreword by Amanda Foreman

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