French Queen Marie Antoinette is one of the most famous women in history, but not too many people remember Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, even though she was the great-great-great-great-aunt of Princess Diana. Interestingly, the two became close friends, probably because they had several things in common. For a start, both had pushy, albeit loving mothers.
Empress Maria Theresa of Austria has dynastic reasons for pressuring her daughter into marrying the future King Louis XVI of France, as she was trying to bind the two crowns in a closer alliance. Georgiana’s mother, Margaret, Countess Spencer, was also concerned about social and political status when she married her daughter off to England’s richest, most eligible bachelor: William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire.
Both women were elevated significantly by their marriages, and both were instantly under enormous scrutiny. They each responded identically: by becoming confident, charming hostesses, and simultaneously spendthrift fashion trend-setters. With extravagant gowns and elaborate three-foot hairstyles that included ships or birdcages, it’s hard to tell which of the two noblewoman was the focus of more outraged gossip.
Shared Gambling Pleasures
The most famous habit that both women shared, however, was one that was hardly unusual among the 18th-Century nobility: gambling for high stakes. In the absence of any wars in which the upper classes could prove their courage and disdain for risk, high-stakes games weren’t seen as a vice. Rather, they were taken as evidence of the proper, nonchalant aristocratic attitude to winning and losing. Gambling was also a way for impoverished nobles, barred by their social positions from indulging in trade, to attempt to revive their fortunes.
However, it does say something about the sheer scale of Georgiana and Marie Antoinette’s wagering that despite their husbands’ fabulous wealth, both men were eventually forced to try to rein in their wives’ spending. Marie Antoinette had been taught to gamble by her mother, and since the stakes in the Austrian court were usually much higher than those in France, as queen her bets became ever more intrepid, even reckless.
The Duchess of Devonshire may have been even more extravagant; as a trophy wife suffering frequent miscarriages in a prolonged struggle to bear a male heir, married to a husband with little interest in her beyond her possibilities as a brood mare, she chased happiness ever more desperately at the gambling tables. Within a few years of her marriage, her accumulated debts exceeded her annual allowance of 4,000 pounds: an enormous sum at the time.
As France’s economic decline deepened in the second half of the century and began creating social and political upheaval, King Louis did make a number of efforts to curb the ruinous spending of his court. These included forbidding the queen’s gambling; but not before Marie Antoinette wheedled one final session out of him.
To his dismay, her final game went on for three days, but true to her word, she then quit to do her bit for the treasury. As history records, it was too little, too late, and both monarchs would lose their heads shortly afterwards in the Revolution.
Georgiana, played by Keira Knightley in the 2008 film The Duchess, remained constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, trying to keep her debts hidden from her husband. To cover them, she tried to borrow in secret from her family, wealthy friends, and even the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. Despite his anger when he found out how deeply she was indebted, her husband generally covered her losses. She died at the age of 48, still gambling whenever she could, and still deeply in debt.