An Aristocratic Affair: The life of Georgiana’s Sister, Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough

Written by Janet Gleeson
Review by Melinda Hammond

Harriet Spencer, Countess of Bessborough, had always been overshadowed by her more flamboyant sister, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire but she was an attractive woman of wit and intelligence who married well and played an energetic part in the politics of the day. High born females in the 18th century had little scope for their talents and apart from her activities as a political hostess and her lifelong devotion to Georgiana, Harriet’s interests were her children, gambling and affairs, (including a brief liaison but life-long friendship with the playwright, Richard Sheridan).

                The lack of evidence leads to a fair amount of supposition by the author. Harriet insisted that all her correspondence should be destroyed after her death but enough evidence survives to provide a fascinating insight into the life of a fashionable Georgian woman. Harriet’s difficult relationship with her socially inept husband made her more dependent on her sister and her mother, Lady Spencer. These three intelligent, energetic women formed a mutual support group, travelled through war torn Europe and the two sister’s without their mother’s knowledge or approval, paid each other’s debts and colluded to keep the births of their illegitimate children a secret.

                This is not really the story of one grand love affair, rather it is an example of how women survive in a man’s world. A lively accessible tale with comprehensive source notes. It gives a rich glimpse into the England of the late 18th– and early 19th century.