Privilege And Scandal: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Spencer, Sister of Georgiana

Written by Janet Gleeson
Review by Margaret Barr

Daughter of a prominent family, sister to the infamous Duchess of Devonshire, Harriet Spencer lived in a universe of sophisticated, morally lax aristocrats. The Spencers had many houses and moved effortlessly from George III’s court of George III to that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Harriet’s husband, the awkward, reticent heir to the Earl of Bessborough, turned out to have a vicious temper. For diversion she had her children, the gaming tables, and her lovers—most of whom were politicians. Discovery of her infidelities, and her support of her equally unfaithful, profligate sister, not surprisingly added to the Bessboroughs’ marital strife.

Thomas Sheridan, the playwright, alarmed her with his intense obsession long after their physical relationship ended. The great love of her life was the handsome diplomat Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, to whom she bore children and who later married her niece. Their lengthy, intimate correspondence, which informs this biography, is a gold mine of political and social history.

Harriet witnessed several cataclysmic events—the French Revolution, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and her daughter Caroline’s volatile passion for Lord Byron. Her life story is an absorbing read, a welcome addition to the growing list of biographies of notable, scandalous women of her era.