The Sylph

Written by Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (ed. Jonathan Gross)
Review by Nancy J. Attwell

The Sylph was published anonymously in 1779, four years after Georgiana Spencer married the fifth Duke of Devonshire and thus became one of the most fêted women of her generation. Because Georgiana’s publisher encouraged the belief that The Sylph was written by Fanny Burney, the author of Evelina, the delicious irony that society was being critiqued by one of its most scandalous members was lost on its original readers. The plot unfolds in its entirety through a series of letters, a storytelling technique that fortuitously provides not only a first-person commentary on the mores of the upper class in the late 18th century but also some insight into the struggles the author endured during the first years of her own marriage.

Georgiana’s heroine, Julia Grenville, is an innocent country girl who marries Lord Stanley, a London rake. Julia’s frustration with the shocking dissipation of the ton is both humorous (“…such is the construction [of hair] nowadays that a head might burn for an hour without damaging the genuine part of it”) and perceptive (“I am far from being an enemy to pleasure––but… let it be the amusement, not the business of life”). Desperate for a mentor to guide her through the morass of societal depravity, Julia relies on a man who, claiming to be her “sylph” (an aerial being who knows her every thought and deed), sends her letters warning her against the lures of the city.

Edited to modern usage by Jonathan Gross, who also contributes a useful and interesting introduction, The Sylph is a very readable novel of historical and literary worth. That its author is a woman who was a sponsor of Charles James Fox, a friend of Marie Antoinette, and an ancestress of Princess Diana is a circumstance that only adds to the novel’s appeal.