Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Men Behaving Badly: The Duke of Devonshire is Thoughtlessly Clumsy, 1782

Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Susan reporting:

One of the lessons of history is that being born to a dukedom doesn't guarantee nice-guy status. Despite being graced with a string of titles, an immense fortune, one of the most beautiful British houses (Chatsworth) for his country place, and one of the most charming ladies of the Georgian era as his duchess (Georgianna Spencer Cavendish), William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811) was, by all reports, something of a boor.

Perhaps because he came into his title at sixteen, the Duke seemed mired in a life-long, self-centered adolescence. Observed the famous letter-writer Mrs. Mary Delaney: "The Duke's intimate friends say he has sense, and does not want merit...[but] to be sure the jewell has not been well polished: had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him."

The following anecdote of the Duke's behavior dates from 1782. It was recorded by the novelist Fanny Burney, who apparently agreed with Mrs. Delaney's appraisal of His Grace. (FYI, a glass lustre was an elaborate and costly form of candle stand, often decorated with cut-crystal drops. Here's an example of an 18th c. pair.)

"Miss Monckton...told us one story extremely well worth recording. The Duke of Devonshire was standing near a very fine glass lustre in a corner of a room, at an assembly, and in a house of people who, Miss Monckton said, were by no means in a style of life to hold expense as immaterial, and, by carelessly lolling back, the Duke threw the lustre down, and it was broke. He showed not, however, the smallest concern or confusion at the accident, but coolly said, 'I wonder how I did that!' He then removed to the opposite corner, and to show, I suppose, that he had forgotten what he had done, he leaned his head in the same manner, and down came the opposite lustre! He looked at it very calmly, and, with a philosophical dryness, merely said, 'This is singular enough!' and walked to another part of the room, without either distress or apology."

Above: William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, by Pompeo Batoni, 1768

6 comments:

Heather Carroll said...

This post is great! It has all the great gossipy elements: Fanny Burney as a secondhand narrator, a Miss Monckton event, and of course, the perdictable slightly Aspergers-like conduct of his Grace. I know many people aren't fans of the Duke but I find him endlessly amusing.

Regencyresearcher said...

The Duke never did learn to be considerate. His rank and wealth made people excuse him. Some biographers think that he was raised to believe that he was different and better than any one else . I am not too certain that they excepted the royal family.
The duke certainly didn't think that the ordinary rules of morality applied to him.
I can't find him amusing .
I don't think his children had much love for him, though they gave him the respect due a father. They adored their imperfect but loving mother.
Perhaps the Duke saved all his affections for Lady Elizabeth Foster-- but even there he was in no hurry to marry her when he became a widower. I doubt that this was out of respect for his late wife.
His son was considered much more the gentleman .

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has read the Amanda Forman bio of Georgianna will realize that this story is entirely in keeping with the duke's customary selfish and self-centered behavior. Whatever the reason, he was the worst kind of spoiled, privileged aristo who did whatever he pleased without a thought for anyone else. Pretty much a total jerk.

Isobel Carr said...

What a great scene to steal for a book . . .

nightsmusic said...

But don't we still do the same to this day (though to a lesser degree and within the last 10 years especially, it seems to be getting better) allowing those with wealth and "privilege" to act in much the same way as his lordship did?

There's a certain fascination, whether amusing or otherwise, in the upper echelons just as there was then and it's only when they finally have hit rock bottom in most cases that they receive their just desserts. Such a shame though that those around them have to suffer while they travel blithely on through life, expecting carte blanche.

Jane O said...

DSK makes it hard to believe that this sort of behavior, with its arrogant assumption that "the rules don't apply to me," has disappeared.

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