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
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.