Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The Debaucherous Duchess: Georgiana Cavendish and the Satirical Gaze

By Claire Hammond @thehistoryreview

Figure 1 ‘The MISCARRIAGE or his GRACE stopping the SUPPLIES’, Thomas Rowlandson, 1788 ©The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The late-Georgian era was the age of satire, caricature and ridicule.[1] The study of visual satire is a relatively new field and allows historians to approach different themes with fresh eyes. In approaching ‘gendered objects / gendered subjects’, the exploration of visual satire opens up discussions around the depiction and representation of women in print, women’s political agency, and the ‘satirical gaze’.[2] However as with any historical source, analysing visual satire has its challenges. Demonstrating the difficulty of ‘reading’ graphic satire, James Baker outlined potential readings of Isaac Cruickshank’s print of Thomas Paine and concluded (with a thinly veiled glee); ‘To this day I have no idea which reading I prefer, though I suspect Cruikshank and his publisher meant for all three readings to be possible simultaneously.’[3]

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (b. 1757 – d. 1806) was a woman of famed beauty, kindness and personal charm. Sadly, her life was blighted by addiction and what modern historians would term as mental health problems.[4] A devoted Whig, she entered the vicious world of personal political canvassing in the 1784 Westminster election in support of one Charles Fox. Freed from editorial restrictions in 1774, artists and authors were now more freely able to ridicule public figures, and Georgiana quickly became a prime target.[5] Through looking at one satirical print in particular, Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The MISCARRIAGE or his GRACE stopping the SUPPLIES’ (Figure 1) we can see how women were satirised by artists to make political and social statements, often depicting them in the virgin / whore binary. When Georgiana ventured from her carriage into the streets of Westminster during the election campaign, she sparked an explosion in prints that sought to make comment on her. The most infamous are those that mock and ridicule, using her image to satirise women and speak to wider concerns about women in ‘men’s affairs’. [6] Her body became the metaphorical battleground of political satire.

‘Ladies who interest themselves so much in the case of elections, are perhaps too ignorant to know that they meddle with what does not concern them…’

The Morning Post, 8 April 1784.[7]

In Rowlandson’s print, Georgiana is shocked and open-mouthed in the arms of a caricatured Charles Fox. Her dress exposes her ankles and she is ‘miscarrying’ money as the bubble next to it reads ‘For Tardy Voters’. The other figure in the print is the 5th Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana’s husband, who is pulling up a pair of breeches. His speech bubble reads, ‘I’d not be drained of my last farthing, therefore my Lady, henceforth I will wear the breeches’. The print alludes to Georgiana’s known gambling problems, suggesting she is frivolous and ruining the Cavendish estate. The Duke, cuckholded, tries to regain dominance and in ‘wear the trousers’. In the background are two framed pictures. The left-hand image shows the Duke whipping a horse back into its stable, with the Cavendish Motto ‘CAVENDO TUTU’ (Safe Through Caution’) underneath. The right-hand image shows Georgiana and Charles fox carrying a monstrous bunch of grapes between them, the motto now inverted. There is a lot of symbolic and contemporary imagery to untangle, but the visual connection between Rowlandson’s caption ‘The MISCARRIAGE’ and the depiction of money flooding out from beneath her dress is a disturbing yet inescapable connection. She is being shown as literally miscarrying money.

Figure 2 ‘A certain Duchess kissing old swelter-in-grease the Butcher for his Vote’ (1784) © Trustees of the British Museum, London

Georgiana’s political convictions were troubling to her critics. If her support of Fox was due to a personal relationship, it was inappropriate and could indicate that she was having a sexual affair with Fox. Indeed, many of the contemporary prints allude to such an affair, or at least depict her in some form of intimacy with a man (Figure 2).[8] Also in this print we see themes of gender inversion appearing again, the last part of the caption reading ‘The Women Wear Breeches & the Men Petticoats’. This speaks to the deep concerns Georgians had over gender roles and the dangers of gender inversion. In contrast, if it was not a personal connection, it meant that Georgiana was intellectually involved in state politics, a distinctly masculine occupation. It was a Catch-22 situation. In either case, the Duchess was transgressing an appropriate feminine role and becoming ‘a woman of the people’.[9] Fox’s moniker, ‘man of the people’, could not translate onto Georgiana. She could not be a ‘woman of the people’ without being also a prostitute, who pimped herself out for votes.[10]

There seemed to be no middle ground between


Of particular emphasis in Rowlandson’s print are the allusions to miscarriage, and by extension, pregnancy, birth and motherhood in general. The late-Georgian period was a time of increasing anxiety of the fecundity of the population. As a known gambling addict, Georgiana was the locus for fears around ‘the impotent nobility’; the effects of an urban and luxurious lifestyle on women’s ability to bear and raise children.[12] She was a direct contrast to the often bawdily celebrated stereotypes of the milkmaid and the ploughmen, who were satirised as ‘wholesome, natural and sexually vigorous’.[13] Not only then, is Georgiana portrayed as a political prostitute, but Rowlandson’s print makes to portray her as a failed wife and mother. He employs the physically female trauma of miscarriage, of which Georgiana sadly suffered many, to make a satirical statement on society and politics. There are many ‘readings’ of Rowlandson’s print, and many other depictions of Georgiana to be studied more in-depth.

[1] Bullard, Paddy, ed. The Oxford Handbook of 18th Century British Satire, p. 1.

[2] McCreery, C. The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late-Eighteenth Century Women (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p. 2.

[3] James Baker, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England, p. v.

[4] For a biography of Georgiana’s life, see; Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[5] Foreman, p. 144.

[6] Foreman, p. 44.

[7] Gleeson, Janet. An Aristocratic Affair. (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 105.

[8] McCreery, p. 190.

[9] Rauser, Amelia, The Butcher-Kissing Duchess, of Devonshire: Between Caricature and Allegory in 1784’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:1, Contested Exhibitions (2002), p 30.

[10] McCreery, p. 190.

[11] Rauser, p. 39.

[12]Ganev, Robin, ‘Milkmaids, Ploughmen and Sex in 18th Century Britain’ Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 16, No 1 (2007), pp. 40 – 67.

[13] Ganev, Milkmaid and ploughmen, p. 42.