This is a guest post by Jess Toole. Thanks Jess!
As a fan of the 2008 film, The Duchess, and a regular visitor to Chatsworth house in Derbyshire, the story of Lady Elizabeth Foster has always fascinated me. Bess, as she is most commonly known, was born 13th May 1758. Her childhood was spent in Ireland in quite poor living conditions but she escaped this poverty when she married John Foster, an Irish MP, in December 1776. After producing two sons, the couple separated in 1780 and Bess was forced to give custody of her two children to her husband.
In 1782, Bess met Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire in Bath. It is believed that due to Georgiana’s “celebrity” status in society at the time, she was quick to form an emotional bond with Bess due to the presumably lonely existence she had. So instantaneous was this friendship, that Bess was invited home with Georgiana. It was here that she met the Duke of Devonshire and at some point, she became his lover. Thus began the infamous ménage à trois.
Bess had two children by the Duke and their relationship lasted 25 years with Bess eventually marrying the Duke after Georgiana’s death in 1806. However, something which is not directly addressed in the film is the reality of the relationship between Georgiana and Bess. Although hinted at in The Duchess, it was not until researching their relationship that I discovered it may have been romantic.
The intensity of Georgiana’s feeling towards Bess can be seen in her letter: “My dear Bess, Do you hear the voice of my heart crying to you? Do you feel what it is for me to be separated from you? … Oh Bess, every sensation I feel but heightens my adoration of you.”
Sadly, many letters and personal papers from Georgiana were destroyed when they were left to Bess after her death, but her own feelings remained as strong as they were at the beginning of their relationship, as seen in a letter from Bess to her son in 1806:
“[Georgiana] was the constant charm of my life. She doubled every joy, lessened every grief. Her society had an attraction I never met with in any other being.”
Lady Elizabeth Foster’s legacy is one of a promiscuous mistress who betrayed a close friend for her own gain. However, the relationship between the Duchess and her friend was much closer than ever portrayed. Additionally, due to the double standard between men and women that existed in the 18th century, and admittedly still exists today, it was more scandalous for a woman to take a lover than a man. The Duke of Devonshire was not the only lover Bess had.
During her first pregnancy in late 1784, she stayed in Paris to discreetly deliver the Duke’s child. Despite being pregnant, she became involved in an affair with the Duke of Dorset. Previous to her pregnancy, Bess had been sent abroad as a governess to the Duke’s daughter, Charlotte. She was promptly recalled home after rumours of her scandalous behaviour in Italy.
Both these incidents tainted Bess’ reputation and legacy and there is, of course, a stark contrast to how men at the time, for example, the Duke of Devonshire and Charles Grey were seen at the time.
Lady Elizabeth Foster died on 30th March 1824 in Rome. The only real portrayal of her in modern media is through The Duchess, but there have been many biographies written about her life which are worth reading, primarily Dearest Bess by Dorothy Margaret Stuart.
Jess Toole is currently studying History, English Lit and Law at A-Level. Her main interests consist of royal history, fashion history and critiquing period dramas. Toole intends to go to university and do a history degree next year and continue her passion in museum work after that.