Married to a single life
THE BACHELOR DUKE: WILLIAM SPENCER CAVENDISH, 6TH DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE by James Lees-Milne John Murray, £19.95, pp. 234
here are certain historical periods so
rich in remarkable characters, and human — rather than public — dramas, so well furnished with memoirs and letters, that readers once caught by their fascination may find it impossible to escape, just as, when hooked by Anthony Trollope's Pallisers, say, they find side-issues turning into main streams and walk-on parts becoming stars whose literary output illu- mines dark corners and throws up its own Roman candles. The most obvious example of what I am trying to describe is the age of Louis XIV, but in England the Regency and reign of George IV is comparable, for even if it has not benefited from Saint- Simon's 20 magnetic volumes, it at least has those of Charles Greville. In both these periods individual politicians, aristocrats, bastards and, on a slightly lower plane, artists, all played their part in the social scene, and desire for communication found vent in a flood of journals and gossip.
James Lees-Milne's delightful book is of course primarily a biography, but in the process of setting an elaborate and chang- ing background for his hero he takes us from the rich rakish world of the Regency, through the prosaic days of William IV and the Reform Bill, to subside in the comfort- able upholstery of Queen Victoria's reign. It is tempting to see the Bachelor Duke as the spirit of each age in turn — first the young, fabulously rich nobleman, devotee of splendid parties and wild extravagance, if not so much of a gambling addict as his mother; next the serious Whig, making an impression in the House of Lords with his speeches in favour of Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill; and lastly the magnificent host and patron, beautifying and maintaining Chatsworth and his other houses, the sponsor of Paxton and the Crystal Palace.
But what of the private individual, the human being? Most contemporary refer- ences show him as a much-loved son, brother and friend, a kind master, a charm- ing and amusing companion and princely host, someone of many interests and liberal
opinions. That shrewd observer Charles Greville, who had 'lived in great intimacy with him', wrote that 'his abilities were of a very high order. . . he was very clever and very comical, an amusing letter-writer', but suggested that perhaps he would have been happier had he not been lacking in all domestic ties. Which brings us to the ques- tion: why did he choose to remain a bache- lor Duke? The obvious solution of homosexuality does not fit the picture (although his friendship with the Grand Duke Nicholas, afterwards Tsar Of All The Russias, was evidently intensely emotional and romantic), for he loved flirting with attractive women such as Caroline Ponsonby (later Lamb) and with sirens like Pauline Borghese and the formidable Madame de Lieven, and seemed at one time much taken with Princess Charlotte and even seriously to be courting her. (She wrote to her friend Miss Mercer Elphinstone confessing that she liked him very much. If she had not added 'but he is certainly very plain' the course of history might have been different.) And in any case James Lees-Milne has given us the facts that are known about the Duke's one sustained love affair. He set up his lady, whose name was Elizabeth Warwick, in a house in London and another in Brighton. 'Every day I like her better', he confided to his diary. 'She is perfection for me.' The liaison lasted for ten years of happiness punctuated by a few storms, but she was only allowed to meet a very few of his men friends and no women.
I think this gives at least half the answer to his bachelordom. We do not somehow get the impression of a very highly sexed man, and why indeed should he marry? He liked his life very much as it was; he had a ready-made heir in his cousin William Cavendish, married to his favourite niece Blanche, and close warm ties united him to many of his large family, especially his bril- liant sister Harriet Granville and his illegit- imate half-brother Augustus Clifford. It is true that he once called his step-mother, 'Duchess Bess', .a crocodile, but when he came into his title he treated her with great kindness, and when she died he was kneel- ing in tears at her bedside.
So he remains the Bachelor Duke, con- tinuing to give magnificent balls and dance the mazurka, until deafness and a surpris- ing tendency to religious mania saddened his last years. But perhaps the most remarkable relationship in his whole life, and one that has led to some fascinating pages in this book, was the 'mutual infatua- tion', as its author describes it, between the Duke and Nicholas of Russia. When the Grand Duke first came to England in 1816 the two young men — aged 26 and 20 — met at the Lieven's and got on splendidly. Nicholas paid an informal visit to Chatsworth, which was a wild success, with excursions by day, and evenings of confi- dential talk over the fire, playing the piano, singing and fooling 'like schoolboys'. In
London they rode every day together 'at a great pace in Hyde Park The Duke was delighted to be invited by his new friend to return with him to fetch his bride, and then go to Russia for the wedding in 1817. Nine years later he attended the Coronation as Ambassador Extraordinary. 'One glance proved that he was unaltered to me. He was adorable', he wrote on this occasion. Their last meeting was during the State Visit to Queen Victoria in 1844, and 'on parting they were seen to embrace, appar- ently under strong emotion'. We seem to hear the friendship motif from Don Carlos.
This book, we are told, is almost entirely based on the Duke's journals and note- books, from which the author has extracted a wealth of revealing and amusing quota- tions. One is left with a feeling of affection- ate sympathy for this in many ways admirable but fundamentally lonely man.