In the late eighteenth century, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was a notable figure, loathed as she was loved. Throughout her life, the Duchess won and lost fortunes, giving into a compulsion that threw her into financial ruin and pitted her against some of society’s most notorious ne’er-do-wells. But Georgiana’s gambling mattered for another reason, argues Phyllis Deutsch: It actually helped change the way British people do politics.
It all started with Georgiana’s friendship with Charles James Fox, a Whig politician and noted opposition leader. Fox, like most men of his class and generation, loved what aristocrats called “deep play.” As Deutsch writes, this gambling consisted of games of chance like faro, a card game, and hazard, a forerunner of craps. Fox’s bets and losses were as notorious as his political speeches—he was known for all-nighters in which he staked almost incomprehensible sums on the flip of a card or a toss of the die.
But this obsession affected more than his seemingly-bottomless coffers. Though gaming had long been seen as an acceptable activity for the aristocracy, by the end of the eighteenth century it became symbolic of a profligate spending and out-of-touch rulers in a time when revolutions could topple political dynasties. Fox and his friends used betting as a kind of code of honor that was also a form of political patronage. Indeed, Deutsch sees Fox’s way of forming coalitions of self-interested players as similar to the process of gambling itself.
And then there was Georgiana, who used gambling as a way in to the world of politics. The gaming table at Devonshire House was a place to make political alliances while playing pricey games of chance, and the Duchess used that power as a way of entering a political arena she was denied by her sex. In 1784, Georgiana canvassed publicly for Fox in the general election in Westminster. This unprecedented entry of an aristocratic woman into the public political sphere was mocked, and her willingness to mix with the people on behalf of her candidate was painted as nothing short of prostitution.
“The shadow of the gamestress looms like a poem over this,” notes Deutsch: Pop culture made little distinction between gamestresses and whores. Suddenly, Georgiana was upheld as a symbol of the dangers of vice run amok in British society, and Fox was denigrated as a man who depended on a mere woman to uphold his political career. Though Fox won back his seat, he lost his majority to his fiercest political rival. He ended up withdrawing from politics entirely.
This age of wheeling, dealing, and daring made the British public demand more of its aristocratic politicians: “…the personal proclivities of the nobility in fact had real national consequences,” writes Deutsch. Forevermore, politicians had to be on their toes when it came to their private dalliances.