When this novel was published anonymously in 1779, its author, an indirect ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales*, was twenty-two years old and had been unhappily married to the 5th Duke of Devonshire since the age of seventeen. She had already become a leader of fashion in London society, a famous hostess who gathered around her a large number of literary and political figures and an important campaigner for the Whig Party. Georgiana was also a prolific letter writer and later became a gifted amateur scientist. Less positively, Georgiana had developed a addiction to gambling which afflicted her until her death at the age of forty-eight. After a series of miscarriages, Georgiana went on to bear four children, including one by her lover Charles Grey (later 2nd Earl Grey, he later became Prime Minister and gave his name to the tea), raised her husband’s illegitimate daughter and lived in a ménage à trois for twenty-five years, with her husband and his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster.
The Sylph is an epistolary novel which tells the story of an innocent and beautiful country girl, Julia Grenville, who marries an older man and goes to live in London high society. Her husband treats her brutally and the narrative touches on marital infidelity, miscarriage and sexual and physical assault. Julia, who sees through the vapidity of the fashionable life she leads, nevertheless becomes entangled in it and starts to gamble. Unlike her creator, Julia manages to extricate herself from this particular vice. She acquires an anonymous protector – the Sylph of the title – to whom she turns for moral guidance. Ultimately, Julia finds happiness in a fairy tale ending.
Georgiana’s biographer, Amanda Foreman, calls the The Sylph a “thinly disguised autobiographical novel”. It is also a roman à clef, although a casual reader – and even a reader who is reasonably well-acquainted with Georgiana’s life through reading Foreman’s biography - would be unlikely to identify any characters other than the heroine, who is a stand-in for Georgiana. It is fair to say that for all her other skills, Georgiana was not a gifted novelist. The novel is, for readers with modern tastes, wildly melodramatic and completely implausible. It is the kind of novel which Jane Austen parodied to great effect in early works such as Love and Friendship and Lesley Castle.
The real value of the work is the glimpse it provides into upper class life in late 18th century England, and more particularly, the insight it offers into Georgiana’s mind. Recommended to anyone who enjoyed Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana. For everyone else, don’t bother, or at any rate read the wonderful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire first.
I enjoyed reading this with my friend Jemidar.
*From memory, Diana was Georgiana's great-great-grandniece, with maybe another great in there.