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English Channeler
In 'Georgiana,' Amanda Foreman Finds a Life for Our Times

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2000; Page C01

Amanda Foreman can see the past. She says it's always been a tangible thing--the first place she turns to find contemporary meaning.

Her first book, "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire," about a distant relative of Princess Diana, pondered the secrets of late 18th-century England and earned the 31-year-old Oxford PhD England's prestigious Whitbread Prize for biography. And after debuting here last month, it has caused a stir on U.S. bestseller lists as well.

You might be underwhelmed at the prospect of a volume of English history. It might seem an unlikely place to unearth hidden clues in our search for self. Foreman's book doesn't try to change your mind. It simply, seamlessly draws you into Georgiana's world. There, you might find a surprising postmodern resonance--a historical echo about an impulsive young woman struggling to grow into herself, and to supersede her times.

Georgiana's life would be too implausible for a soap opera. She had a gambling addiction, bulimia and a household that included her husband's mistress. Eighteenth-century British aristocracy was hypocritical. The duchess was self-destructive. And in chronicling both, Foreman breathes flawed humanity into the archaic numbness of blue-blood titles.

It is Wednesday, a week ago, and Foreman, in town for the first leg of her U.S. book tour, has an ease of comportment that belies the buzz about her. She's on bestseller lists and radio spots and has just signed a deal that could lead to a motion picture. Still, the Duchess of Devonshire taught her about the mercurial nature of fame. As did Foreman's father, blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker Carl Foreman. So if his daughter seems comfortable with her arrival, perhaps it's because she believes it's ancillary to her journey.

Foreman is engaging and attractive. She bears a close enough resemblance to actress Lisa Kudrow to inspire restaurant double takes. Wrapped in a lilac pashmina shawl, cocooned in a sound booth, she tells National Public Radio that Georgiana was a master of invention, a woman who made a way where at first there was none.

Foreman didn't mention that in searching for the essential Georgiana, she found much of herself.

Director and screenwriter Carl Foreman, best known for such movies as "High Noon," "The Guns of Navarone" and "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," spent two decades working in England because he refused to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His daughter spent an anxious childhood waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She struggled to find a voice and a way and a university that would let her in after two dozen said no thanks. While courage, self-invention and an activist's passion are themes that permeate Foreman's study of history, she also maintains they are themes that can reach out and speak to us, even across oceans of time.

"I wanted [the book] to be able to cross the divide," Foreman says from the passenger seat of the Random House-provided car that's taking her to NewsChannel 8. "I didn't want to write a book that my countrymen are not going to relate to."

Publishers have piqued reader interest in Georgiana by emphasizing her link with her famous great-great-great-great-niece Diana. (Georgiana was the oldest daughter of the first Earl Spencer. The current earl, Diana's brother Charles, is the ninth.) But Foreman, who confesses to feeling rather benignly indifferent to the current royals, seems less interested in drawing parallels than parables. "There is something immensely attractive about someone so open and so humane," says Foreman. "It's like she's missing a layer of skin. Her heart is right there."

Georgiana's life, which is also the subject of Foreman's doctoral dissertation, reads like a novel, and the duchess's voluminous correspondence lends voice to the tome. It is a postmodern biography; researched scrupulously, rendered lively, transcending immediately.

At 17, Georgiana married a prestigious Whig aristocrat, William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, 11 years her senior. Her romantic idealism was quickly doused by the reality of an older, adulterous husband. Intelligent, prone to whimsy and painfully insecure, the duchess reconceived her role. She threw lavish parties, and her hairstyles--some of which could tower three feet--and clothes were slavishly imitated.

She ascended to the top of the "ton," as English high society was called. She befriended Lady Elizabeth Foster, who became her husband's mistress, and the three lived together for nearly 20 years in a highly charged menage a trois.

The most unforgivable element of scandal has always been getting caught. Pregnant by her young lover, the future prime minister Charles Grey, Georgiana was exiled by her husband to France for three years. Upon her return, she became a behind-the-scenes power broker with the Whig Party, known for its support of the North American colonists and its antislavery stance.

According to Stella Tillyard, who wrote "Aristocrats," about four 18th-century English sisters, while Georgiana was not the first upper-crust London celebrity, or even the most celebrated, she was "a gift for [political] cartoonists. London in 1780 was like Silicon Valley and New York all rolled into one; Britain is becoming the most wealthy, most powerful nation in the world. And a well-developed print and free press" helped make Georgiana an icon.

Says Foreman, "She's like more human than most humans. She's big and famous, but the problems she has--these self-destructive tendencies."

"She withdraws for three years, disgraced, then reinvents herself. She becomes poised, self-controlled, sadder and wiser because she's really learned who she is."

It's a journey Foreman knows.

Foreman was born in England, moved to Los Angeles at 7, then returned to England for boarding school. It made her something of a misfit. "I always felt like I just had a sign above my head that said 'bully me.' I was always the loner in class."

She calls herself an angry underachiever who studied every night but still failed. "I tried. That's what made it more humiliating."

Foreman's father married an Englishwoman and they had two children. (Her older brother, Jonathan, is a film critic in New York.) Carl Foreman, who returned to the United States in the early 1970s, died of cancer when Amanda was 16.

Foreman has described a tense, rebellious childhood, one where betrayal and accusations against her father cast a long shadow from half a world away. "I was so angry," she says. "I couldn't express myself. I had all these ideas, but I was bottled up. Stuck."

Foreman was rejected by a half-dozen English universities and nearly 20 in the United States, she says. "Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Wellesley, Smith. Then I interviewed at Sarah Lawrence and they really liked me. I said to myself this must be a really bad school."

Once in, she became a serious and successful student. Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, she completed her junior year at Columbia.

After she graduated with a philosophy degree, a professor encouraged her to study history at Oxford. She initially applied to an undergrad program because she didn't consider herself Oxford postgrad material but switched to graduate studies within a few weeks.

She ran across a letter of Georgiana's while doing research for her dissertation on English attitudes about race and fell in love. She couldn't get the lonely, insecure duchess out of her head. It was 1993, and for the past few years Foreman had buried herself in history and library stacks and cheesecake. She had gained a lot of weight, become "more flesh than features." Symptomatic, she says, of being shut off from the world. And from herself.

"I had sort of turned books into my friends. I said I've got to prove to everybody that I'm not a failure. I said I've got to prove to my father that I am an interested, serious student. I had been very ashamed."

Foreman was looking for a bridge back into the world. Georgiana was it. "The writing was like a lightning rod," Foreman says. "It took the anger and grounded it emotionally. Georgiana taught me so much. She's this template. I've lived through her life with her."

That, says Foreman, gave her the resolve to move on with her own.

Foreman isn't sure about what city the book is going to take her to next. She's trying to remain fluid, trying to see how U.S. readers respond.

"Georgiana" was published in England in May of '98 (the following month, its author completed her dissertation). The London Evening Standard called Foreman "fragrant" and "luscious," while the Telegraph said she's a mixture of history and glamour.

She has become comfortable in her success, and her own skin--comfortable enough to pose nude, partially obscured by a tower of books, for the British society magazine Tatler.

She still maintains a flat in London, but since last year has lived in New York with fiance Jonathan Barton, a 31-year-old banker.

She has plenty to occupy her time. There are contests to judge, a "Georgiana" film treatment to work up (it's rumored that Anjelica Huston has optioned the movie rights), a new book on the British who fought in the Civil War, and a wedding to plan.

It's been quite a journey, getting to this place. Sitting in the lobby of NewsChannel 8, she is waiting to introduce Georgiana--to convey the life lessons that first found her seven years ago.

"George Eliot said, 'It's never too late to be the person you could have become.' Georgiana did it. I did, in a way," Foreman says, then pauses.

"I guess I have become the person I could be."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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