Adultery. gambling. political scheming. Ménages à trois. Even bulimia! With plot points like these, Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire sounds more like a soap-opera script than like an eighteenth-century historical narrative. And when the tome first appeared in the U.K. a year and a half ago, the escapades of this obscure duchess, who just happens to be Princess Diana’s great-great-great-great-aunt, understandably ignited the British appetite for tales of aristocratic self-indulgence. It quickly became a best-seller, a TV documentary, and a BBC radio play narrated by Judi Dench, and earned Foreman the Whitbread prize for best biography. Now, as the U.S. edition, published by Random House, makes its debut, the question is whether Georgiana, with its skein of archaic political and familial connections and raft of footnotes, can generate the same kind of excitement here, where readers prefer their bulimic British princesses to be of more recent vintage.
“It’s a challenge,” says James Atlas, editor of the Penguin Lives series of biographies. “There is a taste in England for rarefied historical gossip, but there isn’t always a crossover. Then again, Gary Wills’s St. Augustine has over 50,000 in print. Why is that? I have no idea.” To spice up the Stateside version, pages of political intricacies have been trimmed, a dreamier rendering of Georgiana has been selected for the jacket, and, of course, Diana’s name has been worked into the flap copy. “It’s a hook,” admits Susanna Porter, Foreman’s U.S. editor. “We’re trying not to push it hard, but it’s certainly a way into this piece of history,” echoes Ann Godoff, head of Random House’s trade group, who notes that their strategy involves not only trumpeting the Diana parallel but selling Foreman herself: “We’re not only putting forward a book; we’re putting forward a new American historian for a new generation.” It also helps that the author is young, attractive, and blonde.
Foreman, 31, is actually half American and half British, and she’s confident of Georgiana’s crossover allure. “She’s a proto-celebrity. She wants to be herself but doesn’t know what herself is. It’s one of the greatest modern dilemmas.” The pitch has already caught Hollywood’s eye; Anjelica Huston is rumored to have optioned the film rights.
Indeed, the P.R. whirlwind that propelled Georgiana onto the U.K. best-seller list (the paperback is still at No. 7) transformed Foreman – a former grad student who until recently dined mainly on tomato pasta in her bed-sitter – into a glamorous party-page fixture and media darling. Foreman’s agent, Andrew Wylie, says he “auditioned with undiminished passion” to represent her here.
Now, after “selling” reviews in the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker and a planned second printing to augment the respectable first run of 15,000, the U.S. media blitz is already in full swing. Signings are planned, as are book tours, and, if the numbers are good, perhaps there’ll even be a visit with a certain talk-show host. “When I was a student,” confesses Foreman, “I was a great admirer of daytime television.”