Featuring Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy, Pride and Prejudice), Ralph Fiennes (The Avengers, Maid in Manhattan), Hayley Atwell (Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron), Charlotte Rampling (London Spy), and Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!, Captain America: The First Avenger), The Duchess is a film based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of the 18th-century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. According to the blog, An Historian Goes to the Movies‘ post, “The Duchess: What We See“:
Keira Knightley has garnered considerable attention for her performances in period pieces both serious—Pride and Prejudice, Silk, Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Imitation Game—and more action-oriented—King Arthur, the various Pirates of the Caribbean films. One of her more notable roles was Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, in The Duchess (2008, dir. Saul Dibb). The film was based on the 1998 international best-seller Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography. The book and the film are quite different from each other in some key ways, so for the next couple of posts I’m going to explore Georgiana’s life as it appears in the film and the book.
Georgiana (pronounced “Jhor-JAY-na”) was born into the Spencer family, one of the major noble families of 18th century England. (Her brother, George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales, so he’s also the one-more-great ancestor of the presumably future king of England William.) On her 17th birthday in 1774, she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who came from a sprawling noble family of major political importance; his father had already served as Prime Minister and his brother-in-law the 3rd Duke of Portland would hold the office later on.
While the marriage made good sense politically, Georgiana and William were not well matched to each other personally. She was a charming, vivacious young woman who soon became known for her beauty, fashion sense, and skill as a hostess, while he was a taciturn man mostly known for his love of his dogs and his disinterest in socializing. Georgiana had been lavished with affection by her parents, whole William’s upbringing had been rather cold. It was once remarked that William was “the only man in England not in love with the Duchess of Devonshire”.
The Duke was automatically, by virtue of his noble title, an important figure in English society, and when she married him, Georgiana became a major figure in London society. Georgiana’s natural, unforced charm, her ability to chat easily with almost anyone, and her understanding of etiquette all combined to make her almost instantly one of the leaders of the ton, as British high society was becoming known. In addition, she had a remarkable sense of fashion, which was backed up by her husband’s seemingly limitless wealth (at a time when a minor noble could live comfortably on an annual income of £300, he had a reported annual income of around £60,000). This enabled her to become a trend-setter in fashion, a position she held for many years.
Unfortunately, Georgiana struggled with one of the most important duties of an 18th century noblewoman, the obligation to produce a male heir. In the first decade of her marriage, she suffered a number of miscarriages, and then gave birth in 1783 and 1785 to two daughters, Georgiana (nicknamed “Little G”) and Harriet (called “Harryo”). Her failure to provide the duke with a son was clearly a source of considerable tension and embarrassment to her. Nor was the fault obviously the duke’s; when they married, he already had an illegitimate daughter Charlotte. In 1780, Charlotte’s mother died, and Georgiana insisted on essentially adopting the girl, raising her virtually as her own, a somewhat uncommon gesture in an age when illegitimate children were generally deposited with distant relatives or entirely unrelated commoners to avoid scandal.
In 1782, the duke and duchess traveled to Bath, the popular British spa town, hoping to treat his gout and her fertility problems. Almost immediately, they encountered Lady Elizabeth Foster, the daughter of a bishop and the wife of John Foster, a member of the Irish parliament. Bess (as she was known) had two children by her husband, but their marriage had irretrievably broken down and he had insisted on a complete separation (in an age when divorce was exceptionally hard to get). John had insisted on custody of the children, which was his legal right, and refused to pay her any support at all, a highly unusual choice that suggests that he had proof that she had been unfaithful to him.
Despite her rather scandalous and lower-class background, Bess and Georgiana became close friends, and the destitute Bess latched onto the duke and duchess like a lamprey. In Foreman’s biography, Bess Foster comes across as an unpleasant and deeply manipulative woman who figured out how to play upon Georgiana’s insecurities and William’s need to be doted on. By 1784, she had succeeded in becoming the duke’s mistress, while still managing to remain Georgiana’s best friend. Despite being disliked by most of the people around them, including Georgiana’s mother and sister, Bess became a permanent fixture of their household, apart from a two-year period when she was sent to Italy to give birth to the duke’s illegitimate daughter Caroline (which she did in an Italian brothel).
The Cavendishes and Foster lived as a triad until Georgiana’s death in 1806. Their domestic life was remarkably complex. Georgiana finally gave birth to her only son, William, in 1790, two years after Bess had given the duke a son, Augustus (a name she must have been fond of, because her second son had the same name). Bess had numerous affairs, including with two English dukes, an Irish Earl (whom she may have had a son with), a Swedish count, and an Italian cardinal.
Georgiana, for her part, had an affair with a leading politician of the day (and future Prime Minister), Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (after whom the tea is thought to be named). They met sometime in the late 1780s because they were both major figures in the Whig Party. In 1791, she became pregnant. To avoid scandal, she and Bess rented a house in southern France, where little Eliza Courtney was born. Georgiana reluctantly turned the baby over to the Grey family, who raised her in ignorance of her true parentage, presenting her as one of their children (and thus she grew up thinking her father was her brother). Throughout this period, the duke was furious with Georgiana and forbade her to return home to England, but also refused to support her, so she and Bess spent two increasingly poor years in Italy before he finally recalled them.
After this crisis, the triad achieved a lower level of unorthodoxy by living together relatively placidly for the rest of Georgiana’s life. In 1796, Georgiana suffered some sort of severe infection of her right eye. The region around her eye swelled up and an “ulcer” formed on the cornea and then burst. Her doctors treated her with leeches and other unpleasant therapies, as well as opium, and eventually the swelling went down. She lost most of the sight in her right eye, which now drooped, marring her celebrated good looks.
A decade later, in 1806, she fell ill with an abscessed liver, a condition that the doctors of the time were unable to diagnose or treat, and she died, surrounded by her husband, Bess, her mother, and her two legitimate daughters. Her death was mourned by a huge crowds of Londoners, her political friends, and even her husband William.
It seems clear that a decision was made early on in the adaptation process to target the film primarily to female viewers. This choice shapes the film in a couple of key ways, as we will see.
The film opens in 1774, with Georgiana (Knightley) as a 17-year-old flirting with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). This is wrong; they would not meet for almost another 15 years. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) negotiates with William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) for the marriage, and the duke agrees that she will be financially rewarded when she gives birth to a son. While not an unreasonable detail for the period, this too is fabricated; Foreman makes no mention of any such arrangement. The purpose here is to establish that the duke is primarily interested in an heir more than a wife.
So within the first couple of scenes the film has established three of its four main characters (Georgiana, William, and Grey), positioned Charles as a potential love interest for Georgiana, and demonstrated that William doesn’t really care about her as a person. The viewer strongly suspects that the marriage will turn out poorly because Georgiana is like a modern woman in wanting a husband who is also an emotional companion, while William is like a pre-modern man in wanting a wife to be a baby-maker. This version of Georgiana and William is not unreasonable; the shift toward companionate marriage (the modern model in which spouses are emotional companions) had already begun, and Georgiana was among the first generation of women raised to hope for such a marriage (in this, she’s rather like another Knightley character, Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice). But it was not until the 19th century that companionate marriage truly began to displace the older model of marriage as a political and economic alliance between families. William was nearly a decade older than his wife, and his upbringing would have prevented him from thinking of marriage in this new, rather radical fashion.
The marital mismatch becomes clear almost immediately. They travel to London and her maids undress her. The duke comes into her room and she stands in front of him, naked, while he is still clothed, emphasizing both their power differential and how vulnerable she is. They have sex rather dispassionately after he undresses. Then the film moves to G (as she was nicknamed) talking to her mother, who tells her that once a son is born, she won’t have to have sex so often. G complains that he won’t talk to her, and Lady Spencer comments that they have nothing to talk about. Later, it becomes clear that he is sleeping with the servants.
The next scene shows the couple dining at opposite ends of a long table. During the meal, a young girl is brought in and Georgiana is introduced to Charlotte, who will be staying with them. When G asks why, the duke says that her mother is dead and then admits that he fathered the girl. The whole scene is played to appeal to the modern audience’s sense of outrage that our heroine is being asked to raise her husband’s bastard daughter. This is unfair. As already noted, Georgiana was quite happy to have a surrogate daughter to raise, and as a noblewoman she must have had at least some awareness that noblemen frequently had illegitimate children. While modern audiences would find the duke’s request appalling, it seems unlikely that Georgiana found it so.
Georgiana gets pregnant and gives birth to Little G while the duke demonstrates his lack of concern for her by playing with dogs and by leaving once he learns that he does not have a son. Then the film leaps forward 6 years with the duke and duchess taking their trip to Bath. By this time G has had her second daughter and then several miscarriages, and is happily mothering the three girls. The film has altered the facts here. Her miscarriages came before Little G’s birth, not after. By re-writing the details of her births, the film highlights the duke’s callous disregard for anything but a son. Georgiana can clearly have children so the whole problem is that the duke simply doesn’t care about them at all. The fault in the marriage, from the film’s perspective, is entirely his. In reality, there must have been considerable anxiety about whether G was capable of having children at all, because she lost her first several pregnancies. Nor does the film address the fact that in the context of her day, much of the blame would have fallen on Georgiana, especially since the duke had already proven that he could father children.
In the film, the couple meets Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) after their first two children have already been born, but in reality, Little G was only born after Georgiana had already known Bess for about a year. The duke may have taken up with Bess in part because of his growing frustration over G’s difficulties giving him any children at all, but in the film he is clearly rejecting her because she is only giving him daughters.
The film treats Bess Foster much more sympathetically than Foreman’s sense of the woman. Bess is presented as a quiet but decent woman whose husband has taken a mistress, beats her, and is refusing to let her see her sons. John Foster had publicly admitted to sleeping with one of the servants, but there is no evidence that he was violent toward his wife, and there is no mention in the film that Foster may well have cheated on him.
The only sign of Bess’ ability to manipulate the couple comes after Georgiana realizes that Bess has begun sleeping with the duke. Bess explains that the duke may be able to use his influence to pressure John Foster into letting Bess see her children. This scene is interesting for two reasons. It allows the viewer to sympathize with Bess rather than hating her as an interloper, and thus it makes clear why Georgiana was able to remain friends with her husband’s mistress. But it is also a very rare example of a mainstream film in which a woman’s romantic choices are presented as a means to achieve a laudable goal. Normally when a woman has ulterior motives for sex, she is seen as an evil woman using her sexual charms as some sort of honeytrap or to gain revenge. But here, Bess sleeps with William because it will get her access to her children. Perhaps she doesn’t really love the duke at all. (The film also has one scene that briefly alludes to the possibility that Georgiana and Bess may also have been lovers, a fact that cannot now be confirmed but which seems plausible.)
And, in fact, this strategy pays off. Bess is reunited with her three sons (having apparently picked up a third one somewhere), and Georgiana gets to watch the duke interact with the boys in a way that humanizes him slightly, and suggests that perhaps the duke is a different man with her than he is with Georgiana. In reality, this never happened, and it’s far from clear in Foreman’s biography that Bess had strong maternal instincts; she seems to have cheerfully handed off her illegitimate children to distant contacts and made little effort to see her sons until rather late in life.
After all this, Georgiana begins to fall in love with Charles Grey. At breakfast, she proposes a deal to her husband. She will permit his relationship with Bess if he in turn will permit her to have a relationship with Charles. The duke refuses angrily and when G leaves the room, he angrily storms after her and rapes her. This rape leads her to get pregnant and give birth to their son, after which he rather coldly gives her the promised financial bonus.
This is entirely invented. There is no evidence that Georgiana ever attempted to arrange such a deal, which would have been highly abnormal by the standards of the day, and there is no evidence that William ever raped her. The purpose here, again, is to recast events for a modern audience, who expect husband and wife to have equal control over the relationship; if William gets to have a mistress that he genuinely cares for, it is reasonable that Georgiana should get a lover as well. The duke’s fury and assault on his wife reinforce how unreasonably G is being treated, and the invention of the cash payment for giving birth to a son reinforces the duke’s callousness for the audience.
After the birth of their son, Charles Grey shows up at their estate while the duke is away, saying that he has been invited. The film doesn’t clarify who did the inviting, but it seems to be a tacit acknowledgement by William that Georgiana has earned some happiness. They begin their affair and are indiscrete about being together at Bath. At this point, the duke and Lady Spencer show up and tell her that she has to break off the affair because she is being careless. She refuses, and he tells her than she will not be allowed to see her children, a threat that leads to her breaking things off with Charles. But she’s already pregnant.
From this point, the films moves quickly to its conclusion. Georgiana and Bess go away (apparently somewhere in Britain rather than southern France) and the baby is born and reluctantly passed off to the Greys. She returns home, and the duke briefly opens his heart to her, saying that he knows that she thinks him a harsh man, but that he wishes to find some sort of calm normality with her from here on. He watches the children playing and wistfully remarks “How wonderful to be that free.” She bumps into Charles at a party and he tells him that he is engaged and that he has a young ‘niece’ who is doing quite well.
The film ends with an epilogue text. “Georgiana re-entered society and continued to be one of the most celebrated and influential women of her day. Charles Grey became Prime Minister. Georgiana, Bess, and the Duke lived together until Georgiana’s death. With Georgiana’s blessing, Bess went on to marry the Duke and became the next Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana frequently visited Eliza in secret. Eliza named her daughter Georgiana.“ This accurately sums up the rest of Georgiana’s private life, but, as we will see in my next post, the film has in fact glossed over or omitted quite a lot of Georgiana’s life. Her unorthodox home life is actually only one of the reasons Georgiana was an interesting woman. Amanda Foreman’s book makes a good case that her historical importance goes much further than this film suggests.
Additionally, according to the same blog’s post, “The Duchess: What We Don’t See“:
In my last post, I explored how The Duchess (2008, dir. Saul Dibb) translated Amanda Foreman’s 1998 biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire from a historical biography to a historical drama. The previous post focused on what the film chose to include from the book, which was mostly the details of her rather unconventional marriage to William Cavendish and her ill-fated affair with Charles Grey.
However, the film removes some very important facets of Georgiana’s life entirely, excising more than half of Foreman’s narrative. Georgiana’s romantic life is, in my opinion, in many ways the least interesting part of her life story.
When Georgiana married Duke William, she instantly became one of the most socially prominent women in British society. Fortunately for her, her natural social gifts allowed her to adapt to that position, and she quickly became perhaps the leader of the London ton, the glamorous people of the day. She was charming and gracious and good at putting people at ease.
In particular, Georgiana had a remarkable gift for fashion, and in modern terms, she was a trend-setter. One example that Foreman gives is the way that Georgiana elaborated the fashionable hairstyle:
“Women’s hair was already arranged high above the head, but Georgiana took the fashion a step further by creating the three-foot hair tower. She stuck pads of horse hair to her own hair using scented pomade and decorated the top with miniature ornaments. Sometimes she carried a ship in full sail, or an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds and waxed fruit, or even a pastoral tableau with little wooden trees and sheep…women competed with each other to construct the tallest head, ignoring the fact that it made quick movements impossible and that the only way to ride in a carriage was to sit on the floor.”
When Georgiana adopted an ostrich feather worn in the front of her forehead, it instantly became an in-demand fashion accessory, despite being rare and extremely expensive. When she posed for a painting in a wide-brimmed hat with drooping feathers, the Devonshire ‘picture hat’ was immediately in demand across the country.
The film explores this, but more in the attention it pays to Georgiana’s (Keira Knightley) clothing than through any dialog. She is routinely shown in different outfits, some of them quite striking visually, but none of them include the towering hairdos with decorations. So the film essentially elides Georgiana’s role as a fashion leader and leaves it to the viewer to recognize that her fashion sense was remarkable.
It’s clear from Foreman’s book that Georgiana, like many of her contemporaries (including her own mother) was addicted to gambling. On some occasions, Georgiana actually turned Devonshire House, her London residence, into a casino. She could stay up very late playing cards in what to modern eyes looks very much like a compulsive habit. The film does show gambling in several scenes, but there is little sense that Georgiana had a gambling problem. The historic Georgiana also shows signs of alcoholism and perhaps a mild addiction to laudanum. Foreman goes so far as suggest that her late nights, constant drinking, and drug use may have been the reason for her miscarriages.
One of the central themes of Foreman’s book is how much Georgiana struggled with money. She enjoyed a remarkable income by the standards of her day; at a time when a gentleman could live comfortably on £300 a year, Georgiana’s allowance was about £2000 a year. However, her tastes in fashion, her lavish parties, and her gambling habit meant that she was perpetually short of money. She feared telling the duke just how badly she was in debt, and instead evaded and flat-out lied to him about the size of her debts. At one point, William agreed to cover her debts, assuming them to be perhaps £1000-2000; he was shocked when she confessed to owing £6000, and in fact the real total was considerably higher than that. Throughout her late 20s and 30s, Georgiana was constantly borrowing money from anyone who would loan to her, signing promissory notes to various craftsmen and bankers, and making the gambler’s fallacy of trying to win back money she had lost, only to get further into debt when she lost again.
This seedier side of Georgiana is entirely absent from the film. The only time that money is discussed at all is when the duke pays her a bonus for the birth of their only son, an entirely fabricated detail designed to further the vilification of the duke. She is once shown drunk and passing out at a party, after being raped by the duke, but the suggestion is that these things were a temporary response to what the duke has done, not an issue that may have plagued her much of her adult life. Omitting these details seems largely intended to preserve Georgiana’s character as a victim of circumstances for the viewer. It is hard to empathize with this facet of the real Georgiana’s character, unless you’ve struggled with compulsive spending or gambling, perhaps, but it is also a flaw that makes her more human; stripping it out makes her more sympathetic, but less a real person.
Georgiana’s social importance meant that she was a magnet for criticism both gentle and harsh. The most famous piece of satire directed at her is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal, in which she is Lady Teazle, the young, spendthrift wife of Sir Peter Teazle. Sheridan was, in fact, a friend of hers, but Foreman feels that his satire probably cut a little too close to home for her, given her constant fears about her spending.
Her Role in Politics
All of that is interesting, but it doesn’t really address why Georgiana matters historically, except perhaps as a footnote to fashion history. Georgiana’s husband belonged to the Whigs, one of the two major political factions of the day. As a result, when Georgiana became the leader of London social world, she also effectively became a central figure among the Whigs. The wives of 18th century noblemen were almost automatically political hostesses, but Georgiana forged close relationships with a number of the Whig party’s leading figures, including Charles Fox, Sheridan (who was a politician as well as a playwright), Charles Grey, and Prince George (the future George IV); developed her own political opinions; and gradually emerged as one of the dominant figures in the party, despite having no formal office. Indeed, she was probably a greater influence on the Whigs than her husband was, despite his being a member of the House of Lords.
The Whigs were essentially the anti-royalist party. They saw themselves as the guardians of traditional English liberty against what they saw as the Crown’s autocratic efforts to control the government, and they championed religious toleration for non-Anglicans (particularly Catholics, who had few political rights at the time). The Whigs had dominated English politics for much of the early 18th century, but when George III came to the throne in 1760, he quickly began to support the Tories, who championed royal power and conservative Anglicanism. This forced the Whigs into opposition, a rather unfamiliar situation for them, and for much of Georgiana’s lifetime they struggled to develop the organizational unity that could lead them back into power. The Hanoverian dynasty had a deep-seated tradition of mutual loathing between father and son, so when George III threw his support to the Tories, his son Prince George quickly gravitated toward the Whigs (which protected the Whigs against charges of being opposed to the monarchy itself).
In 1780, Richard Sheridan decided to pursue a seat in Parliament. Lacking the finances that political candidates traditionally needed, he adopted a novel strategy of asking the Duchess of Devonshire to use her high public stature to draw attention to him. Charles Fox, one of the Whig leaders, went further and invited Georgiana to appear with him at a campaign rally. This was an incredibly bold move in a society in which politics were the prerogative of men, and the press remarked on it. Fox was a powerful orator and won the election easily, as did Sheridan, and the Whigs had learned a lesson; the Duchess of Devonshire was a powerful political weapon.
In 1782, the Tory Prime Minister Lord North resigned after the British loss in the American War of Independence, and George III reluctantly invited the Whigs to form a coalition with another Tory leader, so Fox became Foreign Minister. According to the rules in operation at the time, this required Fox to stand for immediate re-election to confirm that his constituents wanted him. Fox turned to Georgiana again, and asked her to not simply appear on his behalf, but to lead a formal female delegation during the campaign. The election campaign was a great success, and Fox remained in his ministry for the next two years.
In 1784, however, George III and William Pitt the Younger formed a conspiracy of sorts to pull down Fox’ coalition and nominated Pitt for Prime Minister, at 24, the youngest man ever tapped for the office. Fox was able to block Pitt’s nomination and the king dissolved Parliament. In the ensuing election, Pitt won a handy majority, forcing the Whigs back into opposition. During this electoral rout, Fox’ seat of Westminster was fiercely contested, with a very real possibility that Fox could be ousted from Parliament entirely.
In the ensuing campaign, Georgiana canvassed aggressively on Fox’ behalf, and the most lively portion of Foreman’s book is her description of the campaign. The polling period lasted a full six weeks, and Georgiana and several other Whig ladies worked tirelessly to persuade residents of Westminister to vote for Fox. They paraded through the streets, paid personal visits to shops and private houses, and occasionally let voters ride in their personal coaches to get to the polls. Georgiana was reputed to have caressed and even kissed men to win votes. In one unfortunate incident, she was reported to have gone into a house to debate with several drunken supporters of one of Fox’ opponents, who would not let her leave until she had kissed every man present. The press found particular amusement in the fact that she had several times to walk down a street with a number of notorious brothels on it.
Pitt’s supporters made much of these claims, and embellished them further. She was accused of granting sexual favors in return for votes, and rumors circulated that she and Fox were lovers (a charge that Foreman acknowledges can not be either proven or disproven). The whole thing was exhausting for Georgiana, emotionally and physically, and two weeks into the campaign, she left London to recuperate. But the Whigs, particularly the duke’s brothers, begged her to return, saying that her absence was being taken as a sign that she no longer supported Fox and causing a drop in his polling. Less than a week later, she returned to the campaign. Her absence had clearly had an impact on the voting, and her return reversed Fox’ slide; Fox eked out a win by less than 250 votes out of more than 18,000.
In all of this, it is clear that Georgiana’s unique gifts were key to her influence. Her high status and popular acclaim meant that people paid attention everywhere she went. Her ability to put people at ease extended all the way to tradesmen and their wives; she had recently given birth to her first child, and so could talk with women about the challenges of caring for babies. Her economic clout with clothiers enabled her to sway many tradesmen simply by promising to purchase their products or, more darkly, threatening to blacklist them. Since anything Georgiana wore in public immediately came into general demand, a promise to buy a hat or muff carried real value. And Georgiana understood the political issues well enough to debate them intelligently when it came to that.
Thanks to Georgiana, the 1780s saw the first emergence of women into British politics in a direct way, and it is not unreasonable to say that she may well be the first female activist in British history. Women directly engaging in polling activities was unprecedented, and she was successful at it. By the 1790s, however, opinion was beginning to swing against such things, and noble women, including Georgiana, were gradually forced back into their more traditional roles as hostesses only.
But that did not actually sideline Georgiana as a political figure. Instead, she gradually emerged as one of the party’s strategists and an unofficial ‘whip’. She used her parties and banquets to woo wavering politicians and court those who were undecided. She worked to build bridges between the various fractious figures in the party. Her personal letters and diaries are important historical sources today for what they reveal about internal Whig debates, particularly during the Regency Crisis.
The Regency Crisis
In October of 1788, George III suffered a bout of insanity and became incapable of fulfilling his role as monarch. In such a situation, it would be necessary to appoint Prince George as Regent until his father recovered, but it was not clear just how much power he ought to be given, and so a heated debate erupted turning over the question of whether Prince George had an automatic right to assume full power or if Parliament could stipulate the powers he would receive. The Tories, assuming that the king’s madness was temporary, felt that Parliament could specify the grant of powers, while the Whigs, assuming the king’s madness was permanent and that the king was therefore functionally dead, felt that the Prince should have unlimited access to royal power as if he had inherited the throne. This debate turned the normal Whig and Tory positions on their head and confused the whole situation.
From the Whig perspective, the whole thing played out like a bad political farce. Fox was out of the country when the Crisis began, and by the time he returned, he had come down with dysentery and could not play his normal leadership role right away. In the vacuum, Sheridan stole a march on him and began representing the Prince, who immediately demanded full authority and made a public show of mocking his father’s illness. Georgiana’s lover, Charles Grey, was hoping for a high political office, but Sheridan disliked Grey and persuaded the Prince to insult him with a promise of a minor office. When Fox finally got into the fray, he was unable to counter Sheridan’s position with the Prince, and when he appeared in Parliament, he gave a disastrous speech that seemed to repudiate the whole Whig philosophy and opened the Whigs up to charges of rank hypocrisy and power-hunger. Pitt managed to drag the whole affair out until the king began to recover, and the lasting result was the fracturing of the Whigs into squabbling factions who were unable to mount an effective response to the Tories for more than a decade.
Georgiana was a die-hard Whig her entire adult life. She was an intelligent politician who wielded considerable influence within her party. Her tragedy, in some ways, is that her allies were beneath her. Fox, for all his importance, was in many ways inept and was much better in opposition than in power. Georgiana believed in him whole-heartedly and was never able to recognize his faults and move beyond him. Sheridan was a weasel with a gift for speech-making and deception that enabled him to cause trouble but not actually solve it. The Prince was a sullen, childish man who let real opportunities slip away because he was too petty to swallow his hatred of his father, although in part his actions were due to a lack of political experience. (Georgiana was a reluctant witness to his illegal and secret marriage to a young Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert. As Prince it was illegal to marry without his father’s permission or to marry a Catholic, but George courted total disaster and removal from the line of succession to pursue an infatuation; a decade later he dumped her to marry legally in part because the Crown would pay his massive debts of £600,000 the day he wed. By acting as witness, Georgiana put herself in legal danger to please her friend.) Had Georgiana had better allies to work with, she might have wound up with real influence in the British government instead of influence with the powerless opposition.
The Duchess does acknowledge Georgiana’s involvement in politics, but in a very watered-down way. She meets Fox (Simon McBurney) at a banquet and proceeds to debate the virtues of liberty with him (something of a misrepresentation, since Fox’ deepest political principles were religious toleration and opposition to slavery). Similarly she is friends with Sheridan (Aidan McArdle), who is presented as nothing more than a playwright. In three or four scenes, she is shown making brief political appearances, because Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) has asked her to do so, not Fox. There is absolutely no discussion of the political issues of the day, or only the faintest hint that Georgiana is interested in politics for any reason other than her friendships. The raucous campaign of 1784 is receives no particular attention, and there is no suggestion that Georgiana was a key figure among the Whig leadership.
On the one hand, the excision of Georgiana’s politics makes some sense, given that the film is focused on her romantic relationships. Explaining 18thcentury politics to a modern audience would take some work and would detract from the personal relationships that are key to the film. But on the other hand, making a biopic about Georgiana and minimizing her political activities in favor of her troubled marriage does a tremendous disservice to her. It would be like making a biopic about Hillary Clinton and focusing entirely on her relationship with her husband while omitting her legal career or her political activities and then ending the film shortly after the Lewinsky Affair. Technically, the film would be accurate, but it would be giving a very distorted view of who she is and minimizing her historical importance.
Georgiana Cavendish was an important figure in Britain in the late 18thcentury. Key events, such as Fox’ re-election and the Regency Crisis would probably have played out quite differently had she not been involved. Had Fox been defeated in 1784, the politics of the following decade would certainly have been altered. In an age in which women participate in politics in a very substantial way, surely there is an audience for a film about an early female political activist?
A Few Other Omissions
The Duchess also omits other important details that are at least worth mentioning here, such as Georgiana’s close friendship with the ill-fated Marie Antoinette and several other French nobles. The French Revolution was a major event in Georgiana’s life; during her time on the Continent following the birth of Eliza, she had to deal with the dangers of the Revolution. But the film’s only acknowledgement of the Revolution is Grey’s ominous prediction that a revolution is brewing in France.
Just as the film has no interest in Georgiana as a politician, it also has no interest in her as an author. Georgiana wrote a number of surviving poems, as well as two short novels, one of which, The Sylph, she published anonymously to some acclaim. She also wrote a couple of travel narratives later in her life. She frequently invited authors to her parties, Sheridan being only the most notable.
In later life, Georgiana was also an amateur scientist, being particularly interested in geology. Her brother-in-law Henry Cavendish was a noted chemist, and she worked with Thomas Beddoes, a prominent physician, to establish a brief-lived scientific institute, chiefly noted for its work with nitrous oxide.
In all these fields, Georgiana’s accomplishments were minor. None of her writings have deep literary significance, and she herself was not a real scientist. But they demonstrate that Georgiana was woman of complex interests that went well beyond fashion and romance.
All in all, The Duchess is a good film, but ultimately unsatisfying. The performances are uniformly strong; Ralph Fiennes does an excellent job bringing just enough humanity to a rather unlikable man. The film is gorgeously shot, and the costuming does a good job of suggesting the fashions of the time, even if the film doesn’t really explore Georgiana’s influence on fashion. It does at least acknowledge her involvement in politics. But both through its omissions and through its distortions, I think the film fails to capture the true Georgiana. It takes a complex and historically important woman and largely reduces her to the victim of an unfortunate marriage. Both Georgiana and the film’s audience deserved a more complex portrait than it delivers.
According to The Guardian review:
The grand houses. The glorious interiors. The awe-inspiring lobbies and entrances with marble flooring washed with natural light. The candlelit ballrooms densely populated by simpering ladies and gossiping 18th-century politicians. The wigs. The Whigs. The elegant country houses, from whose drawing rooms ambitious mothers can thoughtfully watch their beautiful, innocent daughters romping ingenuously on the wonderful lawns. All of it murmurs “England”, and the whole thing is so excessively English that I half-expected the usherette to check my National Trust membership card at any moment. Boris Johnson might well feel like bringing Keira and her bewigged and powdered crew on for the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012.
Director Saul Dibb smoothly orchestrates these elements in his stately, measured pageant-drama, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana (counter-intuitively pronounced Jaw-jain-a), Duchess of Devonshire, née Spencer, the brilliant but broken-hearted political hostess and courageous wronged woman whose life story, with a little tweaking, resembles that of her 20th-century descendant: our own Queen of Hearts, the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Once again, Keira is playing at the comfortable upper reaches of the social register, though without the thin, shrill edge of neurosis that made her performance compelling in Atonement, nor yet the loose, jaunty, sisterly swing that made her so attractive in Pride and Prejudice. Her lips are once again perennially shaped to express something between a pout and a moue, but those panda eyebrows are rarely raised in surprise. She is the simple girl whose steely-eyed mama (a shrewd, poised performance from Charlotte Rampling) pairs her off with the fabulously wealthy and powerful Duke of Devonshire, played with a kind of clenched glumness by Ralph Fiennes. Like many Englishmen of that time and ours, he is emotionally animated only by animals: in this case, his beloved dogs.
At first shy and lonely, Georgiana discovers that she is loved by the people and by high society alike; she blossoms and makes her husband look a dullard. But the duke breaks her heart with his indiscretions, including an affair with Georgiana’s best friend, Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) – and so Georgiana finds herself submitting to the attentions of the handsome Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). It was, to coin a phrase, very crowded in that marriage, and once the facts are presented in this light, Georgiana does indeed start to look like Diana.
What is frustrating is that the movie does not give Knightley much of a chance to show the progression of her character: from simple teenager to racy society woman with a weakness for wine and gambling and finally to battle-hardened mother, a person who now knows what is really important in this world and who is dedicated to staying with her children at all costs. We need to see Georgiana develop as a person, see her grow up, grow old even. Frankly, this doesn’t happen, though I sensed that Knightley could have achieved this, had the script and direction allowed it.
I must also say that I am turning from agnostic to atheist when it comes to Ralph Fiennes’ performance. He plays the entire thing with a look of thin-lipped, fastidious despair – and a face like a wet weekend in Wigan. It’s appropriate for the role, arguably, but where is the passion he’s supposed to feel for Bess? The nearest we get to it is hearing their cries of illicit passion behind the bedroom door, but we stay outside, with Georgiana, as she listens, stunned by his unfaithfulness. I would have loved to see a genuine, clothes-on, love scene between Ralph Fiennes and Hayley Atwell. This, however, might have meant upstaging the leading lady.
Georgiana moves in racy social and political circles; Simon McBurney plays the turbulent radical Charles James Fox and Aidan McArdle is Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the dramatist whose School for Scandal was evidently inspired directly by the Devonshires’ notoriously unstable marriage. Both men enjoy her friendship, but again, there is no sense that politics really means all that much to Georgiana other than with one pretty feeble squeak about female suffrage over the port one evening.
Then there is the gambling – something to which the real-life Duchess was, if not addicted exactly, sufficiently devoted to run through a very large amount of her cash, leaving her reportedly broke at the end of her life. This Georgiana’s gambling looks like a genteel flutter. Betting and politics are shown as male adventures on which Georgiana is content to take a free ride. Her frizzy coiffure is shown disturbed at one stage – in fact, her wig catches fire, which is more than her performance does – but Georgiana seems perplexingly submissive, even when supposedly at the height of her career.
Dibb’s movie looks good, but there is something exasperatingly bland and slow-moving at all times. Unlike the heroine, he never takes much of a risk.