Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire & The Duchess
I knew when the film The Duchess came out that I would probably enjoy it very much, if only for the costumes. I thought perhaps it would be somewhat like the Marie Antoinette film; not only was Georgiana (pronounced George-AY-na) Spencer Marie Antoinette’s (approximate) contemporary, they were also good friends in real life. I am glad, however, that I read the (nonfiction) book upon which The Duchess is based, because they are enjoyable linked together rather than separately.
Although I respect the amount of primary research Amanda Foreman did on Georgiana Spencer, I have to confess I enjoyed the style of her book less than I expected to. Similarly, I liked Georgiana herself a lot less than many people seemed to. In the film, Georgiana’s rough edges have been smoothed just as Cassandra’s sketch of her sister Jane Austen was cleaned up for Victorian audiences. One of the things that made it quite difficult for me to identify with Georgiana was her inveterate gambling. Setting aside the fact that it was endemic of 18th century aristocratic society, the gambling bug got Georgiana early—and it got her completely; I think she was more devoted to it than anything, more than her children or her lovers. I suppose today she would have had treatment to help her past her addiction, but despite the constant urgings of everyone around her, she got deeply into debt thousands of times in her life and made it even worse by constantly lying about the sums to everyone. In the film, Georgiana is shown gambling a few times, but it is never suggested that it is an addiction, nor does this particular strand have any bearing on the plot. (The opening scene of the film, in which Georgiana is holding a man’s three-cornered hat with what appeared to be banknotes in it—I thought she was gathering funds to take to a gambling party. It turned out this was her early life and she was merely indulging in a game. Also, when the Duke gave her the ultimatum of her lover Charles Grey or her children, he was carrying what I thought were letters from her creditors. They were actually letters from her children.)
For many reasons, in the film Georgiana’s family has been collapsed down to just her mother, who is portrayed faithfully by Charlotte Rampling. However, this is a shame given the wonderful personalities of her brother George, her sister-in-law Lavinia, and especially her younger sister Harriet (who lives on in name only, in The Duchess’ Georgiana’s second daughter Harryo). Harriet followed Georgiana into gambling, into a disastrous marriage (her husband was physically abusive and may have even tried to poison her), into political fundraising, and into unhappy affairs. Another character who’s gotten the chop is Selina Trimmer, the governess, who was spying for Georgiana’s mother. However, Georgiana’s father lives on in a short speech Georgiana gives to her mother after she has found her marriage to the Duke not all she hoped for, which is taken directly from the real Georgiana’s writings—she had hoped the Duke’s somewhat cool exterior concealed sensitivity and emotion underneath, like her father, but found this was not the case.
Occasionally the Duke starts tottering down the road to pantomime villain. At the film’s best moments, they equalize the Duke’s shyness with his sense of property; he “did not know how to be romantic; never having experienced tenderness himself he was incapable of showing it to Georgiana.” I don’t feel like we have to penalize the Duke for finding companionship in his dogs rather than his wife; some people just have difficulty relating to others, and unfortunately these two people had very opposite personalities (fortunately toward the end of their lives, they did manage to “get on”). “The Duke was drinking a dish of tea with Lady Spencer and Harriet when Georgiana walked into the room and sat on his laps with her arms around his neck. Without saying a word he pushed her off and left the company.” In the film, the Duke has a few Soames Forsyte moments, but I think he is most faithfully represented when he tells Georgiana, “I love you. In as far as I understand love.” Similarly, you can hardly accuse Ralph Fiennes of playing Heathcliff all over again, even if the costumes are similar—I see more flashes of Oscar from Oscar and Lucinda in his apologetic expressions. (I confess I have never seen Ralph look more handsome than in this film.)
Georgiana’s relationship with Bess Foster has also changed considerably. The film has gone for the simple angle, ie the ménage à trois when the Duke is sleeping with her best friend. Bess, although portrayed as the humble recipient of a wrath and jealousy Georgiana never in real life expressed directly to her, is nonetheless remarkably dissimilar from the simpering, sycophantic woman scheming for everything she envied in Georgiana’s life. The rest of the world’s annoyance with her has been transferred onto Georgiana so they can have some spectacular rows and express much more modern sentiments. Though, for some titillation, Bess does seem to hold some Sapphic feelings for Georgiana, a distant echo, perhaps, of Georgiana’s relationship with Mary Graham, the Little Po, and perhaps Bess herself. (Georgiana and the Duke’s only surviving son, called Hart, eventually and remarkably formed a very close relationship with Joseph Paxton!)
A circle of admiring men still surround Georgiana in the film, though it has been constricted and Fox’s and Sheridan’s roles greatly reduced (to give greater clarity to Grey). This is a shame, but it would have been a completely different film had it focused on the ongoing (perhaps intimate?) relationship with Fox—in this film, at least, unequivocally the two are not lovers and it is Grey (another future Prime Minister) who is the rip-roaring leader of the Opposition. Even poor, confused Prinny (Prince of Wales, future George IV) barely gets a scene and not even a line. Georgiana’s political involvement has shrunk to a handful of scenes (though later we do get a few surreptitious glances of the Tory caricaturists) and what is perhaps worse, her sentiments have been modernized. The sense of the Opposition party that I got from Foreman’s book is that it was far from radical, believed merely in curbing the excesses of the monarchy, and when push came to shove, almost everyone disavowed the French Revolution. Georgiana’s sentiments in the film about “freedom is absolute” are all very well and good for the plot, but in reality she demonstrated her beliefs quite clearly by siding with her friends the aristocrats in France, more or less talking herself into it along the way. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Georgiana was much more successful for the Whigs than her counterparts ever were for the Tories. Did she ever really embrace butchers to gain votes? In any case, she was so active in politics that future (Victorian) generations sought to destroy her correspondence. She was . . . embarrassing. As for Grey, Dominic Cooper is . . . there. I could never while reading the book understand why Georgiana fell so hard for him; in the film, they definitely try to make him the radical, as I mentioned before. And . . . he runs around a lot? That makes him better than the Duke?
The film has had to leave out the many trips abroad including the sordid ones during which various mistresses give birth to illegitimate babies: Bess to several men’s, Georgiana’s to Grey’s. However, they very emphatically show the Duke’s affair with a milliner and their offspring, Charlotte, who is raised with their legitimate children (in the film, Charlotte takes the place of several of the other illegitimate children, but in real life the Duchess did not grow to love her as her own flesh and blood and in fact the Duke was not very fond of her either). The film in fact almost ends as Georgiana has to hand off her child with Grey, Eliza, to Grey’s family to take care of—what is clear is that in real life and the film, they both loved this child very much. With the film ending there, the last ten years or so of the Duchess’ life are effaced, which is a shame because she became a creative scholar and very interested in mineralogy. I had been kind of hoping the film would show this transformation (I suppose it wasn’t glamorous enough).
As the filmmakers themselves remark, it can be difficult to make this story empathetic or accessible—poor little rich girl, her father had an income of £700 a week when gentlemen could live off £300 a year. In general, the film’s dialogue is shockingly direct—the first time Bess meets Georgiana, she repeats rumors to her face that she, Georgiana, has been incapable of conceiving a son for the Duke. A million other inaccuracies and questionable dialogue abound (though I tend to think this happens when three people write the script!!); the most annoying was Georgiana appearing in public nine (or so) months pregnant. That would not have happened. (Also they had the audacity to put handles on the tea cups.) So when Georgiana offers the Duke “a deal,” I was almost as surprised as he was. It is, of course, ridiculous that the Duke can keep his double standards, with Charlotte in the household and Bess in plain sight, while Georgiana has to give up her lover and her illegitimate child; yet it doesn’t have to be shoved down our throats.
I think Keira Knightley is very beautiful and probably more beautiful even than Georgiana. She also happens to take very well to 18th century costumes (demonstrated memorably when she was 17 in Pirates of the Caribbean). The costumes of this film are, of course, amazing and appropriate to the trendsetter that Georgiana was (although I’m not sure there was any evidence in the book that she designed her own gowns!). Georgiana, among many things, introduced those giant headdresses which we associate with the 18th century; she also introduced muslin to England. I would definitely watch the film again just to look at the clothes.