Thursday, October 18, 2012

the duchess georgiana — a modern 18th century woman

Keira Knightley is very good in The Duchess as Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire. When the film came out in 2008 apparently much was made of her distant relationship to Diana, Princess of Wales, who was her great-great-grandniece. But Georgiana's life is so interesting that modern parallels are unnecessary.

When we first see Georgiana she is seventeen, very young and very excited to become a duchess. She thinks herself a fairy princess. But the reality sets in almost immediately. Her husband the duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a lot older, and not at all wiser. He may be of the highest nobility, but he he is also a rough and tumble personality type, who thinks far mor of his dogs than any humans he might encounter. He views Georgiana only as a tool to provide him with an heir. Like so many royal wives before her, she disappoints him with a daughter, and then ... another.

Keira Knightley in The Duchess, from 18th century blog. The exquisite costumes were designed by Michael O'Connor

Lady Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, by Thomas Gainsborough, National Portrait Gallery, London

The disappointed Georgiana finds an outlet in politics. The dull Duke can't keep up with the erudite dinner table conversations that include some of the leading political thinkers of the day, but Georgiana can. She quickly becomes the symbol and the darling of the Whig Party, holding salons and hostessing other events including such illustrious Whigs as Thomas Gainsborough, who painted her portrait several times; the politician Charles James Fox; and the playwright Richard Sheridan. Through these salons she met Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the future Prime Minister of England, and the Earl behind the Grey tea we drink. They embarked on an affair, and Georgiana gave birth to a daughter that Grey had his parents raise as his younger sister.
Georgiana, "I have many faults, as you well know. Not least among them is my ability to draw attention. Perhaps we could use that to our advantage."
In The Duchess Georgiana lives the18th century equivalent of the life of a rockstar. She throws wild parties, drinks, gambles, and takes drugs, trying to assert her independence from the Duke. But even with all of this extreme behavior she is also a devoted mother, who, shocking for the time and her status, insists on nursing her own children. She even loves an illegitimate daughter of the Duke who is thrust upon her early in the marriage, as the Duke says, for her to "practice" her mothering skills.

The Duke isn't faithful and doesn't even sugarcoat his indiscretions, as maids brazenly sneak in and out of their marital bed. Georgiana accepts the status quo until he goes after her best and only female friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell).
Lady Elizabeth Foster, " ... the Duke of Devonshire must be the only man in England not in love with his wife."
Lady Elizabeth, or Bess, as she was known, was introduced to the Duke by Georgiana, and suddenly it appeared that maybe the Duke could actually care for someone — just not his wife. He moves her into their home and the three lived together for 25 years, with Bess having two children, a boy and a girl, by the Duke. Georgiana also finally gave the Duke the son he was hoping for in 1790. The Duke and Bess eventually married, after Georgiana's death in 1806 at the age of 48.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster, by Jean-Urbain Guérin, painting on ivory, circa 1791

This has always been one of my favorite paintings by one of my favorite painters, Thomas Gainsborough, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, 1783. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

I was so captivated by this film and Knightley's performance that I picked up the book, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire and am looking forward to learning even more about this original and independent 18th century woman.

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