Friday, 10 October 2008

Diana ain't The Duchess -by Carmody Wilson

A society beauty born into the world of wealth, privilege and the very real possibility of an arranged marriage, Georgiana Spencer was just a regular girl of the upper class in Regency England. In her lifetime the war with Napoleon raged, England lost America to Independence, Jane Austen wrote (endlessly about garrisons of soldiers but nothing of the actual conflict, God forbid,) and the fifth Duke of Devonshire went searching cradles all over England for a wife. The film version of these events, The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as the Dueling Devonshires, is based upon Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the book by Amanda Foreman. The 5th Duchess was an interesting woman and a pioneer in the way she wore her politics and peccadilloes on her sleeve, and the film does a fine job of showing Georgiana as a woman out of her time in many respects, but what is interesting about the woman and her portrayal in the film is how she has been positioned as a Georgian Diana, Princess of Wales. This leads to some exciting possibilities.

It’s easy to see where this trend started: Georgiana was a much-loved royal by the members of the public who had to endure the humiliation of a cheating husband, and threw herself into the image-edifying activity of good public works. There were scandals, affairs, and intrigues in both Diana and Georgiana’s lives, and both contain characters of surprising strength despite habitual fragility. But the framing of the film as an eighteenth-century shadow-play of the plight of the Princess of Wales is a mistake, and unfettered by these comparisons, the film tells a much better story.

Georgiana Cavendish was certainly fascinating. Whig tongues wagged as Georgiana made great speeches in support of the opposition leader Charles James Fox, and some even went so far as to whisper that the lady was in fact conducting a torrid affair with the hirsute, debauched politician. The film shies away from these allegations, not least because Fox was a distant Spencer cousin, steering focus instead toward Georgiana’s more camera-friendly love affair with Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister (played by Dominic Cooper). Things get a little more complicated for Georgiana when she fails repeatedly to bear the anxious Duke a son, and she seeks refuge in the friendship of Lady Elizabeth Foster. Unfortunately, the Duke also seeks refuge in Lady Bess and no amount of pouting and making saucer eyes makes him return to the bony bosom of his poor wife.

Knightley’s performance is admirable, and gives The Duchess of fame a flesh-and-blood feel. Fiennes is the definite article as The Duke who expects to get what he wants and sees no reason why he shouldn’t. Fiennes as the Duke is actually a sympathetic character here, in spite of being cast too easily as the villain. He succinctly captures the emotional remoteness that his breeding and class have hammered into him, and he is no more a tyrant in the film than any other man of wealth was in his time. He struggles to care for a lively and vivaciously political show-stopper wife, and cannot accept her inability to bear him a son (which she eventually does, but things have broken down too far for any romantic reconciliation at this point, to say the least) It’s a film that gives a real feeling to the social constraints that the wealthy of both sexes were limited by but accepted. When Georgiana sacrificed a life with Grey to be the dutiful Duchess, she didn’t sob to journalists about what she had done, and when the Duke made it known that he was having an affair with Lady Bess it wasn’t through a taped conversation about desiring to be her menstrual implement.

Nevertheless, this had lead the film’s promoters to tack on the tawdry comparisons to Georgiana’s ancestor, Diana Princess of Wales, in their flogging of the Duke as an uncaring philanderer and the Duchess as a woman of the people. The tagline “There were three people in her marriage” adds to the cheapening of the subject matter but leads to fascinating possibilities within the film: what if Camilla had actually lived with Charles and Di, and gave birth to Charles’s children, like Bess Foster had? The toothy toffs would be unleashed upon the world as sons of privilege, partying wildly, receiving military commissions, eschewing education for earthy edifications…obviously no parallel reality there. Let us ruminate then on the possibility that Martin Bashir be the modern-day Richard Brinsley Sheridan, bringing the princess/duchess’s pain on marital peculiarities out for public consumption, this time through Panorama and not School for Scandal? Then James Hewitt, or latterly Dr Hasnat Khan, could be the sympathetic Charles Grey character! He’s a polo-playing heart surgeon who wrestles on reality television whilst grappling with his memories of his royal true love! This could be a dynamite film, Hollywood, are you listening? But wait, who in history, could match Paul Burrell’s special brand of sycophantic devotion? In the interests of keeping the promoter’s view of these indistinguishable heroine’s lives on a parallel track there may need to be a little historical filmic fudging-a devoted footman! Paul Burrell was a footman! The Duchess of Devonshire surely had them around! It would be so easy to put the character of, let’s call him Barkley, right there into the story! He would soothe Georgiana when she learns she has born yet another girl, whispering into her hair that “it looks like a boy, and is as beautiful as you are!” He could wave nosegays in her face when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful, and bundle Charles Grey into a blanket in a carriage down Piccadilly when she needed male comfort of a less obsequious sort. The possibilities are endless. Diana and Georgiana’s lives were just the same! And surely if The Prince of Wales had an illegitimate child with a servant, as the Duke of Devonshire had, this child would be spirited away to some second-rate public school and given a job as the Gardening Expert in The Tattler without even a hint of nepotism! Happily Georgiana did not meet as violent an end as The Princess of Wales, but for the sake of the fantasy film we can create a breakneck carriage race down Pall Mall with the Duchess sobbing into Barkley’s shoulder about her diminishing privacy whilst Reynolds, Gillray and Rowlandson ride pell-mell alongside, sketching frantically. Gillray’s horse cuts too close to the Duchess’s carriage, and… sod it, her drunken carriage driver cranks the whole thing into a tree. Cut to a wig landing on the ground, and mass hysteria.

Clearly this train of thought thrillingly cheapens the lives of all involved, but it especially does no favours to the film, which stands on its own as a lushly imagined, emotionally restrained historical epic about an ordinary, albeit titled and wealthy, woman born into extraordinary times. The Duchess is full of politics, both personal and parliamentary, and though there is much to say about the social situation of women during Georgiana’s lifetime, the film features them without losing focus on the main prize. It was her power to inspire that had the public and the privileged so eager to know her. If all this comes down to is a paltry tie-in with a modern royal, so be it, but don’t judge the film by its poster.

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