So, I finally finished reading The Duchess, Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, the book upon which the Keira Knightley film The Duchess is based. Now, I loved the movie. Lots of drama, splendid costumes, Dominic Cooper. The book? WOW. The book was absorbing - Foreman condenses a lifetime of correspondence and research to present just how truly complex and unique a person Georgiana really was. Is the movie true to the book? No effin' way.
But what I ultimately decided to write this post about was not just how the film was different from the book - lots of cinematic adaptations of novels tread far from the written paths, with results either disastrous (Ella Enchanted) or damn entertaining despite their inaccuracy (Little Mermaid, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame). This post is going to be on how the movie deviated from the book in order to support a modern romantic narrative, which will in turn elucidate how romance narratives operate in today's cultural climate. Warning: Long-Ass Post Ahead.
Might as well start out with the most important character, shall we? Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is the heart and soul of both the film and (duh) the biography. Understandably, a great deal of her life is cut out of the film.
Physically, there is quite a bit of difference between Knightley and Georgiana. G's weight fluctuated rapidly based on her wild living and poor eating habits, true, but she was built like a Tudor (tall, big-boned, and red-haired) - she would have towered over the slender Keira Knightley if they'd ever met in person.
However, because the film chooses to focus on the romantic aspect of her life, so many of Georgiana's real-life accomplishments and disasters are left out of the film. The largest section of her biography is actually dedicated to G's passionate devotion and significant contribution to British politics. Some of her political work is hinted at in the film, such as the scene where G takes up the slack of a political dinner after the Duke leaves, or where she wears blue and buff (the colours of the Whig party) and watches Charles Grey make a speech. Her other accomplishments - she was a talented author, chemist, and mineral scientist! - are completely left out.
Another large and significant contributor to her persona was her gambling addiction. She lived wild and crazy in her youth, but gambling was her worst and most persistent vice and her incredible debts tormented her throughout her life, debts that by today's standards would have been in the millions of dollars. She insisted on concealing or lying about her debts for much of her life, and continually borrowed money from exasperated friends and only very rarely paid them back. Her gambling and reckless living are never mentioned once in the film.
Character-wise, the film's Georgiana is mainly a reactive and romantic character. Society manipulates and places her into different situations that she either accepts or rejects. She rarely takes action on her own initiative. Almost every situation concerns her romantic or married life - her marriage to the Duke, her friendship with Bess, her affair with Charles Grey, so we get a sense of the romantic and sexual side of her persona. Her character arc is how she initially sets out to play by society's rules, only to reject them, eventually learning to compromise between her desires and social mores by the end of the film.
It's somewhat similar to G's progress according to Amanda Foreman's depiction, but this is where the romantic element comes in - in the film, G's rejection of social mores springs from the very 21st century take she has on romance and marriage that the biographical G didn't seem to share. The film dwells quite a bit on Georgiana's tedious marriage to the Duke, but also on G's outrage about her husband's affair with her BFF Bess. In the biography, she's not so naive. Nor is she as nonplussed by the Duke's bastard daughter Charlotte as she is in the film - clearly, while G might have desired romantic love in her marriage, she wasn't oblivious to the existence or popularity of mistresses and extramarital affairs.
However, to promote the romantic nature of the film, Georgiana's character is developed as one who doesn't believe in adultery - to the point where others' adultery comes as a nasty shock, and where her own adultery only really takes place after she's severely provoked by her husband, the Duke. Historically, this wasn't the case. While Grey is depicted as the love of her life in both versions, G had other lovers before and after Grey - most notably, the Duke of Dorset, a devastatingly handsome playboy who was the English ambassador in Paris.
Much like the film itself, the character of Georgiana is depicted in a much narrower fashion than the historical Georgiana. In order to serve the romantic direction of the narrative she is also endowed with modern social norms, presumably so that the audience can relate to her story more. It works in this case - don't get me wrong, as a romantic film The Duchess is sumptuous and entertaining. It's simply interesting to note the modern adaptations of her character in order to fit the romance narrative.
But the changes to G's character to support the romance are nothing to what the film changes about Lady Elizabeth Foster, also known as Bess, the woman who befriends Georgiana only to steal her husband. She has a pretty unsavoury role from the get-go, so many of the changes the film makes to her character are attempts to justify her actions, in order to make her a more relatable character within the narrower narrative frame of the film. Are they accurate? Oh hell no.
Movie Justification #1: Bess' husband beats her with a stick.
Did this happen in real life? No. According to Foreman, Bess' husband Lord Foster was a royal douchebag, but he never employed physical violence. What he does do, however, is take her children away, desert her, and leave her without a penny. What the film fails to mention is that Foster's behaviour, while asshat-y in the extreme, was provoked by Bess' infidelity.
Movie Justification #2: Bess hooks up with the Duke to get her kids back.
Did this happen? Nope. Bess' two sons with Foster, Augustus and Frederick, remained in Ireland with their father for the majority of their childhood and adolescence. They eventually started coming back for visits and ended up on close terms with G's children and their various legitimate and illegitimate half-siblings, but they never came to live with Bess and the Duke as little children as depicted in the film and Foreman provides no evidence that Bess' affair with the Duke was motivated by a desire to see her sons.
Movie Justification #3: Bess and the Duke are a true love match.
While Bess and the Duke no doubt shared affection for each other, as depicted in Foreman's biography, Bess wasn't wholly dedicated to the Duke. According to Foreman, after Bess started her affair with the Duke (but before G knew about it), Bess was sent to the Continent to tutor Charlotte (the Duke's illegitimate daughter), where she spent more time having various lusty affairs than educating poor Charlotte. She's a bad babysitter, got her boyfriend in the shower. Whoo! She's making 100 pounds an hour! Furthermore, after the truth comes out, Bess and the Duke grow apart and she conducts an affair with the Duke of Richmond, hoping to eventually marry him. Only after Richmond dumps her and G dies do she and the Duke get back together, and their marriage scandalizes the ton and lasts only a few years.
As you can tell, the film sanitizes Bess' character pretty hardcore. Amanda Foreman portrays Bess as way more ambiguous. Her version of Bess is a calculating, affected, insincere woman who is ultimately only out for Number One: herself. While she does care about Georgiana, the Duke, and her children's futures, her affection lasts as long as her financial security does. While Georgiana and the Duke provide that for a while, her behaviour depicts a woman who's always wary of where her next meal ticket will come from.
In order to preserve the film's romantic narrative, Bess is transformed into a romantic, self-sacrificing woman wronged by fate (rather than the consequences of her own actions) who lives to devote herself to Georgiana and her children and is ultimately the love match of the Duke - thereby, thematically, justifying Georgiana's affair with Charles Grey, in the "As long as the Duke's found his true love, Georgiana's allowed a little sumthin' sumthin' on the side" vein.
Charles Grey is slightly more accurately portrayed in the film. Both the film and Foreman's biography assert that Charles Grey was the love of Georgiana's life, but the film fools around pretty roughly with history in the depiction of their relationship.
The introductory scene of the film shows a young Georgiana and Charles share a prior acquaintance before she is ultimately married off to the Duke of Devonshire, and his introduction to politics and her social circle is a sort of romantic reunion.
According to her biography, however, Georgiana was a total cougar - she meets Charles Grey for the first time when she is thirty and Grey is twenty-three. Again, this change seems to be an attempt of the film to justify Georgiana and Charles' relationship according to 21st century morals. Instead of Georgiana discovering she's in love and engaging in the affair after she is married to another, her love for Charles ignites safely before wedlock and is merely interrupted by marriage.
Lastly, let's deal with the character who, surprisingly given everyone else, remains pretty true to form with the personage depicted in Amanda Foreman's biography: The Duke of Devonshire. Quiet, shy, and deeply reserved, the Duke wasn't the best husband for the lively and passionate Georgiana. Publicly known for being good-natured and fair, he wasn't a great wit or conversationalist, and could be quite peevish. I thought his relationship with Georgiana in the film was right on the money (except for a few key scenes), and Ralph Fiennes' depiction managed to make him come across as wooden as well as human. Very much a man of his time, he wasn' t a terrible or abusive husband (and could often be very tolerant and patient with G and her ruinous debts), but clearly not the man to hold Georgiana's heart.
And these are just the main characters - lots of others (Charles Fox, Sheridan, Lady Spencer) are given short shrift in the film, and even more don't appear at all (most egregiously, Georgiana's delightful sister Harriet).
Now, I could go on forever about all the deviations from the biography this film makes, but instead, to focus on my theme that the changes are motivated by a desire to make this film more romantic by 21st century standards, I'll specifically discuss a scene that was not in the biography, but was added to the film.
The scene I am talking about is the rape scene. Georgiana tells her husband she'll grant her blessing to his affair with Bess if she can fool around with Charles Grey. The Duke, enraged, follows her to her room and rapes her. A few scenes later, the narrative jumps ahead and we are suddenly introduced to the infant Marquess of Hartington, or "Hart" for short, the heir the Duke's always wanted. The arrangement of these scenes appears to imply that Hart was conceived from the rape.
I was quite shocked when I read the biography after watching the movie and discovered that no rape occurs between the Duke and G, or is referred to, suggested, implied or brought up in any manner by Amanda Foreman. WHY then, is it in the movie? I present two theories:
1) It's further moral justification of Georgiana and Charles' affair for the 21st century viewer
2) It a true-blue example of the Sparkly Hoo-Ha Romance Trope, or in this case, the Sparkly Wang. In romance novels, once the hero and heroine have the meet-cute, it is a serious genre no-no for either of them to have consensual or pleasurable sex with anyone else. Some romance novels, depending on context, can get away with it but most tend to avoid it with tropes like the Impotent Evil Husband. In the film, Charles and Georgiana are in love but the Duke won't tolerate an affair because he doesn't have a legitimate heir yet. Sadly, even in the 18th century the cabbage-patch didn't produce offspring. But - gasp! - how can we have Georgiana have sex with anyone other than Charles Grey when she is totally in lurve with him? It's not right! Our 21st century romance viewers won't relate! Therefore, a rape scene is added, where the sex with her husband is non-consensual, and conveniently enough a son is born from it.
There have been other discussions about the importance that morality plays in modern romance narratives, but comparing The Duchess to Amanda Foreman's biography highlights it so well. The film decides to fashion a romantic narrative from an historical narrative, but in order to do so it makes historical changes in the characters' moral depictions, decisions, and behaviour that better reflect 21st century morals. Bess is "permitted" to have an affair with the duke because a) her husband hits her, b) she wants her kids back, and c) she loves him. Georgiana is "permitted" to have an affair with Charles because a) her husband's cheating on her, b) her husband raped her, and c) she loves him. Neither Bess nor Georgiana are depicted having sex with anyone who isn't their husband or their One True Love. Both Bess and Georgiana look down on adultery as a whole, except in their own exhaustively-justified cases.
It's interesting to consider. What role do morals play in the romances you read? Why do you think they play this role? SHOULD they play this role, do you think?