Wednesday, April 21, 2010

History vs. Romance - "The Duchess"

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?


  1. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I have a question (and it's due to my profound laziness that I'll ask you rather than read Foreman's biography and figure it out for myself).

    Are "affairs," in the context of Georgiana's life and times, primarily events of sexual attraction and consummation? Or are they also events of political and intellectual attractions?

    I have a vague notion that we, today, have a need to believe that two people have sex because of their sexual attraction. That way, the sex *matters*. But I wonder if back then, there wasn't greater emphasis on whether someone was intellectually and politically powerful, and so one might have sex with such a person even without a lot of the affair being about the sex?

    So -- great expert on the Duchess of Devonshire -- what say you?


    Lazy Reader

  2. Magdalen --> from the biography, it seems it can be both. Bess certainly seemed to be doing it for security, and Lady Jersey (a nasty piece of work who briefly was mistress to the Prince of Wales) for power. Not in Georgiana's case, I don't think - most of her political influence came from her platonic friendships with Charles Fox and the Prince of Wales as well as her own intellectual and persuasive powers.

    Also - the Duke of Devonshire was one of the most powerful men in England, so by comparison Charles Grey was slumming it, and the Duke of Dorset was more or less equal.

    But yes - definitely the movie tries to make every sexual encounter about sexual attraction and love instead of say, financial security or political connection, if that's what you mean.

  3. I have a question too (and, like Magdalen I'm too lazy to read the biography!). You mentioned that Fiennes' portrayal was right on the money and the movie was accurate except for a few key scenes. The rape scene was one of them. What were the others? Did the Duke tolerate G's affairs? Did G have to give up her daughter with Charles like in the movie? Did G & the Duke know each other at all before the marriage? (I know, I know, I should just read the book.... LOL!!)

    As for your questions about morals, I agree that the facts were changed to make the story more acceptable to the modern movie goer. When I saw it, I had to remind myself that the Duke was a man of his times and (apart from the rape) didn't do anything wrong (even then, rape of one's wife was no crime in that time and she was his property to "use" as he wished so, arguably had that happened, he didn't do anything that society (at the time) considered wrong) (but that's probably another discussion). I'm happy that the biography doesn't say he raped her though!

    It was only when I reminded myself that the Duke was just being a Duke in the regency (or whenever it was!) that I didn't hate his character. As a modern gal, I certainly wanted to. (I hadn't been exposed to many real dukes before; most of the dukes in my reading are defenders of women's rights, hawt, commanding, dashing, handsome, sexy, etc - not like the actual dukes of the time!!

  4. Kaetrin --> One other key scene was the whole "stop seeing Grey or I'll take your children" scene. The book never goes into terrible detail about what the Duke thought of Georgiana's affairs - mostly, he was the angriest at her gambling debts and her tendency to lie and obfuscate them until they grew too big to ignore.

    The scene with Eliza (G and Grey's child) was different too - THAT was something the Duke wouldn't tolerate. She didn't just go "into the country" as in the movie, she was sent to the Continent in EXILE, with very little money, where she basically had to entertain herself and not see her children for more than a year until the Duke deigned to send for her.

    And she didn't only have Bess for company, either - her mother, sister, brother-in-law, hell a host of people went with her. G ended up giving up Eliza because otherwise she wouldn't be able to see her other children (the Duke tolerated Bess' illegitimate children in the household but not G's).

    Eliza did go to live with Grey's family, and Charles was reportedly charmed by her, but Foreman states that she had a rather unhappy childhood - her foster parents (her paternal grandparents) weren't cruel but they weren't happy-go-lucky about her situation, either. She ended up in a really happy marriage, though!

    I really liked Fiennes' portrayal of the Duke - he was very awkward, but you got a sense that he literally DIDN'T know how to act otherwise around women, he was very shy and reserved. And he did care about Georgiana in his way.

  5. Anonymous6:08 PM

    Your review definitely makes me want to hurry up and go through my TBR pile and read the book. Since you've enjoyed "The Duchess", and in case you might want to review something like this again, I can recommend Antonia Fraser's biography on Marie Antoinette. I don't know if you've read it, but it's a great book. The movie with Kirsten Dunst is based on it and based on what you've said about the differences between the book and the movie, you might find even bigger ones with Marie Antoinette than with the Duchess.

    Speaking of the Duchess, I can't exactly blame the screenwriters/producers/movie people for cutting and modifying so many aspects about the plot and the characters, with time management and all.

    However, I can't help but be disappointed at how little in common the adaptations nowadays have with the books. I've been watching a lot of older movie adaptations and they seem to be truer to the story. I can't exactly explain it. Maybe the movie industry is getting more commercial by the year, or maybe not that many people have patience ot interest to read longer books anymore, and they're only tempted to do so if they think that the book will contain the exact things that were shown in the movies. It's sad. You've pointed out so many aspects of Georgiana's life that could have a better fit in the movie than some of the other events they've chosen to portray.

    I don't know if that makes any sense.

  6. Really interesting post. Probably because I actually saw The Duchess unlike most of the movies out in the last ten years. :)

    I would even go so far as to say the movie is aimed at an American audience, with our conflicted cheap sexuality yet puritanical romantic visions.

    I do know what Antonia means, I watched How Green Was My Valley (1941) a while ago and while there were things cut, it was astoundingly faithful to the book.

  7. This analysis (more academically framed and cited) is precisely the type of thing we'd love to see at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Or, a little less formally, at the Film and History Conference in November, 2010:

    IASPR is sponsoring a few panels if you're interested. Email Eric Selinger about them. :)

  8. Chrissy7:41 AM

    Hey, i loved this post :)
    1 question though, so was Charles Grey 'the love of Georgiana's life'? or was he kind of just 1 person in a string of affairs, that she didn't really care too much for?

  9. Anonymous11:34 PM

    did the duchess and Charles Grey continue their affair after their daughter was born? It said that G would sneak off and see Eliza but did she ever sneak off and see Charles as well? Or, did their affair totally end once she rejected his proposal for her to leave her husband and children to be with him?

    1. I had the same question. I think they had to have continued to see one another. I read he had several affairs behind his wife's back because she was always pregnant. Eliza got to see her mom so often, she even named her firstborn after her; Georgina. I would venture to guess they continued meeting in secret in much the same way she did with Eliza; her daughter. If anyone else found proof of this, please let us know here. I hope they continued to see each other and I'm glad the rape scene was fabricated. Great post!

  10. denisebreslin9:37 PM

    Thank you so much for this comparison. You did a great job!! I read the book quite awhile ago so couldn't remember all the "facts." I was, however, a bit shocked at the film as I knew it was deviating greatly from the historical story. What occurred to me, reading your comparison, was how very similar to Georgiana Princess Diana was: both tall with reddish hair, very outgoing, beautiful, fashionable, married to dullards, active in the world. Diana definitely had the Georgiana genes!! I hate the way these films think an audience needs rape and morality to tell a great story.

  11. denisebreslin9:40 PM

    @Gossamer Obsessions ... Oh what a shame ... you haven't replied to any of the comments. I hope it was just because you're busy, that you're well.

  12. Sara Branco4:31 AM

    Great post!
    I will read the books, either The Dutchess of Devonshire and Marie Antoinette.
    I saw the movies but by the posts here it seems that the books are more real story than movies.


  13. Anonymous2:18 PM

    Thanks for writing. Just a couple of observations of what I say differently.

    1)"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 personal".

    I only half agree. Over half of the film, the relationshop with Grey is not romantic. Her
    friendship with Bess was geniune (at first from her G's perspective), not about sex despite
    the frivolous bedroom scene. I don't even consider this film a "romance" until closer to the
    end. Yes, the marriage is a cental part of the film but for obvious reasons. This is a
    feminist film to highlight the struggle of women and they way she is trapped and powerless,
    in many ways. So I may agree with you but it depends. It sounds like you are implying that
    they only focus on the frivlous romantic things of her life because this is a typical modern
    Hollywod sexist romance film. No! Quite the opposite. They take out the "real" things in her
    life like her accomplishments and driven personality because that would clash with the narrow
    feminist narrative that they have focused on.

    2) "The film dwells .... 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". Naive. I don't think it was naive to not expect your husband to sleep
    with your best friend. Like she said, it is one thing to put up with your affiars with maids
    or whatever, but not my best friend. Besides, her surprise could just as well been over ther
    betrayel by her friend.

    Bet you say this is all to support the modern Romantic idea. That is she must have a naive
    view of adultury. Well again, no. This is to support the feminist narrative. She must be portrayed
    as the innocent who is oppressed and even trapped, "having no other option" as her mother says.
    Being free to have many relationships/affairs would betray that narrative.

    3)"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)".

    Lol,in order to fabricate the feminist narrative of the film they completly lie about her life,
    including making her husband a wife-beater. She is there to witness the rape of G, or at least hear
    it through the door, as one of the girls comes up. This is to illistrate the (fabricated) rape or
    abuse that all women as her have to deal with.

    4) Now, the Duke. And the rape scence. You provide 2 possible explanations, but for some strange reason
    ignore the obvious. SMH. we go again. It was added because it first the feminist narrative of
    the histoic raping of women both real and figuratively. To them it is irrelevant if there was a specific
    rape. The marriage itself was a rape to them. And it is not just about sex. G askes her husband for
    something fair, I suppose, and what does he do. He demonstrates he's power - "Deal. I don't make deals. I
    just do because I am in charge". So this fits 100% perfectly with the feminist narrative. Because it the rap
    was not about sex. Maybe it was not even about an heir. It was a demonstration of power. But since this entire
    narrative is total feminista bulls*** fiction, it amounts to nothing by bullsh*** lies.

    Great film though still. Had me at the edge of my seat at a few times. And the acting was wonderful. But
    total f**** fictions. Worse than fiction. It is libel.

  14. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Why could he have an affair and have his kids by bess in the house and bess kids by someone else but the duchess had to give up both her lover and kid