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Keira Knightley has garnered considerable attention for her performances in period pieces both serious—Pride and Prejudice, Silk, Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Imitation Game—and more action-oriented—King Arthur, the various Pirates of the Caribbean films. One of her more notable roles was Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, in The Duchess (2008, dir. Saul Dibb). The film was based on the 1998 international best-seller Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography. The book and the film are quite different from each other in some key ways, so for the next couple of posts I’m going to explore Georgiana’s life as it appears in the film and the book.


Georgiana’s Life

Georgiana (pronounced “Jhor-JAY-na”) was born into the Spencer family, one of the major noble families of 18th century England. (Her brother, George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer was the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales, so he’s also the one-more-great ancestor of the presumably future king of England William.) On her 17th birthday in 1774, she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, who came from a sprawling noble family of major political importance; his father had already served as Prime Minister and his brother-in-law the 3rd Duke of Portland would hold the office later on.

While the marriage made good sense politically, Georgiana and William were not well matched to each other personally. She was a charming, vivacious young woman who soon became known for her beauty, fashion sense, and skill as a hostess, while he was a taciturn man mostly known for his love of his dogs and his disinterest in socializing. Georgiana had been lavished with affection by her parents, while William’s upbringing had been rather cold. It was once remarked that William was “the only man in England not in love with the Duchess of Devonshire”.

The Duke was automatically, by virtue of his noble title, an important figure in English society, and when she married him, Georgiana became a major figure in London society. Georgiana’s natural, unforced charm, her ability to chat easily with almost anyone, and her understanding of etiquette all combined to make her almost instantly one of the leaders of the ton, as British high society was becoming known. In addition, she had a remarkable sense of fashion, which was backed up by her husband’s seemingly limitless wealth (at a time when a minor noble could live comfortably on an annual income of £300, he had a reported annual income of around £60,000). This enabled her to become a trend-setter in fashion, a position she held for many years.

Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire

Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire

Unfortunately, Georgiana struggled with one of the most important duties of an 18th century noblewoman, the obligation to produce a male heir. In the first decade of her marriage, she suffered a number of miscarriages, and then gave birth in 1783 and 1785 to two daughters, Georgiana (nicknamed “Little G”) and Harriet (called “Harryo”). Her failure to provide the duke with a son was clearly a source of considerable tension and embarrassment to her. Nor was the fault obviously the duke’s; when they married, he already had an illegitimate daughter Charlotte. In 1780, Charlotte’s mother died, and Georgiana insisted on essentially adopting the girl, raising her virtually as her own, a somewhat uncommon gesture in an age when illegitimate children were generally deposited with distant relatives or entirely unrelated commoners to avoid scandal.

In 1782, the duke and duchess traveled to Bath, the popular British spa town, hoping to treat his gout and her fertility problems. Almost immediately, they encountered Lady Elizabeth Foster, the daughter of a bishop and the wife of John Foster, a member of the Irish parliament. Bess (as she was known) had two children by her husband, but their marriage had irretrievably broken down and he had insisted on a complete separation (in an age when divorce was exceptionally hard to get). John had insisted on custody of the children, which was his legal right, and refused to pay her any support at all, a highly unusual choice that suggests that he had proof that she had been unfaithful to him.

Despite her rather scandalous and lower-class background, Bess and Georgiana became close friends, and the destitute Bess latched onto the duke and duchess like a lamprey. In Foreman’s biography, Bess Foster comes across as an unpleasant and deeply manipulative woman who figured out how to play upon Georgiana’s insecurities and William’s need to be doted on. By 1784, she had succeeded in becoming the duke’s mistress, while still managing to remain Georgiana’s best friend. Despite being disliked by most of the people around them, including Georgiana’s mother and sister, Bess became a permanent fixture of their household, apart from a two-year period when she was sent to Italy to give birth to the duke’s illegitimate daughter Caroline (which she did in an Italian brothel).

Elizabeth Foster and Georgiana Cavendish

Elizabeth Foster and Georgiana Cavendish

The Cavendishes and Foster lived as a triad until Georgiana’s death in 1806. Their domestic life was remarkably complex. Georgiana finally gave birth to her only son, William, in 1790, two years after Bess had given the duke a son, Augustus (a name she must have been fond of, because her second son had the same name). Bess had numerous affairs, including with two English dukes, an Irish Earl (whom she may have had a son with), a Swedish count, and an Italian cardinal.

Georgiana, for her part, had an affair with a leading politician of the day (and future Prime Minister), Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (after whom the tea is thought to be named). They met sometime in the late 1780s because they were both major figures in the Whig Party. In 1791, she became pregnant. To avoid scandal, she and Bess rented a house in southern France, where little Eliza Courtney was born. Georgiana reluctantly turned the baby over to the Grey family, who raised her in ignorance of her true parentage, presenting her as one of their children (and thus she grew up thinking her father was her brother). Throughout this period, the duke was furious with Georgiana and forbade her to return home to England, but also refused to support her, so she and Bess spent two increasingly poor years in Italy before he finally recalled them.

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

After this crisis, the triad achieved a lower level of unorthodoxy by living together relatively placidly for the rest of Georgiana’s life. In 1796, Georgiana suffered some sort of severe infection of her right eye. The region around her eye swelled up and an “ulcer” formed on the cornea and then burst. Her doctors treated her with leeches and other unpleasant therapies, as well as opium, and eventually the swelling went down. She lost most of the sight in her right eye, which now drooped, marring her celebrated good looks.

A decade later, in 1806, she fell ill with an abscessed liver, a condition that the doctors of the time were unable to diagnose or treat, and she died, surrounded by her husband, Bess, her mother, and her two legitimate daughters. Her death was mourned by a huge crowds of Londoners, her political friends, and even her husband William.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire


The Duchess

It seems clear that a decision was made early on in the adaptation process to target the film primarily to female viewers. This choice shapes the film in a couple of key ways, as we will see.

The film opens in 1774, with Georgiana (Knightley) as a 17-year-old flirting with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). This is wrong; they would not meet for almost another 15 years. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) negotiates with William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) for the marriage, and the duke agrees that she will be financially rewarded when she gives birth to a son. While not an unreasonable detail for the period, this too is fabricated; Foreman makes no mention of any such arrangement. The purpose here is to establish that the duke is primarily interested in an heir more than a wife.

Keira Knightly as Georgiana

Keira Knightley as Georgiana

So within the first couple of scenes the film has established three of its four main characters (Georgiana, William, and Grey), positioned Charles as a potential love interest for Georgiana, and demonstrated that William doesn’t really care about her as a person. The viewer strongly suspects that the marriage will turn out poorly because Georgiana is like a modern woman in wanting a husband who is also an emotional companion, while William is like a pre-modern man in wanting a wife to be a baby-maker. This version of Georgiana and William is not unreasonable; the shift toward companionate marriage (the modern model in which spouses are emotional companions) had already begun, and Georgiana was among the first generation of women raised to hope for such a marriage (in this, she’s rather like another Knightley character, Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice). But it was not until the 19th century that companionate marriage truly began to displace the older model of marriage as a political and economic alliance between families. William was nearly a decade older than his wife, and his upbringing would have prevented him from thinking of marriage in this new, rather radical fashion.

Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire

Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire

The marital mismatch becomes clear almost immediately. They travel to London and her maids undress her. The duke comes into her room and she stands in front of him, naked, while he is still clothed, emphasizing both their power differential and how vulnerable she is. They have sex rather dispassionately after he undresses. Then the film moves to G (as she was nicknamed) talking to her mother, who tells her that once a son is born, she won’t have to have sex so often. G complains that he won’t talk to her, and Lady Spencer comments that they have nothing to talk about. Later, it becomes clear that he is sleeping with the servants.

The next scene shows the couple dining at opposite ends of a long table. During the meal, a young girl is brought in and Georgiana is introduced to Charlotte, who will be staying with them. When G asks why, the duke says that her mother is dead and then admits that he fathered the girl. The whole scene is played to appeal to the modern audience’s sense of outrage that our heroine is being asked to raise her husband’s bastard daughter. This is unfair. As already noted, Georgiana was quite happy to have a surrogate daughter to raise, and as a noblewoman she must have had at least some awareness that noblemen frequently had illegitimate children. While modern audiences would find the duke’s request appalling, it seems unlikely that Georgiana found it so.

Georgiana gets pregnant and gives birth to Little G while the duke demonstrates his lack of concern for her by playing with dogs and by leaving once he learns that he does not have a son. Then the film leaps forward 6 years with the duke and duchess taking their trip to Bath. By this time G has had her second daughter and then several miscarriages, and is happily mothering the three girls. The film has altered the facts here. Her miscarriages came before Little G’s birth, not after. By re-writing the details of her births, the film highlights the duke’s callous disregard for anything but a son. Georgiana can clearly have children so the whole problem is that the duke simply doesn’t care about them at all. The fault in the marriage, from the film’s perspective, is entirely his. In reality, there must have been considerable anxiety about whether G was capable of having children at all, because she lost her first several pregnancies. Nor does the film address the fact that in the context of her day, much of the blame would have fallen on Georgiana, especially since the duke had already proven that he could father children.

In the film, the couple meets Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) after their first two children have already been born, but in reality, Little G was only born after Georgiana had already known Bess for about a year. The duke may have taken up with Bess in part because of his growing frustration over G’s difficulties giving him any children at all, but in the film he is clearly rejecting her because she is only giving him daughters.

The film treats Bess Foster much more sympathetically than Foreman’s sense of the woman. Bess is presented as a quiet but decent woman whose husband has taken a mistress, beats her, and is refusing to let her see her sons. John Foster had publicly admitted to sleeping with one of the servants, but there is no evidence that he was violent toward his wife, and there is no mention in the film that Foster may well have cheated on him.

Hayley Attwell as Bess Foster, with Georgiana

Hayley Atwell as Bess Foster, with Georgiana

The only sign of Bess’ ability to manipulate the couple comes after Georgiana realizes that Bess has begun sleeping with the duke. Bess explains that the duke may be able to use his influence to pressure John Foster into letting Bess see her children. This scene is interesting for two reasons. It allows the viewer to sympathize with Bess rather than hating her as an interloper, and thus it makes clear why Georgiana was able to remain friends with her husband’s mistress. But it is also a very rare example of a mainstream film in which a woman’s romantic choices are presented as a means to achieve a laudable goal. Normally when a woman has ulterior motives for sex, she is seen as an evil woman using her sexual charms as some sort of honeytrap or to gain revenge. But here, Bess sleeps with William because it will get her access to her children. Perhaps she doesn’t really love the duke at all. (The film also has one scene that briefly alludes to the possibility that Georgiana and Bess may also have been lovers, a fact that cannot now be confirmed but which seems plausible.)

And, in fact, this strategy pays off. Bess is reunited with her three sons (having apparently picked up a third one somewhere), and Georgiana gets to watch the duke interact with the boys in a way that humanizes him slightly, and suggests that perhaps the duke is a different man with her than he is with Georgiana. In reality, this never happened, and it’s far from clear in Foreman’s biography that Bess had strong maternal instincts; she seems to have cheerfully handed off her illegitimate children to distant contacts and made little effort to see her sons until rather late in life.

After all this, Georgiana begins to fall in love with Charles Grey. At breakfast, she proposes a deal to her husband. She will permit his relationship with Bess if he in turn will permit her to have a relationship with Charles. The duke refuses angrily and when G leaves the room, he angrily storms after her and rapes her. This rape leads her to get pregnant and give birth to their son, after which he rather coldly gives her the promised financial bonus.

Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey

Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey

This is entirely invented. There is no evidence that Georgiana ever attempted to arrange such a deal, which would have been highly abnormal by the standards of the day, and there is no evidence that William ever raped her. The purpose here, again, is to recast events for a modern audience, who expect husband and wife to have equal control over the relationship; if William gets to have a mistress that he genuinely cares for, it is reasonable that Georgiana should get a lover as well. The duke’s fury and assault on his wife reinforce how unreasonably G is being treated, and the invention of the cash payment for giving birth to a son reinforces the duke’s callousness for the audience.

After the birth of their son, Charles Grey shows up at their estate while the duke is away, saying that he has been invited. The film doesn’t clarify who did the inviting, but it seems to be a tacit acknowledgement by William that Georgiana has earned some happiness. They begin their affair and are indiscrete about being together at Bath. At this point, the duke and Lady Spencer show up and tell her that she has to break off the affair because she is being careless. She refuses, and he tells her than she will not be allowed to see her children, a threat that leads to her breaking things off with Charles. But she’s already pregnant.

From this point, the films moves quickly to its conclusion. Georgiana and Bess go away (apparently somewhere in Britain rather than southern France) and the baby is born and reluctantly passed off to the Greys. She returns home, and the duke briefly opens his heart to her, saying that he knows that she thinks him a harsh man, but that he wishes to find some sort of calm normality with her from here on. He watches the children playing and wistfully remarks “How wonderful to be that free.” She bumps into Charles at a party and he tells her that he is engaged and that he has a young ‘niece’ who is doing quite well.

The film ends with an epilogue text. “Georgiana re-entered society and continued to be one of the most celebrated and influential women of her day. Charles Grey became Prime Minister. Georgiana, Bess, and the Duke lived together until Georgiana’s death. With Georgiana’s blessing, Bess went on to marry the Duke and became the next Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana frequently visited Eliza in secret. Eliza named her daughter Georgiana.“ This accurately sums up the rest of Georgiana’s private life, but, as we will see in my next post, the film has in fact glossed over or omitted quite a lot of Georgiana’s life. Her unorthodox home life is actually only one of the reasons Georgiana was an interesting woman. Amanda Foreman’s book makes a good case that her historical importance goes much further than this film suggests.

Want to Know More?

The Duchess is available in a variety of formats on Amazon. As I noted, it’s based on Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshirewhich won the Whitbread Prize and is extremely readable, drawing quite heavily from the duchess’ surviving letters.

If this has gotten interested in Bess Foreman, one of her descendants has written a rather positive biography of her, Elizabeth & Georgiana: The Duke of Devonshire and His Two Duchesses, drawing off of Bess’ journals. I’d recommend reading Foreman’s book first.