Literature Special: The Duchess

Updated: Oct 15, 2010, 14:12 PM IST

Akrita Reyar

When Diana, the Princess of Wales, proclaimed there were three people in her marriage, and that it was getting a bit crowded, it became a parable summation of her relationship with Prince Charles.

As much as we associate her confession about Camilla Parker Bowles with the final breaking of her idyllic “Prince weds the lovely lass and they live happily ever after”, her words find repeated resonance in the history of British royalty and in the fact that adultery is a quintessential reality of many marriages from the time “the knot” became a part of the societal milieu.

What we don’t know is that these sorrowful words were not first uttered by the grief-stricken Princess, but were actually the painful admission of the Duchess of Devonshire centuries ago. It may be a quirk of fate, but Diana happened to be a direct descendent of this remarkable Duchess.

Based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of the 18th-century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, the film ‘The Duchess’ explores her unconventional life, her famed beauty, her popularity with the subjects, her political relevance, her inner turmoil and her recklessness, all set against the backdrop of an extremely unhappy marriage, inadvertently bringing out strong parallels with Diana.

Directed by Saul Dibb and released in September 2008, the film has Keira Knightley in the lead as Georgiana.

The film, which is set in the Georgian period, begins with 17-year old Georgiana Spencer indulging in fun sports with her friends where each woman chooses a young man to race on her behalf. Thus enters Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) whom Georgiana (lovingly called G) picks. Sparks fly but nothing beyond it. Attraction is only implied.

While the young damsel is frolicking with her acquaintances, her mother is plotting G’s ultimate elevation of status – fixing her match with the much older 5th Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes).

Excited at having invoked the Duke’s interest, Georgiana happily consents to marriage, but is soon disappointed. The Duke is only looking for a male heir and besides that seems to have more interest in his dogs than in her. His indifference towards his beautiful wife is further compounded when he insensitively expects her to accept his philandering ways and puts in her charge, his illegitimate daughter who was conceived by a maid.

Georgiana tries to take it all in her stride in the hope that things would eventually improve if she bears the Duke a son. Unfortunately, her pregnancies only result in miscarriages and daughters, and her relationship with the Duke becomes more and more distant. The Duchess tries to find solace in high society and quickly becomes a shining gem amongst the noble elite and a darling of the masses. Like Diana, such was her popularity that it was often joked that Georgiana was adored by all of England, except her husband.

She also in the meantime befriends Lady Bess Foster, played by Hayley Atwell, who has been abandoned by her husband and who is looking for ways to get the custody of her three sons. The two women become thick very quickly and the Duchess gives her shelter.

The shock comes when Georgiana finds out that her husband is sleeping with her best friend. Infuriated, she demands that the Duke asks Lady Bess to leave, but he refuses. In a very uncomfortable circumstance, the three begin to cohabit under the same roof.

The Duchess, desperate in her situation plunges deep into decadence, frequently partying and takes to compulsive gambling, losing a lot of money. She encounters Charles Grey again, this time following desperately in love. With Charles aspiring to be a successful politician, the Duchess pitches in, using her wit and charm to improve the prospects of the Whig party and promoting his candidature.

As Lady Bess is firmly ensconced in her home and her husband’s life, Georgiana proposes that she too be allowed to have an affair with Charles Grey. The Duke firmly crushes such a proposition saying he doesn’t make “deals” as he is the sole authority. Maddened by her pointed arguments, he then chases his own wife in their house and rapes her. This cruel encounter with her husband has an unexpectedly fortunate consequence for the Duke as G finally produces a male heir. With the Duke finally getting to write a will, he pays Georgiana a lot of money as a reward to help her out of her debts.

Terribly dissatisfied with the way her life has turned out, the Duchess leaves her home and starts living with Charles Grey in Bath. An enraged Duke, who would have none of it as his reputation is in tatters, takes her children away and threatens to wreck her lover’s political career.

Torn between her children and an independent and happy life with the man she loves, the Duchess takes the decision to return to her husband as she realizes that she cannot live without her children. She, however, announces to the Duke that she is with Charles’ child. The Duke sends her away for the delivery and the baby is handed over the Grey’s family. In a paradoxical relationship, Lady Bess accompanies Georgiana to help her wade through this difficult period, clearly showing she loves G as a friend and G’s husband as a lover at the same time. The equation seems strange, but comes across as very real in the way it is filmed.

Thoroughly broken by the series of events in her life, Georgiana eventually resigns to her fate and continues to live amongst her peers as the Duchess of Devonshire. But the fire and exuberance in her life are gone and she dies at a fairly young age. The Duke then marries Lady Bess just like Charles married Camilla. Charles Grey eventually becomes the Prime Minister of England.

The film is a wonderful adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s book and is a powerful portrayal of a woman who held court in the Georgian period. It was nominated for several awards including the Oscars, BAFTA and Golden Globes.

All the actors have put up compelling performances in bringing alive one of the most beautiful and powerful women of English royalty, whose enigmatic life eerily resembles Diana’s and still continues to haunt.