Film ‘The Duchess’ and eighteenth century revolutions

Joshua Reynolds, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

The film “The Duchess” is, according to the Internet Movie Database:

A chronicle of the life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who was reviled for her extravagant political and personal life.

Married off by her family to the much older Duke of Devonshire when she was seventeen years old, the marriage was not happy. The title role in the film is played by Keira Knightley. The film is based on the biography by Amanda Foreman.

Georgiana lived 1757-1806. This was the time of the American and French revolutions. It was a time when people in Britain had to decide what they thought about thorough political change, in America, in France, and in their own country.

One might say that, from Wat Tyler’s fourteenth century peasant rebellion till the eighteenth century, attempts to overthrow feudalism, royal power, and state church power, had either failed or had been rolled back at least partly. After King Charles I had been executed by the seventeenth century republicans, the monarchists took cruel revenge during the Restoration of King Charles II. The “Glorious Revolution” of King William III which drove out King James II who wanted absolute power, did increase parliamentary power versus the monarchy. But it was not a social or even a complete political revolution. The power of the kings, though no longer absolute, was still big. So was the power of the landlords.

The revolutionary events in the American colonies, and later in France, provoked at least three types of reactions in Britain (see the next paragraphs about those three). I say “at least three” because the reactions were complex. Like, some people had views different from those three types; or changed from one viewpoint to an opposite viewpoint. For instance, the politician and pamphleteer Edmund Burke first supported the American revolution as a “liberal”; then, he attacked the French revolution as a “conservative”. According to the American revolutionary leader Thomas Jefferson and other analysts, Burke basically supported views depending on who was offering him money to write.

Samuel Johnson vs. Edmund Burke: here.

In the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, the conservative party, most often in government, tried to stop both the American and French revolutions by bloody war. They were also quite prepared to defend the privileges in Britain of the monarchy and the rich by violence.

On the other hand, some people, like the poets Robert Burns and Shelley, and the essayist Thomas Paine, basing themselves on poor peasants and the nascent working class, wanted revolution: a republic instead of a monarchy; abolition of the privileges of the rich.

The British parliamentary opposition, the Whig party, did not want to go that far. They were financially dependent on rich landlords and bourgeois. Landlords like the Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana’s husband and Whig sponsor, might not like absolute monarchy or a suffocatingly powerful established church. But they definitely did not want a social revolution. Charles Fox, Whig leader at the time might advocate limited voting rights reforms and oppose the Conservative keenness for war against revolutionary France. But the stranglehold of sections of the landlords on his party limited the extent to which it was really progressive.

In the film “The Duchess”, the Duke of Devonshire is depicted as someone who does not really care about the “freedom” ideology of his party; does not love his beautiful and intelligent wife; and does not love his mistresses. All he cares about are his hunting dogs. Women are property, a means to produce sons for the Devonshire dynasty; not more.

Georgiana does care about Whig party ideology. This was very long before women got the vote. But, as Her Grace, as the wife of the party sponsor, she is allowed to be an exception to the rule that women should be silent on politics. She falls in love with the young Whig politician Charles Grey. He was seven years her junior; though the movie gives the impression that she already knew him when she had been a teenage girl and that they were the same age. Charles Grey later became Lord Grey, Prime Minister 1830-1934, long after his beloved Georgiana had died.

This beautifully made film with good actors in a way is a film about death. Georgiana bears her husband two sons, but they are stillbirths, dead at birth. She bears him two daughters, but they do not count in eighteenth century aristocratic logic. Finally, she bears the duke a male heir, but by then all affection there might ever have been between the couple was already dead. The love between Georgiana and Charles Grey has to die because of the social double standards which makes marital infidelity “normal” for husbands but a mortal sin for wives.

And the freedom loving ideals of Georgiana and Grey do not get realized. Here, one might say that the film is a bit too personal and not political enough. Even the Duke near the end of the film, however, makes a remark hinting at an insight that the class society and its strict rules imprison not just common people, and his wife, but him, His Grace, as well.

About the same period: November 5, 2009, is the 215th anniversary of the acquittal of Thomas Hardy on charges of High Treason. Hardy is nearly forgotten today, but for decades workers and democrats in England celebrated November 5 every year as the anniversary of a major victory, a triumph over a powerful state that had deployed immense resources to crush working class organizations and suppress popular demands for democratic rights: here.

8 thoughts on “Film ‘The Duchess’ and eighteenth century revolutions

  1. French king’s mistress poisoned by gold elixir

    Source: Telegraph (UK) (12-22-09)

    The mistress of France’s 16th century King Henry II was poisoned by a gold elixir she drank to keep herself looking young, scientists have discovered.

    Diane de Poitiers was renowned for her youthful looks and porcelain skin and thought the concoction preserved her youth.

    Experts say she was up to 20 years older than the king but her appearance made them look the same age. One courtier said she was “as fresh and lovable” in her final years as when aged 30 and had skin “of great whiteness”.

    But her secret was the elixir she drunk every day made up of gold chloride and diethyl ether.

    It was one of a host of anti-ageing treatments peddled by apothecaries, along with recipes including spider webs, earthworms, frogspawn and scorpion’s oil.

    However, French experts writing in the British Medical Journal say the yellow liquid said to harness the powers of the sun and keep her immutable actually slowly killed her at the age of 66.


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