Either do it properly or don't do it at all

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, September 05, 2008 ,

Tory Historian was somewhat underwhelmed by the news that Keira Knightley, one of our least talented young film actresses was going to play the notorious Duchess of Devonshire in a new film, directed by Saul Dibb, whose claim to cinematic fame (if that is what one means) is the 2004 “Bullet Boy”, which somehow escaped Tory Historian’s attention. Apparently it was another gritty, hard-hitting picture of ghetto youth in the East End. It may have been good but it may also have been extremely bad. Either way, it says little about Mr Dibb’s ability to understand history.

Naturally, Tory Historian is not a great fan of the duchess in question, a great Whig hostess and politician manqué. It would seem from the reviews and previews that Mr Dibb has little understanding of the duchess’s importance in history and, indeed, of the entire historical period. Instead, he has produced a film that purports to be the story of Diana, Princess of Wales in beautiful eighteenth century costume.

This is rather a shame because Amanda Foreman’s biography, “Georgiana”, on which the film is supposed to be based, was an extremely readable and well-researched book, even if the author seemed to accept that the Whigs were somehow speaking for the people and in favour of democracy, both notions somewhat anachronistic. She does not make much of it but it keeps bubbling up. Interestingly, Dr Foreman has complained about the Diana link but that has not stopped her from trying to cash in on what she must, presumably see, as a potentially very successful film.

The film, based on reviews and previews, seems to concentrate on the duke’s long-standing affair with the duchess’s friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster and then throws in the duchess’s late and somewhat catastrophic affair with Lord Grey. (Yes, he of the Reform Act in his younger incarnation. Tory Historian was stunned.)

Charles James Fox does get a look-in but nothing seems to be made of Georgiana’s involvement in politics, or of either the American or, more importantly, the French Revolution. One wonders how they deal with the insistent theory that she and Fox had an affair.

What is particularly ridiculous is the repeated reference to the “disturbed” and “unhappy” duchess, just like Diana. Even allowing for the fact that the ultra-skinny and expressionless Keira Knightley can play only disturbed and unhappy (did she bother to look at those wonderful portraits of the duchess, one wonders) this seems a daft way to talk.

There is no evidence for disturbance or unhappiness, except on occasion. Yes, her marriage was arranged and she was very young. That was the normal state of affairs in her circle and she married up, becoming the holder of a very grand title and enormous wealth. Was the marriage happy? Probably not but there was no expectation of that.

There is no evidence that Georgiana did not fit in very well with the rather dissolute Devonshire House way of life, doing what other ladies of her station in life did: spend a great deal of money on clothes and entertainment, drink and gamble, play politics and travel. How is any of that rebellious or going against what society expected from her?

Her involvement in Whig politics brought all sorts of rather brutal attacks in the Tory press, just as the Whig press attacked brutally ladies who were involved on the other side. Those were not sensitive days.

Her affair with Grey ended badly because she had a child (very bad luck) and her husband refused to have anything to do with her bastard while his own were brought up in the household. This was not necessarily the pattern with all such families so one can feel some compassion. Even more compassion goes out to the duchess because of the painful and disfiguring disease that she suffered from for some years afterwards but it is not clear whether the film deals with that.

Of course, historical films are rarely accurate and often use their theme to comment on other matters. Carol Reed’s “The Young Mr Pitt” simplified a complex biography and emphasised the theme of beleaguered Britain fighting an aggressive Continental empire. It was made during the Second World War, after all.

What is the aim of “Duchess”? Diana is hardly a figure of importance more than ten years after her death, though the sentimentalization of all things public, which many call dianafication is still with us. That has more to do with other people’s attitudes than with her own rather nebulous personality.

Why not try to make a good film out of the Duchess of Devonshire’s spectacularly interesting life story that would not make her into a victim of society and would include all the really scandalous aspects of her life (and her sister’s, the Countess of Bessborough)? Of course, one would have to have someone else play her. Someone who could act and make an attempt to resemble the original.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. One film about the same historical period was 'The Madness of King George'. It does try to engage in the politics, but is not nearly as interesting as Amanda Foreman's book.

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Keira Knightly is a very weak actress, and too skinny to be really attractive. She is a fashion model plunged into the wrong profession, as so many of them are these days, at least the ones who aren't the result of shameless and egregious nepotism.

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