Here is part two of my musings on the differences between the way film-makers adopt/adapt 18th versus 19th century sources. I wrote in Part 1 about two successful Tess of the D'Urberville (1979 by Polanski, 2008 BBC, with Gemma Arterton and Hans Mathesen) and one masterpiece Jude the Obscure film (1999 BBC, by Michael Winterbottom, with Kate Winslet and Christoper Eccleston) a couple of days ago. Today my subject is The Duchess, a film adaptation of Amanda Foreman's enormously successful biography of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire. Next up will be the marvelous 1997 BBC production of Tom Jones (director Metin Huseyin, screenplay Simon Burke with John Sessions as Fielding himself, Benjamin Whitlow, Samantha Morton).
It'll differ from Part one because I find I've written about this book, the film, and Georgiana Spencer as a letter-writer, poet and politician before: in the first blog I kept up, Jim and Ellen have a blog, Too, one attacked by a malicious virus-monger, where I retrieved those blogs I valued among which was The duchess was a writing and reading girl too. If you go over there, you'll find a life, an account of her writings and quite a debate on the book versus the film.
Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire by Joshua Reynolds (1774)
Here I'm not looking at the relationship of the film to Georgiana's real life, but its relationship to other films and to paradigms which underlie films based on 18th century sources. My "control" or other film I bring in to show the masculine version of the kind of uses I'm talking about is the strongly popular mini-series from 1975-77, Poldark , a young Cornwall landowner, who returns from the American wars, having been reported dead and has to build a life for himself against the interests of others who his presence deprives of what his land would have given them (screenplays Jack Pullman, Alexander Baron [among others], directed by Paul Arnett [among others], based on a mid-20th century historical novel cycle by Winston Graham, Cornwall later 17th century .
Robin Ellis as Poldark (still from series)
Jeffrey Patcher and Saul Dibbs's film adaptation of Amanda Foreman's The Duchess (based on a woman's real life in the 18th century however with access to wealth and some power), is a coming of age film, the equivalent of "a young lady's entrance into the world" as the 18th century novels have it. In the 19th century these were labelled bildingsromans. In women's case these are quite different from men's: the coming of age comprises different experiences in life, the cruxes or crises are often different and what is presented is often shaped differently -- especially before the 20th century. The term is originally a Victorian one and was applied first to Goethe's William Meister.
The original texts of the eighteenth century (Georgiana's letters and life), the biography which grew out of these (Foreman's) are differently shaped than those of 19th century sources, and the movies both reflect and reinforce the original shaping so 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and to present the issues as we are troubled by them through this mirror or disguise of costume, while 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies and attempt large historical critiques -- again as relevant to our own time and even about our own time in disguise. If we look at La Nuit de Varennes, which purports to be about history, we see that it takes a very much marginalized and fantastic playful perspective; by contrast, say Davies Middlemarch or films based on Hardy do what they can to be "true" to larger patterns of history.
The Duchess in line with this has a paradigm that recalls say Austen's S&S where our heroine is taught a cruel enforced lesson in sexual renunciation. Under threat of ostracism, poverty, loss of children, Georgiana is forced to give up her lover and a child by him (revealingly played by Dominic Cooper who was Willoughby in the 2008 S&S); the directives are given by a husband whose male sexuality (pride, ego, control, appetite) are threatened even ever so little. He will not compromise a jot. The ending is of her running about as a child, like a child with her children.
A typical moment from such films: the used and abused (in one scene the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes, rapes Georgiana, forces himself brutally on her, and there is no recognition in him that he has done anything out of the way). She is vexed, anxious, on her way to meet Charles Grey in a hidden pavilion (as she might do in one of the era's novels)
Cooper as Grey looking out at the crowd before he begins a political speech supported by Georgiana -- about half-way through the film.
The biography does not emphasize Georgiana's relationship with her children at all. They take a second or third place (or more) in her decisions and choices which still left her profoundly maimed and discontented: she died young, and the woman she had taken in as a companion, Bess Foster, who had begun to dominate her (probably through a lesbian relationship) married the Duke herself. But our society cares or insists that women care deeply about their children, about abortion, adoption and sustainning nuclear groups. So the movie speaks to these paradigms in movies.
I was much moved by the ending where the Duchess gets as a reward this playful existence and to get to socialize, drink, and gamble (though now within limits) and Grey ends a prime minister. We see a scene closely analogous to that of Willoughby versus Marianne in Austen's books. Grey must separate himself from Georgiana; he does what he can in the moment to assure her their child is being taken care of and she acknowledges as kindness his even telling her this. He is the decent man deprived of a genuine personal life he might have wanted:
Even their postures in this closing scene recall analogous scenes in the Austen films. Insofar as the S&S films enact this, they are simply 18th century films.
I was gratified to see this giving up as part of coming of age for both,, and Grey and Georgiana -- though the cruxes here are those a woman experiences, from a film about Grey and book we'd get very different choices as central to what made his career.
Poldark too is coming of age. A hero more different from Tom Jones cannot be imagined -- somber, serious, a man whose troubles are those that might appeal to people today: home from the war after having been declared dead, he finds his relatives and friends may welcome him, but the woman he was engaged to marries his cousin (for her family wants his family's money), his uncle calls in a debt from money he has worked hard to loan, he is driven by a man (monopolizer in the making) who wants his mine. He is presented as a strong courageous type but with depth of feeling and intelligence. Excellent husband material: faithful to the girl he marries because she's pregnant and intuitively he knows how good and kind she is:
Robin Ellis as Ross and Angharad Rees as Demelza Poldark
But again sex is central, the inner person. It's more marginal for the women who are presented stereotypically that the kind of delving one sees in The Duchess is not wanted when it comes to a male hero, and his cruxes are not hers. Women are presented stereotypically.
Among the delights are fine acting, actors I've seen in other series, and now I know why Clive Francis was both Willoughby and Sloan from Joe Orton's play, with Robin Ellis as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S too. Also 1970s dramaturgy here includes filming on location and the use of location symbolically -- as waves crashing on rocks (anticipating the 2008 S&S?, not really, both are archetypal).
Lizzard Light, a cove and cliff in Cornwall, where scenes of erotic romance and smuggling are shot.
The same paradigm is even four times over the mini-series, The Aristocrats (Stella Tillyard's book on the Lennox sisters turned into a costume paradigmatic romance by Harriet O'Carroll), Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maistresse, the thematized lives of all the characters in the various Les Liasions Dangereuses,, just about everything in the hard La Religieuse,