Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I'm Glad I'm Not a Duchess

I finally watched the movie, The Duchess starring Keira Knightley last night. Why it took me so long, I'm not sure, especially since I had the great good fortune to visit the Duke of Devonshire's estate, Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, England, in October of 2008.

The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and her tumultuous life. Wed at the age of 17 to the Duke, she was a young bride eager to find happiness in her marriage and sadly, never did. Not only did her best friend, Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster become her husband's mistress, but the three of them actually lived in the same house together until Geogiana's death. She looked for her own love and found it with Sir Charles Grey, future prime minister of England. She bore him an illegitimate daughter named Eliza, but sadly, had to give her to Grey's parents to raise since her husband threatened her with never again seeing her own children if she stayed with Grey.

How ironic, of course, that Georgiana had raised her husband's illegitimate daughter as her own from almost the moment they were married, yet her husband couldn't do the same.

She was a fashion icon, a social celebrity, and revered for her beauty and wit, yet hid a dark secret of alcohol and drug abuse. She died at the young age of 48. Before her death, she gave her blessing to Lady Foster and her husband that they might marry. Of course, they did.

The male-dominated society of 18th century England crushed Georgiana. Forced to give up love, her best friend, her daughter, and some might argue even her dignity (can you imagine living in the same house as your husband and his mistress for all to see?) she was caught in a world that showed no mercy for a woman. A woman had her place, and though not all marriages were as dismal as Georgiana's, she was not alone in her yearning to be more than a mere means to an end - i.e., the mother of the future heir to her husband's title. 

I wept for Georgiana when she was forced to give up her daughter, wept for her when her husband so cruelly abused her, wept for her when she had to choose between her children and her love for Sir Charles Grey. And really, did she have a choice? As a mother who adored and deeply loved her children, she knew she could never abandon them. Not even for love.
Costumes worn by Keira Knightley in the movie, The Duchess
In the western world, we have come a long way from the world of Georgiana, and I thank God for it. Yet I believe if it hadn't been for the courage and spunk of these women, we might not be in the place of liberation and freedom we are today. Women were instrumental in the eighteenth-century revolutions of America and France, and I wonder if Georgiana wasn't silently rooting for those countries even as they spelled doom for England.

The entryway at Chatsworth

Today, Chatsworth is a lovely, sprawling estate full of lush trees and rolling hills. The current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire live there and have opened their home to the public. Back in October of 2008, I walked through those hallowed halls, saw the portrais of Georgiana and her husband, marveled at the brilliance of how they lived.

In a way, the opulence of their lifestyle covered the ugliness underneath. No matter how I loved looking at the splendor of their past lives, I can't help but think how much better my life is in my humble Cape Cod home on this side of the Atlantic.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

 But in memory of Georgiana and the life she lived, I have a portrait of her in my living room. It's my reminder to be thankful for my independence as a woman and for the richness of my own life - my husband, my daughter, my family - and the love I have for them and they have for me. It's something that should never be taken for granted.


  1. Very interesting Melissa-I didn't know this bit of history and I'm glad you wrote this!

    I often think of the women who have gone before us and have paved the way for our modern freedoms that I take for granted sometimes-but my heart breaks for any woman past or present who has to give up her children, for whatever reason. That would kill me.

    So I weep for Georgiana, too...

    I think it's great you have her picture-she would be happy:)

  2. What a wonderful post! Really enjoyed reading this. I haven't seen this movie, yet; will have to put it on my "to watch" list. :)

  3. What a sad story! I'll remember this especially this summer. I'm trying to squeeze in a trip to England.

  4. Wonderful post, Melissa. I shall definitely check 'the Duchess,' and Chatsworth House. It rings a bell but I'm not sure I've been there, always love visiting old historic houses when I can.

    Have a lovely week. ;-)

  5. Wonderful! I never heard of her or her story but it would interest me to read it.

  6. Valerie - When I was in grad school, I was going to pursue a research study of women in the American and French Revolutions and how they impacted them. Fascinating stuff. But then I got caught up in WW2 and the rest is history! ;-)

    Erin - You'll definitely have to see it! And plan a trip to Chatsworth sometime soon since you're a lot closer than me! :-)

    Tana - Oh, Chatsworth is a must stop!!!

    Talei - I'd definitely go and see it if you get the chance! I just adored it.

    Terri - There is a biography of Georgiana out that the movie was based on. It's by Amanda Foreman.

  7. Beautiful post. I've had 'The Duchess' on my to-be-viewed list for months. This kicks it to the head of the list! How wonderful that you got to see Georgiana's home when you were in England.

  8. Christine - Oh, I hope you enjoy it. You'll have to let me know.

  9. I was really excited to see this movie, but when I checked it out for more details I decided not to watch it because it just seemed so depressing and oppressive! Do think it is still worth seeing? You are right, we have to be so thankful for the freedoms we now have. And yet.... yet... my husband has a daughter (my stepdaughter) that he hardly ever gets to see; he does have the freedom to move closer to her, but then her mother also has the freedom to move away again... sorry, I'm getting carried away here.

  10. Margo - Yes, I definitely think it's worth watching. Beautiful scenery, costumes, and a great story! Amazing to contrast today's society with the society of 18th century. We can truly be thankful!


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