“All Eyes Are Upon Her”: The Life of Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire as seen in The Duchess

By Kerri Wells

At the age of seventeen Lady Georgiana Spencer married the older Duke of Devonshire William Cavendish and in doing so gained the title of the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana finds out that her husband is not a man to express his emotions and show passion for his wife, discovering quickly that the Duke is rather cold, keeps to himself and only performs the duties of a husband when necessary. Her hopes and illusions for a lively and happy marriage are shattered and she falls under pressure to produce a male heir for the Duke, Georgiana becomes embroiled in a world of politics, fashion, drinking, and gambling. Her actions make her the subject of gossip and make her infamous. She is betrayed by her best friend and then forced to choose between spending her life with her lover or with her children. What was once thought would be a life of luxury, love, and one filled with happy memories turns out to be a life containing heartbreak and disappointments one right after the other in a desperate search for love. This life lived by Georgiana Cavendish is portrayed rather accurately and lavishly in The Duchess.

The film opens up upon a group of young girls and boys making bets and racing outside in front of a mansion in the year 1774. Georgiana makes a bet that Charles can win a race between all the other men. Inside the mansion the duke of Devonshire speaks to her mother of a possible marriage between him and Georgiana. After several minutes of conversation the Duke agrees to marry Georgiana. Georgiana is thrilled at the news of becoming the Duchess of Devonshire and grows overjoyed at the thought that the Duke is in love with her. It is not long before Georgiana has the epiphany that her marriage to the Duke is not what she expected it would be. She confides in her mother that her intimate relations with William are not pleasant. Her mother attempts to comfort Georgiana by telling her once she has a son she will be able to be more at ease in her marriage.

After leaving dinner one night she catches a woman running from her husband’s bedroom. The Duke does not attempt to hide the fact that he has been unfaithful and does not think he has done anything wrong. Before she can fully come to terms with her husband’s infidelity Georgiana then has to grasp the fact that the Duke has an illegitimate daughter named Charlotte whom she is expected to be the mother figure to and raise her as if Charlotte were her own. On a snowy night Georgiana gives birth not to a son that the Duke has hoped for but to a daughter. William is extremely unhappy about not having a son and proceeds to show his displeasure to Georgiana’s mother. On the other hand Georgiana is more than contented about her new daughter.

The film fast forwards to six years later and it is shown that Georgiana has not yet has a son but has given birth to another daughter. At a party in Bath, after being introduced wearing an elaborate dress with feathers in her hair, Georgiana talks to Lady Elizabeth Foster when she sees that her husband had been talking to her. Georgiana suspects that something went on between them but Elizabeth insists that nothing occurred. The two run into each other the next day and talk. In their conversation it is revealed that Georgiana has had six miscarriages and two still births, both of which were male. Elizabeth, who insists on being called Bess, confesses that her husband has forced her out of their house and is keeping her sons from her. Georgiana approaches the Duke about Elizabeth’s situation and William agrees to let Bess stay with them and it is not long before the two women become close friends.

While the three of them are attending a play, which is obviously about Georgiana’s marriage to the Duke, Georgiana notices Charles Grey in the audience. She speaks with Charles afterward and is informed that he has started on a political campaign which is not faring so well. It is easy to see the chemistry and passion between the two. Later that night Bess tells Georgiana that Charles is in love with her but the Duchess does not believe her.
Georgiana offer to help Charles with his political campaign stating that she can use her ability to draw attention to benefit him. She returns home light hearted and the happiest she has been in quite some time. However that happiness is short lived by the revelation that the Duke and Bess have been having an affair. Filled with fury Georgiana confronts the Duke and says that she has been tolerant of his affairs with other women and had to accept whatever arrangement he has thrown on her. She screams at him that Bess “was the sole comfort in our marriage. You have robbed me of my only friend!” William defends his actions coldly and say while he has fulfilled his duties in their marriage, she as his wife has not.

William, Bess, and Georgiana fall into a complex love triangle and the Duchess treats William and Bess with disdain. Georgiana’s feeling towards Charles Grey grow stronger and the next time Georgina and Charles meet they kiss. After parting ways Georgiana tells her husband that she will accept his relationship with Bess if he will accept her feeling for Charles Grey in return. William becomes enraged at the suggestion, proceeds to chase Georgiana through the palace, and forces himself onto her in her bedroom. Numb and trapped in her life Georgina becomes so intoxicated at the party she accidentally set her wig on fire and falls to the floor. After being examined by a doctor it is discovered she is with child.

Georgiana has a boy much to the Duke’s delight but the success at having a living male heir will not take the Duchess’ pain away. Georgiana turns to Charles for comfort and love. They start an affair in Bath together with Bess encouraging Georgina to enjoy Charles as her lover. Georgiana and Charles are both blissful and are rarely apart in their relationship. Like all happy things in her life, her affair with Charles in brought to a halt when the Duke informs her that if she continues to see Charles she will never be allowed to see her children again.

Georgiana is torn over having to make a choice but in the end chooses her children. Georgiana moves back to the palace to live with her husband and Bess. She is forced to live in the country after she finds out she is pregnant with Charles’ child. Bess stays by her side throughout the pregnancy and comforts her when Georgiana is reluctant to hand her daughter Eliza over to Charles’ family to be raised. William tries to ease Georgiana’s suffering by telling her he wants them to find some peace together.

At a welcome home celebration, Georginana talks with Charles and he explains that he is engaged and he has a niece named Eliza who is much loved. Georgiana comes to terms with how her life has turned out and carries on with the party. The film concludes with Georgiana and Bess playing with the children in the courtyard happily while subtitles tell what happened afterwards.

The Duchess, based on Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire tells the life of Georgiana very realistically but is not without faults. One of the biggest faults the movie has is that it focuses on the story of her personal life heavily. Georgiana was quite the political figure for nearly thirty years, in an age where woman were given no political freedom or rights. She was an active political campaigner in a world where women’s suffrage was more than a century away. Georgiana campaigned for the Whig party which she and her husband were a part of and helped a great deal in Charles Grey’s political operations. It was with her help that Charles was able to rise to the rank of Prime Minister. The film also teeters on the edge of drawing out too slowly and verges towards becoming stuffy, something numerous period dramas fall victim to.

Nonetheless The Duchess contains brilliant portrayals of the characters by the actors. Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes each shine in their roles as Georgiana and William Cavendish and Keira Knightley breathes life into Georgiana’s character, capturing the innocence and liveliness Georgiana had at seventeen and develops her character into a woman torn apart by heartbreak, despair, and internal suffering. Ralph Fiennes continues to prove his creditability as an excellent actor as the cold and harsh Duke. Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell give solid performances as Charles Grey and Elizabeth Foster. Keira, Ralph, and Hayley show the complicated dynamic between the three characters remarkably, developing the complex relationship perfectly. The chemistry between Dominic and Keira makes the audience believe that they are in love and their relationship is convincing.

The Duchess gives an accurate view as far as the subjects of how women were viewed and what their roles were in society. Georgiana is constantly reminded that it is her duty to give William a male heir and endures scrutiny when she cannot. When the Duke entrusts her to take care of his illegitimate child, Charlotte, he tells her “it’s only a little girl, G, hardly the end of the world” reinforcing the belief that women only existed to please their husbands and give birth to sons. Upon first meeting Elizabeth Georgiana finds out that her friends’ husband has beaten her and Bess remarks “it is not against the law for a man to beat his wife with a stick unless the stick is thicker than his thumb.” While Georgina is disgusted by her friend’s treatment she is helpless to do anything about it. The treatment of women becomes even more disturbing when the Duke rapes Georgiana and the household listens to her screams and no one does anything about it. After the act is over the Duke carries on as if everything was normal while Georgiana lies on the bed with the realization her husband can do what he wants when he wants.

Above everything else, it is the extravagant costumes that make The Duchess the lavish movie that it is. Georgiana was a renowned fashion icon who created fashion examples for other ladies to live up to. She was famous for her tall hats and wigs, colorful dresses and fine shoes. In the film Georgiana expresses to the Duke that women’s clothes were a way of expressing themselves as they had very few ways to do so. As the movie progresses Georgiana goes from wearing light color to darker tones, showing the changes her character has been going through. The costumes of the time are shown accurately and it is clear that a hefty budget was spent on the clothing alone. The Duchess earned a well deserved Academy Award for costume design at the ceremony in 2009.

The Duchess is a marvelous film showing the turmoil Georgiana went through in her life as the Duchess of Devonshire before she died at the age of forty-eight from what is believed to have been an abscess of the liver. It has earned its place as one of the more realistic films in the period drama genre. With its dazzling costumes, divine sets, and superior acting, it gave a new light to the life of Georgiana, a young girl who became a famous aristocratic woman forced to accept the life she married into even if it was not her dream life.