Author Returns to Form

Sunday Express Interview September 2008
by Henry Fitzherbert

“IN A funny, weird way I feel as if my life might be channelled to Georgiana’s,” says Amanda Foreman, jovially. The author of the blockbusting historical biography about the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire, now a film starring Keira Knightley, has experienced some uncanny parallels to the life of her subject, deepening her understanding of the brilliant but troubled Duchess.

It’s 10 years since her acclaimed book was published, propelling Amanda to overnight success, much like Georgiana, who dazzled society following her marriage to the Duke.

In that time the author has faced family and personal struggles that, oddly, echo her heroine’s.

Amanda had a son, Theo, four, who was born deaf while Georgiana’s son, William, went deaf during his mother’s exile to the Continent (Georgiana was banished by the Duke in punishment for becoming pregnant by her lover, future Prime Minister Charles Grey, resulting in a painful separation from William and her two daughters).

“Luckily I’ve got the benefits of modern science on my side and Theo’s made huge strides,” says Amanda, 40, from New York, where she lives with husband Jonathan Barton, an investment banker.

She also has several daughters: four to Georgiana’s three, including twins whose conception resulted in a traumatic illness that essentially disabled Amanda for an entire year, resulting in her own form of exile.

“My pelvis split in half when I became pregnant with the twins,” she explains. “I was only three months pregnant. It was immensely painful and there were other complications.” She didn’t walk again for six months and became”a rather pathetic zombie” confined to her bedroom.

“My poor husband was like a single father for six months.” She adds: “If someone had said to me, ‘By the way, when you’re the same age as Georgiana in your 30s, you’ll also disappear for a while and come back feeling profoundly humbled by the experience,’ I wouldn’t have believed them.” Her prior achievements, she says, simply dissolved from her life. “It was as if Georgiana had never happened, as if I’d never had a career. By the time I got out of bed I hadn’t seen anyone for months or written anything. It was a huge effort just to e-mail people.” But like Georgiana, who returned to public life triumphantly, Amanda has bounced back and will be walking down the red carpet next week alongside Knightley (who gives a radiant performance as Georgiana), Ralph Fiennes and the other stars of the film.

Her goal, which she achieved, was to walk again in time to appear last year as a historical consultant, and extra, on the set of The Duchess.

It was then, observing Knightley and filtering her own difficulties and experiences of motherhood, that Amanda found herself re-assessing Georgiana, in particular the latter period of her life, post-exile.

She divined a sadness and guilt in Georgiana which, writing the book as a young woman in her 20s, she had failed to pick up on. She says: “I think biography is an evolving art. You see people with a different perspective and you gain a greater understanding.

I’m not saying I think what I’ve written is wrong but I definitely understand where my own youth and immaturity led me in ways I wouldn’t go now. It never occurred to me that actually you could have success and still inside be living with tremendous wounds that would never be assuaged, or layers of guilt in Georgiana’s case.”

The contemporary relevance of Georgiana’s life that now seems obvious to Amanda (where previously people have focused on the Duchess’s modern problems such as bulimia, drug addiction and gambling) is the simple, age-old issue of having it all.

A fiercely bright, charismatic and vulnerable woman who yearned for love and intellectual fulfilment as a champion of the Whig Party, Georgiana paid the price for her ambition.

“I realise now, 10 years on, that she’s a modern woman because she’s struggling to have it all, like the rest of us. It doesn’t mean that your life is a failure, it just means you can’t have it all. That’s what her life shows.” Indeed, Amanda was faced with her own having-it-all dilemma when she realised the premiere coincided with son Theo’s first day at school.

“I’m horrified I had to make this choice,” she exclaims. “You can’t have it all.” No one would deny Amanda her moment of triumph, the culmination of an obsession with the Duchess that began when she was researching a Phd on the slave trade and stumbled upon one of her letters.

She was struck by Georgiana’s pure, unfiltered voice and embarked on five years of research, a lonely period.

But the book became an instant bestseller. The film rights were snapped up, ushering in a 10-year process during which Amanda kept a keen eye on the script (early drafts made Georgiana a dumb Paris Hilton type) and possible cast came and went, including Rachel Weisz. Only with the pairing of Knightley and Fiennes did the finance fall into place.

Amanda’s success, not surprisingly, attracted the jealously of some critics.

“I wanted it to be popular,” she says.

“There’s always been this sense that books with footnotes belong in dusty libraries and I don’t think that’s true. My father [the late Carl Foreman, scriptwriter of High Noon] was adamant that wasn’t. If any subject’s boring it’s the failure of the writer.”

AS FOR the recent hoo-ha about the dumbing down of historical biography in which biographer Kathryn Hughes blamed Amanda for posing naked in Tatler behind a stack of books, she cheerily plays down any dispute.

“She does have a point given the copycat books that followed, trumpeting scandal and privilege.

There was a book that came out recently called Georgiana’s Sister.” Amanda certainly can’t be accused of repeating herself. She has spent the best part of the past decade researching the British men and women who fought in American Civil War. The book is titled A World On Fire.

“It’s an English Gone With The Wind only with footnotes,” she quips. “It’s a huge, heartbreaking subject. Instead of one biography, I’ve had to do about 100.” And, yes, she is already negotiating the film rights.

Copyright© 2008 The Sunday Express