Up Front

I was pregnant with twins when I heard that Keira Knightly and Ralph Fiennes were going to star in ‘The Duchess’, a film version of my biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The movie rights had sold as soon as the book hit the best-seller lists. But then nothing happened for a long time. Like those annoying slide puzzles that orthodontists hand out to children; the pieces just wouldn’t come together.

But last year by some miracle everything slipped into place. The producers had procured a new director and, most important to my mind, a brand new script. In previous years I would have scoured it from beginning to end, ready to fight over every liberty and smear to her reputation. But this time the script lay unread on my desk, next to my unfinished book, slowly crisping at the corners.

My study was less than thirty feet from my bedroom but it might as well have been in another country. Even before I learned it was twins, continuous, uncontrollable vomiting had made me an incoherent wreck. “My goal is to make sure that you and they come out alive.” my doctor stated flatly, “Nobody has five children in four years and gets away scot free.” As one complication set in after another, his words took on a prophetic ring.

I had barely reached the end of my first trimester when my pelvis split apart. It happened without warning. I took one step and couldn’t take another without blinding pain. I didn’t walk again for nine months. Occasionally I went out in a wheel chair. But all movement, let alone sitting up, was intolerable without medication. Even with the pills it required a monumental force of will to haul myself up and down the three flights to the front door. My bedroom became a well-appointed cell, complete with television, fridge, and microwave, all within arm’s length.

Inertia can be a powerful anesthetic and after a while I adjusted to the stillness of time. Like an animal in hibernation my participation in the present was only partial. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me while I was writing Georgiana’s biography that one day I would completely jettison her from my thoughts. Before I had children, before I met my husband, I had Georgiana. She was my constant companion throughout my twenties. It is not uncommon for graduate students to become thoroughly disillusioned by the time they’ve finished. This was not the case for me.

I discovered Georgiana quite by chance, while working on a Phd thesis at Oxford, on England and the Slave Trade in the eighteenth century. It was just another Tuesday afternoon in the library; I was dutifully researching the background of an anti-slavery politician, when I fell upon a cache of her letters. It only required the idle perusing of a couple of lines for me to realize that I had come across a woman of unusual eloquence.

In spite of all my good intentions I could not go on with my thesis. The voice in Georgiana’s letters was so strong it was like having her by my side. For the next six months I pretended to be working on my doctorate while guiltily I followed her trail. It was a profound relief when the authorities called my bluff and I was forced to confess the truth. They graciously allowed me to start afresh and so began an odyssey that lasted five years. Slowly I pieced her back together from a thousand scattered letters. Sometimes the evidence contradicted itself. Often diarists were so self-serving in their accounts that I felt more akin to a forensic psychologist than a historian. Patience was the key, as the layers of falsehoods were scraped away to reveal the true Georgiana beneath. I could not help feeling protective towards her. She breathed and spoke through me. She was mine and I loved her.

Most biographers fall in love with their subjects. It goes with the territory, especially with attractive subjects. Georgiana was famously seductive even in her own time. The novelist Fanny Burney was shocked by the force of her own reaction when she first met her. It was impossible, confessed Fanny, not to be enthralled by Georgiana. She was a potent mix of charisma and vulnerability which made her irresistible to men and women alike.

Lady Georgiana Spencer was seventeen years old when she married the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1774. He was eleven years her senior and one of only a handful whose wealth exceeded the Spencers’. However, gossips questioned the match from the outset. The Duke was notoriously inhibited while Georgiana’s social aplomb had already made her a success in London and an intimate friend of Marie-Antoinette in France.

The Duke was world-weary and worldly-wise, with a mistress and an illegitimate child tucked away in the country. Georgiana was an ingénue who loved parties and believed in romantic love. She probably thought herself in love with the Duke because he bore a superficial similarity to her father. Lord Spencer was a shy man in public but adoring and tender to his wife in private. This apparently led Georgiana to assume that the Duke’s wooden reserve disguised a sensitive heart.

Much like her descendant, Lady Diana Spencer, Georgiana was an overnight sensation. The combination of intelligence, beauty and wealth made her endlessly fascinating to the public. She could not utter a word nor take a step without it being reported in every newspaper. Her clothes were slavishly imitated. Just one appearance with ostrich feathers in her hair led to a national shortage of tall feathers. Funeral directors were bribed to relinquish the plumes adorning their horses. Georgiana’s approval was enough to make an artist fashionable or a play successful. But none of this affected her character as much as the gradual realization that she was not the Duke’s love or even his type.

By the time Georgiana was twenty-one she was a drug addict, a bulimic, a gambling addict and mired in debt to every loan shark in town. Except for those who exploited her, few people were aware of her secret torment. The only obvious sign of strain between the Devonshires was the lack of children; every pregnancy ended in miscarriage.

When Lady Elizabeth Foster, or “poor little Bess” as she styled herself, entered Georgiana’s life, she appeared to be the perfect friend. She demonstrated a seemingly unquenchable willingness to listen, fetch, carry, fix, and take over anything Georgiana or the Duke preferred to ignore. Before anyone realized what had happened, she had become the guardian and gatekeeper to both Devonshires.

Georgiana initially thrived on the friendship. Her health improved and she gave birth to two daughters in quick succession. Bess’s devotion gave her a confidence that had been lacking and Georgiana decided to expand her empire beyond the world of fashion. The Duke was already one of the chief financial backers of the Whig party. Pro-American, anti-slavery, and more democratic-leaning than its Tory rivals, the Whigs were the party of youth and liberalism. Georgiana’s mass appeal made her the perfect weapon during election time. She shocked eighteenth century society by taking to the hustings in London and leading the crowds to the election booths.

Never once did Georgiana suspect that Bess’s love was shaped by her gnawing desire to become the Duchess of Devonshire. Despite all the warnings from concerned friends, Georgiana only discovered the truth when Bess announced she was pregnant with the Duke’s child. For a brief moment, she almost entirely supplanted Georgiana. Yet the final victory never came, neither woman could face losing the other, and Georgiana sealed her position with the Duke by giving birth to a son.

The first movie script naturally focused on the ménage-a-trois. Their relationship was one of the great mysteries of the day; Eighteenth-century London society was all agog over what went on behind the stone walls of Devonshire House. Of course the script would focus on Georgiana’s feelings for Bess, rather than her passion for rock collecting. What did incense me, however, was the script’s seeming obsession with making Georgiana appear like Paris Hilton; spoiled, self-promoting, and cretinously stupid.

It is the prerogative of authors to complain about the liberties taken with their books, and it is the prerogative of producers to ignore them. But mine were surprisingly sympathetic, if not actually interested in my criticisms. A few months later another version arrived. This time, Georgiana had graduated from Paris, the show-off Party Girl, to Britney, the Bodice-ripping Boozer whose downward spiral had the whiff of tragi-comedy

The casual misogyny of the scripts was infuriating. The Duchess was a brilliant and gifted woman, who demanded the right to use her talents in an era when the pinnacle of a woman’s success was the production of an heir and a spare. She fought to earn the respect of Whig party leaders by refining her skills as a campaign manager. Georgiana understood better than anyone how to nurture party unity, how to maintain alliances, and when to wield the force of public opinion. It was an insult to her and the suffragettes who came afterwards to portray her political ambition as nothing more than a desire for attention.

Georgiana’s tragedy was that she wanted both intellectual and emotional fulfillment. At the age of thirty-four she fell in love with a young politician seven years her junior, named Charles Grey. Deliriously happy for the first time since her marriage, she became pregnant with his child. The unwelcome news caused the Duke to express his emotions for the first time in their marriage. Jealous and humiliated by Georgiana’s deception, he forced her to choose between him and their three children – or Grey and the unborn child. If she chose the latter, the Duke swore she would never see the other three again.

Georgiana sacrificed Grey and the baby. Despite knowing she would never love another man as she loved Grey, she went abroad and secretly gave birth to a girl, named Eliza. The Duke was slow to forgive and insisted she remain in exile for two years. When Georgiana at last returned home, she was a total stranger to her four year-old son. She was never able to reveal her true identity to Eliza, even though the girl was brought up by Grey’s extended family as a poor relation.

Georgiana lived for another twelve years after her return. In Victorian history books Georgiana is portrayed as quietly slipping off to the country, a chastened and unhappy woman until her death. The truth is that these latter years were a time of redemption. The sorrows and regrets remained with her; but she finally overcame the self-destructive urges which had so marred her early life. Gradually, she re-entered the public and political fray. Just before her death, the Whig party came to power, thanks in part to her ability to bring the warring factions together.

I knew it was impossible for a movie to cover all aspects of Georgiana’s life. But I couldn’t understand why the scripts always ignored her resurgence; why they had to end with her diminished. The scripts dwelt on her fall with the salacious fervour of Charles Dickens beating Nancy to death or hounding Lady Deadlock to her lonely demise in a muddy paupers’ cemetery. It was as though Georgiana was only interesting for the humiliation and failure that could be heaped upon her.

I would try to impress upon each new director that there was no call for perpetuating a false picture of Georgiana as the poor little rich girl. The real story was so much more inspiring and interesting. Aren’t all modern women struggling to define themselves against a host of controlling forces? Aren’t all forceful women, from Hillary Clinton to Margaret Thatcher, often the victims of a vengeful media?

At some point between my second and third children I became so enraged that I wrote a counter version to the then script. It wasn’t used of course. The producers and I stopped speaking for more than a year. In the meantime, another director came and went, a different actress, a fresh scriptwriter.

We made up, the pattern resumed; a new script, another child, the same plea for Georgiana’s memory to be preserved. Then came the final script. Only I wasn’t a writer anymore. I had ceased being anybody I recognized, except when my children visited me for their bedtime story.

The producers were initially nonplussed by my silence. The cast was lined up, locations chosen, and still they heard nothing from me. I eventually contacted them when the twins were six weeks old. It was mid-summer and they were going to begin shooting in September. Nobody asked me what I thought of the script which was just as well since I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.

The film contract called for me to be on the set as a historical advisor. This became my goal; to be finished with my physical rehabilitation program by the time shooting began. To all intents and purposes I was my old self when I marched on to the set in mid-September. Moreover, I had taken the plunge and read the script, and been pleasantly surprised. The new writer had given Georgiana a heart and voice that rang true.

No longer feeling that I had to defend her at every turn, I could be relaxed about my role as an advisor. I quite happily wandered about the set, watching the filming until I was called upon to work. Once summoned I would go to the trailers and offer up my knowledge. It was just like any student seminar, only with hair and make-up. The actors were extremely clear that they were interpreting the script, not my book. But to convey the dramatic truth about their characters they needed to know the historic truth. “Would Bess have been destitute without the Devonshires?” Practically. “Was Charles Grey motivated by idealism or ambition?” He was too inexperienced to know the difference. “Did Georgiana hate the Duke?” Most emphatically, no.

One of the first questions Ralph Fiennes asked me was why I had left the Duke’s letters out of the book. Unfortunately, there were none to include. He could not express himself at all. This led many of his contemporaries to mistake him for a little man made great by his wealth and title. Tragically, the Duke was in fact a great man brought low by his profound inner loneliness. If he had been the villain that his actions implied, then Georgiana would have indeed hated him. Yet to the end of her life she pitied and even admired him. I watched as Ralph Fiennes literally absorbed this information and then displayed it on his face, transforming the Duke’s features from a bleak to a dense landscape.

These little seminars were pure pleasure for me. I had forgotten that conversation was such fun. The only time I felt awkward was when someone asked after my health. Inevitably they would want to know how I had survived, cut off and immobile for all those months. I always changed the subject because remembering made it real.

On my last day the director invited the whole family to take part in a London street scene. Carriages roared up and down, soldiers marched past, street sellers shouted their wares. The presence of so many horses and farm animals led my younger children to believe they were visiting some sort of zoo. Only Helena, my five year-old, understood that she was dressing up to be in mommy’s movie. In between takes she performed a special fairy dance – with spontaneous lyrics – for the benefit of the large crowd of spectators.

At sundown we watched in awe as the perfect eighteenth century set began to dissolve before our eyes. The animals were herded away with much squawking and squealing. The support crew swept up, the cables and lights were hauled away. The extras, wigs in hand, were ambling back to the tents. My tired children sat contentedly on the grass, getting ice-cream all over their costumes. My husband smiled at me with a look of pure pride across his face. I couldn’t help but feel like little Jack Horner who sat in a corner and said what a good boy am I.

My sense of satisfaction only increased once I started reviewing the rushes. Keira Knightly was transcendent as the Duchess, illuminating the screen every time she appeared just as Georgiana had done in real life. She exuded exactly the right combination of spirit and vulnerability. There was nothing for me to add except more praise.

A month after the family’s visit to the set, I traveled to Chatsworth, the palatial Devonshire estate in the north of England, with a small camera crew. Our job was to film a segment on Georgiana’s letters for a documentary about the making of the movie. This would be my final task for the producers.

I had not been to Chatsworth for ten years. But for one entire summer I had toiled silently amongst its subterranean archives, as a continuous circus of tourists paraded above my head. My plan for the documentary was to select four of Georgiana’s most important letters and read them to the camera. It unnerved me to discover that I had retained a picture perfect memory of the letters in question. The color, the feel, her handwriting, everything was as familiar as yesterday’s newspaper.

For the first letter I chose one she had written immediately after her marriage, when she was a frightened teenager and unsure how to comport herself with the Duke’s grown-up friends. The second and third displayed a more mature Georgiana, whose handwriting had acquired the illegibility of adulthood. These offered glimpses into her relationship with Bess, as well as her spiral into gambling. I explained the circumstances and read out excerpts in a clear, level voice.

Then I came to the fourth letter, a farewell to her son written while she was in exile and about to give birth to Eliza. In an era when women routinely died in childbirth, Georgiana had good reason to fear that her children would never see her again. I had quoted extensively from the letter in my book. Instead of ink, Georgiana had used her own blood. It was a desperate attempt to convey to her children how much she loved them.

‘One of my greatest pains in dying is not to see you again,’ she wrote. As I started to read her words I had a sudden flash of memory of the day I left for the hospital. Unlike the previous births, this time I was going to the unknown. The twins’ placentas had invaded the uterine wall; a condition that causes uncontrollable bleeding during delivery. I saw in my mind’s eye the children’s excitement at my leaving and, upstairs in my room, the five boxes under my bed. During the last weeks of the pregnancy I had sorted through every scrap of paper and photograph in the house so that whatever happened, each child would have its own album and memory book. Tears began to stream down my face and I had to apologize to the camera team.

I tried again. ‘As soon as you are old enough to understand this letter it will be given to you,’ Georgiana had written to her two year-old son. ‘It contains the only present I can make you – my blessing, written in my blood.’ I managed to get as far as ‘old enough’ before my eyes welled up. Ten years ago, I thought I had written with sensitivity about her anguish. Now, horror stricken, I realized I had barely understood a fraction of what she endured. I had known the words – motherhood, sacrifice, love – but until now not their meaning. Had I let her down through my youth and arrogance?

Brushing away the tears I tried one more time. ‘Alas, I am gone before you could know me, but I loved you. I nursed you nine months at my breast. I love you dearly.’ Although I wanted so very badly to say the words, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. I wept for Georgiana. I wept for myself. I wept for the love of it all.

Copyright© 2008 Vogue