Warning, possible rape triggers
The Duchess is the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a vibrant aristocrat who influenced much of the social and political changes of eighteenth-century England. Georgiana (Keira Knightly) marries the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), who initially treats her royally. But when she fails to give him the son he wants – just two daughters – he unreasonably blames her and sends her to a series of crackpot fertility treatments. Here, she meets Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Foster, a woman who has been abandoned by her husband. It’s not established why – maybe she wasn’t subservient enough, maybe he got bored of her – but he has the power to beat her, throw her out penniless and deprive her custody of her three sons. Georgiana contrives to have Bess move in with them, and Bess repays the favour by having an affair with the Duke. While Bess is deeply sorry for putting Georgiana through this, she explains it’s the only way she can see her sons – by granting sexual favours to the second most powerful man in the country after the King.
When Georgiana and the Duke get into a fight over his affair, he throws it in her face that his only sons are Bess’s with Mr. Foster. He then rapes Georgiana, and all Bess can do is take Georgiana’s daughter out of earshot so she can’t hear her mother’s screams. I found that particular scene a haunting illustration of the power men had in those days – and that the only power a woman had was to remove a child from earshot. While he later expresses regret that he had to force her, and he makes it clear after his son is born that he will not force her again, he sees himself entitled to do whatever it takes to get a legitimate son. The analogy that immediately came to mind was that of an omnivore *hoping* the cow didn’t suffer but having no intention of giving up steak over it. While the Duke in no way deserves any special sympathy that he *only* commits rape for a son – not because he’s sadistic or misogynistic, both of which were perfectly legal ways to treat a wife in those days – I do think he deserves acknowledgement that he was very much a product of his time. In fact, what I liked about the movie was how the men – or, rather, the Duke and the unseen Mr. Foster – were very much products of their time and women had to take what small opportunities they had for their survival.
In one scene when Georgiana first confronts the Duke over his affair with Bess, he admits he has many deep flaws but that he never promised her anything he couldn’t deliver; she however, failed to give him a son. I actually felt some sympathy for him then, that so much of his identity was tied up in having a son. It doesn’t make his actions right, but in the context of the time period, I found it difficult to see him as a villain, either.
Later, Georgiana falls for rising politician Charles Grey and requests that, in exchange for overlooking the Duke and Bess’s affair, she be allowed to be with Charles. Even though Bess points out Georgiana is only asking for herself what they already have, the Duke scoffs her proposition, saying he doesn’t do exchanges because he already controls everything. Bess then helps Georgiana have a discreet affair with Charles, feeling it is only her due, given her husband’s hypocricy. When the Duke finds out about it, he considers himself reasonable (and probably was for the time) by giving her a ‘choice’; come home, be the faithful wife and everything will be forgotten or continue to see Charles and be thrown out penniless and never see her children again. Georgiana goes home. When she discovers she’s pregnant, the Duke forces her into seclusion to hand the baby to Charles’s family. This is despite Georgiana having raised the Duke’s own illegitimate daughter as her own. Bess stays with Georgiana throughout her pregnancy.
What I liked about this movie was that while Bess and Georgiana were forced to do horrible things, it was made clear that they were at the mercy of unfair, hypocritical tyrants. Even though Bess had an affair with her friend’s husband, it was made clear that she had no choice but to trade sexual favours for a home, food and custody of her children. I liked that Georgiana eventually came to accept Bess had no other choice. The way Georgiana and Bess did what small things they could for each other – Georgiana taking Bess in, Bess keeping Georgiana company through her pregnancy to Charles – demonstrated a camaraderie and loyalty in a world where women had few options. Finally, I liked that the Duke wasn’t glossed over as the unfair, hypocritical tyrant that he was and that they didn’t gloss over the fact that men, especially powerful men, could do whatever the hell they liked and women had do to whatever they could to wield whatever small powers they could find.