The Duchess

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.


  1. Samuel Tinianow says

    It should also be mentioned that, as movies go, The Duchess is very accurate historically. The only “revisions” that my girlfriend or I (both of us are very historically minded) found in the movie were a few relatively early events the order of which was shuffled around, probably to help the narrative move. It really does a much better job than the blaring omissions, revisions, assumptions, and mis-characterizations of Marie Antoinette.

  2. says

    Marital rape only became a crime in the US starting in the later 1970s. Efforts to criminalize it were *hotly* resisted at the time on the grounds that men would be punished for just exercising their normal marriage rights – and there are still a lot of men who don’t think that marital rape counts as rape. Some women, too, like Phyllis Schlafly, who argued so only last year. (The logic is that marriage grants an unconditional right of sexual access, ergo no withholding of consent is valid, ergo “marital rape” is an oxymoron.) Some states *still* don’t punish marital rape as harshly as stranger rape, too.

  3. says

    Oh, and Samuel, thanks for that note re historical accuracy – as a history buff myself, though not a *terribly* picky one when it comes to the movies (I’m only an amateur history junkie, and I do cut some slack for artistic license) I pretty much have to stuff my disbelief under the seat and hold her there for most films set in past centuries. I like Keira Knightly & Ralph Fiennes as actors and I like 18th century settings, so now I will definitely try to see that in the theatre.

    It also occurs to me that this could be a valuable counter to the whole “Someday my prince will come” nonsense pushed by so much “women’s fiction” both print and screen…yes, here’s your aristocratic wealthy husband, isn’t he *wonderful*??? Isn’t it just *great* to be owned by such a man?!

  4. says

    I thought that was a very good movie. I’m glad to hear that it was also fairly accurate.

    It really does a much better job than the blaring omissions, revisions, assumptions, and mis-characterizations of Marie Antoinette.
    I really hate historical movies that aren’t. Why don’t the writers just rename the characters already instead of giving the movie-going public false history lessons?

    BTW, did you catch the sneakers when you saw it? I only read about them later.

  5. Scarlett says

    Bellatrys, I, too, an am amateur historical junkie, although I veer towards Tudor England (I was the one yelling at the inaccuracies in The Other Boleyn Girl in the cinema – seriously, read the book instead). I thought Fiennes was excellent as the Duke, you almost felt sympathy for him ‘cos he was a jerk but so much a product of his time. And I’ve always been a bit ‘whatever’ about Knightley, but I think she nailed the position Georgiana was in. There’s a moving scene where she and a representative from Grey’s family meet on some dirt road to hand over her daughter and Bess has to restrain her from running after them. I thought both actresses captured the heartache but the inability to do anything else perfectly.

    And you’re totally right about the whole ‘prince charming’ thing, I think the Duke is such a good counter to that. Princess Diana was an indirect descendant of Georgiana’s and their lives have a lot of parallels, namely, she was said to have married her ‘prince charming’ who married her for sons and cheated on her something chronic. Here in Aus we had a ‘commoner’ (no official class system but the woman was still, as we say, top drawer) marry a Danish prince a few years ago and everyone celebrated it as a fairytale wedding – but she had to give up her country, her language, her religion and all claim on her children with the guy, how exactly is that fair?

    I’m not sure if the movie is still at the cinemas – it’s not here in Aus and I assume we’re a few weeks at least behind the US – but it’s definitely worth a look on DVD. Also, I totally recommend The Tudors. It has a few historical inaccuracies – for one, Jon Rhys Myers is far too young to be Henry, and not a redhead, and they got Wolsey’s death wrong – but it pretty well captures his tyranny and the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. I have the first season on DVD and I caught the last two eps of the second season in the UK and I’m itching for the second season to come out here on DVD because it’s the best representation of Tudor England I’ve seen yet.

  6. SunlessNick says

    It sounds like a good film (albeit one of those where you wish for a better word than “enjoy”). Definitely one I’ll be seeing.

    Especially I like the idea of Georgiana and Bess coming to take each other’s sides.

    I’m also reminded of Jenn’s Touched by Filth post.

    (And rather more mad than I was about the British advertising for the film centring on how Georgiana was just like Princess Diana).

  7. sbg says

    Marital rape only became a crime in the US starting in the later 1970s. Efforts to criminalize it were *hotly* resisted at the time on the grounds that men would be punished for just exercising their normal marriage rights – and there are still a lot of men who don’t think that marital rape counts as rape.

    This always makes me splutter indignantly, bellatrys – why isn’t in a woman’s normal marriage rights to not have to sleep with her husband on demand?

    And, yes, I know the answer to that.

  8. Scarlett says

    As far as historical accurancy goes, I saw it with my mum, who had already seen it, and wanted to see it again. She has a real passion for English history and is constantly bad-mouthing the poor adaptations of history into film and TV (ie, ToBG) – so if she wanted to see it twice, I take it to mean it was historically accurate.

    One issue I had – and it’s taken me nearly a month to write this article because of it – is that they never really explain Georgiana and Bess’s reconciliation. In one scene Georgiana is telling Bess that there are some lines that not even motherhood can justify crossing and ten minutes later they’re best friends again. I GET that Georgiana came to realise Bess did what she had to in order to get her sons back, but I would have liked something between ‘you betrayed me, I hate you’ and them being best mates again.

    Nick, we got a similar advertising campaign, linking her to Diana (And Princesses Grace and Mary). In all fairness, the two women were related and I see parallels in theirs lives but it just seems like such a cheap way to go. Plus, I don’t think they were playing on the fact the women were related so much as the ‘look, two interesting women who married above them’ factor. And you’re totally right about needing a better word then ‘enjoyed’ – nothing better then ‘respected’ comes to mind myself.

  9. Scarlett says

    I looked it up, it was 1992 that marital rape was officially outlawed across the board in Australia via the High Court, although it was partially banned in some states (how do you ‘partially ban’ rape? No, seriously, I’m curious – I assume the severity of the force and/or beating comes into play) since 1975. I’m old enough to remember stuff that happened in 1992 – the one that comes to mind is Clinton’s election. I grew up knowing rape was wrong so to realise I was old enough to remember history as it was happening when marital rape was officially outlawed across the board – I know this sounds niave, but for me to remember events at the same time of spousal rape being outlawed reminds me of how long it takes to achieve even the most basic of rights. That I can remember a time when spousal rape was in some ways legal scares me.

  10. says

    The marital rape issue is appalling on so many levels. For one thing, every court case of it has been an issue of ongoing abuse by a husband against a wife. You can’t separate out rape from other forms of abuse and say, “Well, that’s different since he ‘bought the cow’.” For another, don’t men deserve not to be raped by wives? Yes, I know it’s nearly impossible for women to hold men down and rape them in the same way it’s so easy for men to rape women, but an abusive woman can use emotional blackmail and other tools to push a man into sex he’s uncomfortable with. And I’m just using men’s rights here as an example of the absurdity – of course everyone deserves the right to withhold sex when they’re not feeling well, when their sex drive is low, or when their partner has hurt them in some way (say, cheating), or when they’re discovering a sexual incompatibility (say, the partner’s getting into stuff that’s too kinky for you) that needs to be talked out before they feel comfortable proceeding.

    The fact that people defending marital rape is surely all the evidence I need to argue that marriage evolved as the sexual equivalent of home ownership, where prostitution is the equivalent of renting. Husbands, or “owners”, get tax breaks, no more rising rent costs and the freedom to hammer nails wherever they want.

    I haven’t seen this movie, but I do like stories that convey how men we would today consider psychotic abusers can be “normal” when it’s society that’s embraced psychotic levels of abuse. Because in another 500 years, it’s my fondest hope that students will look back at common modern day racism and misogyny and think, “Wow, those people must have been suffering from extraordinary personality disorders! Did they cure that with a drug?” and teachers will explain, nope, it was just that civilization accepted that sort of thing as normal and incurable, so only a handful of really awesome cool people made any effort to reduce the problem.

  11. Scarlett says

    that marriage evolved as the sexual equivalent of home ownership, where prostitution is the equivalent of renting

    Jenn, if you can find it, I highly recommend Zelda D’Aprano’s autobiography. She was an Aus trade union feminist who was responsible for a lot of the grassroots movements which resulted in things like women’s minimum wage being set at at least 75% of men’s (and eventually equal), affordable abortion and spousal rape being at least ‘partially banned’. One of my favorite bits is where she compares sex within marriage to a salaried position and prostitution to piecework (she worked as a sewer for a lot of her life).

    I haven’t seen this movie, but I do like stories that convey how men we would today consider psychotic abusers can be “normal” when it’s society that’s embraced psychotic levels of abuse.

    I recommend the movie in that case. Part of what makes it interesting is the social context of the time. I realise you dislike seeing any rape scene, and if it means anything, it’s not graphic – he throws her onto the bed and then we hear her scream’s from Bess’s perspective outside the door – but I can always tell you when to hit ‘fast forward’ on the DVD :p

  12. Scarlett says

    OK, that was my attempt at quoting. Of the two blocks, the first pars and quotes from Jen and the second pars are mine.

    (Jenn’s note: I fixed it! Not sure where that weird code came from.)

  13. says

    Thanks, Scarlett, I’ll check the movie and the book out sometime.

    Just to be clear: when I talk about marriage and its ugly roots and the ugly connotations it still has for many people, I am not talking about individual marriages, nor am I scoffing at anyone who marries or accusing everyone who marries of harming the cause of equality. I don’t think legally declared monogamy has to be anti-feminist at all. In fact, I’m sure throughout history there have been more than a few truly equal marriages between people who believed women and men to be equal despite what their society may have said. I’m just saying the institution itself began as two men trading ownership of a woman for some camels, and we’re still not past all the concepts of oppression and ownership that pollute the institution as a whole.

  14. Scarlett says

    I understand that and to some extent I agree. I’ve seen a lot of happy couples who married for the right reasons, that they loved each other, knew each other, understood each other. I’ve met a lot of divorced couples who married under those conditions and remained friends because they got that the dynamic they *had* to get married in the first place was gone. Good for them. I’m not a big believer in one partner for life – I believe we grow and change as people, and often grow apart from our partners – but kudos to those who can recognise they’ve simply changed as people and remain friends.

    But… I think a lot of people get married for the wrong reasons. For security, for children, for position in society. I honestly believe too few people enter marriage based on true respect and honesty. And having said that, I think a bit of true respect and honesty on everyone’s part would make the world a far better place.

  15. Scarlett says

    Sorry Jenn, I missed a point you made. The Duchess isn’t based on a particular book but I’m sure if I asked mum she could recommend several. But I still recommend D’Aprono’s autobiography.

  16. says

    I just did some fact-checking, because I felt sure I recalled that back in the late 90s marital rape was still not a crime in a number of US states. The good news: it is a crime in all 50 now, though they don’t all define or prosecute it exactly the same way.

    While I did not go looking for info on my hellhole home states, it came to me via the link above and an additional Yahoo search. In my native WV, used in the article above as an example, hubby must use a weapon or injure wifey, or else that forcible penetration thing is A-OK! And even if he is found guilty of marital rape, he gets 2-10 years instead of the 10-35 that a, you know, reg’lar rapist would get. But before we make jokes about WV being full of hillbillies, CA also goes easy on its marital rapists – reg’lar rapists can’t be sentenced to probation or suspended sentences, but hubby rapists can be. Prolly because they have studios to run and movies to make, would be my guess. CA and WV may have precious little in common, but they both agree: men matter more!

    And then there’s TN as the third result under a search asking if spousal rape is outlawed in all 50 states. They only passed a law against spousal rape WITH WEAPONS in 1998, then in 2005 they finally did the right thing and dropped the marital exclusion from rape prosecution altogether (thus treating all rape alike, regardless of how the people involved know each other) and had their first test case in 2005. Sadly, the guy – who confessed! – got 8 years probation and – oh yeah, he’s an Argentinian immigrant. Now why’d I just know it couldn’t be one of TN’s good ol’ boys who’d get the hammer first? Oh, right… because I was in high school when UT Knoxville was covering up all the rapes committed by the Vol football players. Couldn’t have some damn bitch benching our quarterback or something! Think of the economy, won’t someone please think of the economy?!

    BTW, for anyone who doubts my tales of what sounds like arcane misogynistic harassment as a teen in TN, may I recommend Tennessee Guerilla Women? That link goes to an article about the rape laws (before the new 2005 one took effect and got tested on one of them foreigners), but the whole blog is excellent. It’s not (obviously, in light of the blog) that all Tennesseans suck – it’s just a great example of how far a little misogyny can go when people are accultured not to recognize it as a problem, and even to embrace is as part of nature.

  17. Scarlett says

    Jenn, that’s really scary. I want to research our own history with dealing with spousal rapists but I’m afraid of what I might find…

    I asked mum about a good book to read, and it turns out she saw the movie first and was so impressed with it that she wikied herself up so she has no firsthand knowledge. But it’s based on a book by Amanda Foreman, “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” so that may be worth hunting up. Foreman sounds like she really knows her shit, and she’s the daughter of a McCathry-era blacklisted writer so she probably knows a thing or two about being shabbily treated just because of the sociopolitical mood at the time.

    Incidentally, one of the things that came up in the conversation was that you weren’t comfortable watching movies which contained rape scenes, which was why I was asking for a book worth recommending. She didn’t understand because it’s the most non-graphic and contextual rape scene either of us have seen in a movie and it struck me as a bit sad that some women – a lot of them, I was hazzard a guess – just don’t get that some women don’t like seeing violence commited against women by men.

  18. says

    Here in Aus we had a ‘commoner’ (no official class system but the woman was still, as we say, top drawer) marry a Danish prince a few years ago and everyone celebrated it as a fairytale wedding – but she had to give up her country, her language, her religion and all claim on her children with the guy, how exactly is that fair?

    Well, she gets lots and lots of sparklies – isn’t that enough of a tradeoff? Plus she gets to be called “Princess” – what more does any girl want in life, at least as per Disney?

    Sigh. Yeah, the patriarchy is whack – particularly when you consider that it was so horrifyingly scandalous – and still is – for the 18th and 19th century feminists and leftists to say that “traditional values” marriage was nothing more than legalized prostitution. But what else can it be called, when a woman is *required* to provide sex in return for all material support? Putting diamonds and hearts and flowers on a meat-for-sex arrangement doesn’t change the underlying reality, which is that it’s prostitution with no opt-out possibility up until divorce was legalized, and no *practical* opt-out possibility for many, so long as women are not regarded as deserving equal pay.

    And that’s horrifying that the UK and Australia didn’t make marital rape illegal until fifteen years ago. I just assumed that the Commonwealth would have been ahead of us *there*, too. Marital Rape is my ace-in-the-hole for anyone who claims that Christianity (of whatever flavor) made life sooo much better for women than pagan times and we should give up feminism and modernism and go back to the Age of Chivalry if we don’t want to be abused – it took the triumph of secular humanism to even begin to make headway on this.

  19. says

    why isn’t in a woman’s normal marriage rights to not have to sleep with her husband on demand

    Well, they *do* argue that it goes both ways, sbg – that neither party is allowed to deny the other “privileges of the marriage bed” blah blah blah St. Paul blah blah blah – but that’s disingenuous because seriously, who does the forcing-of-sex in our society on scale? And the people who argue this know it damn well, since they instill in their daughters and argue in public that any woman who is “careless” is “asking for it” by walking alone, going to bars, driving at night, going on dates, etc etc etc. “The rich man and the poor alike are prohibited from sleeping under bridges, therefore the rules are egalitarian”…

    And in fact there was a story from mid-19th century American history cited on some blogs a few years ago, in which some early radical leftists were told by the courts here that their marriage did not count and was not a real marriage, even though they were a het couple and met all the legal requirements. The reason was, they made up their own wedding vows, starting with the bride’s father standing up and saying he wasn’t giving her away b/c she was a human being and not property, and the groom said right out that he didn’t expect sex on demand or “honor” or “obedience” because they were equals in the sight of God, and they promised to stay together for as long as love flourished between them, and of course this flies in the face of the whole of Western Tradition when it comes to what marriage should look like, according to the government back then – the judge said that there was nothing in what they promised that counted as a marriage, and dissolved it legally.

    Which, you know, is a view still held by an awful lot of people today (google “covenant marriages” frex) and I wish I could unremember the number of times I’ve heard (or read in womens’ magazines) respectable middle-class wives boasting about how they got new cabinets or other goodies by providing blowjobs that they didn’t want to give…but I can’t find a good enough brand of brain-bleach.

    And there are a LOT of “relationship self-help” books that I saw when I was shelving for Barnes & Noble ten years ago, which said explicitly that men want sex and unquestioning admiration and household service, women want “security” meaning fiscal and “affection” meaning being told “I love you” but NOT sex, and the onlie true recipe for a successful marriage was for women to give up sex-on-demand whether they wanted to or not, and never ever EVER demand anything from hubby (from helping out with chores to listening to how her day went), and men to learn how to fake “caring” to avoid marital strive, and be generous with the prezzies as part of that.

    Reading that in 1999-2000 in books by secular authors from mainstream presses in a secular bookstore (ie not things put out by conservative Christian cranks) pretty much convinced me that I had in fact not made a mistake to choose singlehood, generations since the Nineteenth Amendment notwithstanding.

  20. says

    And that’s horrifying that the UK and Australia didn’t make marital rape illegal until fifteen years ago. I just assumed that the Commonwealth would have been ahead of us *there*, too.

    They WERE. Check my comment above re: how late a lot of states were to the game, and that there are still states where it’s not rape unless he uses a weapon or physical duress. Demanding sex and threatening to shoot the dog if she doesn’t put out? That’s just what God had in mind for marriage!

  21. Scarlett says

    Well according to the website below, marital rape was outlawed across the board in Aus in 1991, and partially banned in some states between 1975 and 1991. What Jenn is talking about is that in some states, marital rape was only banned in 2005. 1991 Isn’t great, and I get out constitutions means the US is dealing with more states with greater autonomy whereas a lot of our laws are applied across the board, but that still puts us 14 years ahead of the US :p

  22. Truth says

    Actually, as much as I loved the movie, it cannot be said to be historically accurate. I would suggest those of you who do believe that to please read up on the facts.

  23. Scarlett says

    Truth, I obviously have no idea what your tolerance to historical inaccuracies are but from what I read of wiki, I thought the movie was more or less accurate, say about 80%. And what struck me about the movie is that, regardless of weather or not history did happen as the movie says it does, I thought they nailed the historial accuracy of male-female equality (or lack thereof).

  24. Liz Miller says

    Samuel Tinianow,

    Have you even read the book by Amanda Foreman? Georgiana’s role as a political participant was played down, the movie showed her having only one affair (not true), and it showed her amotionally upset byt the Duke and Bess’s relationship. In reality Georgiana did not care and the Duke of Devonshire did not rape her. I really love this movie but to say it is historically inaccurate is a complete farce.


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