Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Duchess, Mary Robinson, and Georgiana's Social Network

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Duchess, Mary Robinson, and Georgiana's Social Network

Article excerpt

All the main characters in Saul Dibb's film The Duchess (2008) are based on figures who appeared in the list of subscribers to Mary Robinson's Poems by Mrs. M. Robinson (1791). These names include Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; her husband, the Duke of Devonshire; his lover and Georgiana's friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster; Georgiana's lover, the politician and future Prime Minister, Charles Grey; and such prominent Whig politicians as the statesman, Charles James Fox, and the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Robinson's subscription list included among other notables all the sons of King George III, many of the most Whiggish peers, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Robinson's lover and MP for Liverpool, Col. Banastre Tarleton, and Della Crusca himself, Robert Merry. Robinson's 1791 volume reintroduced her to a fashionable social network from which she had been absent for the previous several years following the scandal of her affair with the Prince of Wales. Robinson's theatrical career, her apprenticeship under David Garrick, her status as a sex symbol and the dissolution of that status into gossip, pornography, debt, disability, and Robinson's subsequent reinvention of herself as a professional writer make her, like Georgiana, a case study in the vicissitudes of Romantic period celebrity--which is one of the main subjects of Dibb's film about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Robinson's professional network, with John Bell, publisher, at the center, intersected and overlapped with the political network of Whigs that included Fox, Sheridan, the Prince, and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. (1)

Although Robinson does not appear among these illustrious Whigs in The Duchess, Dibb's film, nonetheless, is the closest cinematic representation to date of the fashionable world that promoted, persecuted, and professionalized her. And this network also sustained many of the other writers who propelled the market for commercial literature during the late 1770s, '80s, and '90s. So, Dibb's film, despite misrepresentation of history, Whig politics, and even Georgiana herself, shows a more accurate picture of this significant demographic of early Romantic period readership than, say, Ken Russell's or Julien Temple's depictions of Wordsworth and Coleridge. (2) The professional (albeit not the imaginative) lives of the first generation Romantics had more to do with the world of West End elegance than with ruined cottages, old beggars, and enclosure laws. This particular network of readers and writers, then, helps to fill in the cultural and social space between the early readers of, say, Fanny Burney of 'Wordsworth and helps to visualize them in context. Curiously, the Prince of Wales does not appear in the film although Georgiana thought of him as a brother and, like others in her network, considered him the great hope for Whig supremacy. The film, instead, portrays the Prince's closest political allies, Sheridan and Fox, as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Georgiana's Hamlet.

For the sake of the domestic and social drama, The Duchess only briefly depicts Georgiana's cultural interests and influence. Dibb shows her, for instance, hosting a private performance of Sheridan's School Jiff Scandal, the scene being short-hand for Georgiana's patronage of the arts, which included the works of Mary Robinson. For all of Robinson's adult life and literary career, Georgiana's encouragement, however distant, served her own poetic identity. Robinson herself describes Georgiana as "my admired patroness, my liberal and affectionate friend" (Memoirs 238). At the start of her literary career, Robinson was still tangentially connected to the social network depicted in the film--the frequently treacherous bon ton and the power centers connected with the Prince of Wales and Charles James Fox, both her former lovers.

Robinson first proclaimed her admiration for Georgiana in her 1776 poem "Written on Richmond Hill," published in Town and Country Magazine, calling her "beauty's queen." According to her Memoirs, Robinson sent her little brother to deliver her 1775 Poems to Georgiana, who responded with an invitation to Devonshire House (238). During her husband's imprisonment for debt, Robinson reports many visits with Georgiana that included intimate conversations about their mutual sorrows. They were approximately the same age and both newly and unhappily married. Robinson dedicated Captivity (1777) to the Duchess, describing her as "the friendly Patroness of the Unhappy" (Poems 1: 380). Shortly thereafter, once Robinson took to the stage at Drury Lane as Garrick's new discovery and inflamed the passions of the young Prince of Wales, she became herself a fashionable celebrity and, despite her unhappy circumstances, enjoyed many of the luxurious advantages of those in Georgiana's social network.

Robinson remained loyal to Georgiana, tactfully excluding the Duchess from criticism even when she, as a writer, felt called upon to satirize the Devonshire circle. Robinson, for example, critiques the fashionable vices of the Devonshire House circle in her satirical poem Modern Manners (1793), her second novel, The Widow (1794), and a controversial comedy called Nobody that same year, all of which targets female gamblers like Georgiana, while muting specific criticism of her. In Robinson's Modern Manners (1793), partly a retaliation for Gifford's attacks in The Baviad, she aims at the fashionable West End social network, including Georgiana's intimate friend, Bess Foster, whose fame Robinson attributes to fickle Fashion, "a nymph of wond'rous skill" (Poems 1: 201). Foster also figures prominently in The Duchess. Robinson. however, notably excludes Georgiana from the satire, while alluding to her gambling via reference to her fellow addict, lady Sarah Archer. Instead, Robinson suggests that Georgiana is, like herself' a victim of Fashion, who "Contemns the graceful tenderness that lies / In Devon's heart! and steals through Devon's eves" (Poems 1: 207).

In 1794, Robinson took on female gamblers, or "Faro's daughters," in her second novel The Widow, and in her controversial comedy Nobody, both of which, according to newspaper reports, offended fashionable women, including possibly Georgiana. Similarly, years later, in 1797, Georgiana escapes the satirical lash of Robinson's Tabitha Bramble persona; in "Tabitha Bramble to her Cousins in Scotland," Robinson mocks the King's day of national thanksgiving for the recent naval victory at Camperdown, concluding this newspaper poem with a view of a few virtuous Whigs, vociferous opponents of Pitt, defiant among the celebratory rabble, including Tarleton's friend, Lord Robert Spencer (no relation to Georgiana), the Earl of Moira, and the Prince's friend, the Duke of Northumberland. The only woman among them is Georgiana, whom Robinson's Tabitha exalts at the end of the poem:

  And thou, DEVONIA beauteous Dame!
  Thou too shalt share a wreath of Fame;
  And boast, while blushing Pride departs,
  The grac'd affections of a thousand hearts! (Poems 1: 353)

In the final year of her life, while serving as Daniel Stu-art's chief poetry contributor to the Morning Post, Robinson resumed her association with Georgiana in print, if not in person. Nostalgically, Robinson revived her "Oberon" pseudonym, which in the early '90s she used exclusively for her publications in Bell's newspaper, The Oracle, in order to celebrate Georgiana--and the social network that had flourished around Bell, chiefly the Prince of Wales, that had engendered the Della Crusca sensation, and that had welcomed Robinson as a professional author. Around this same time, Robinson's final novel, The Natural Daughter, pays tribute to Georgiana's generous spirit in the character Georgina, Duchess of Chatsworth, who comes to the aid of the heroine.

Moreover, Robinson praises Georgiana throughout her "Sylphid" essays in the Morning Post, and in her essay on the "Present State of Manners in the Metropolis," published in the Monthly Magazine just months before her death in December, 1800. These later nods toward Georgiana are significant in light of Robinson's late radicalism, including her ongoing friendships with William Godwin and John Wolcot ("Peter Pindar"), and of Georgiana's persistent status as a liberal icon even when Fox had withdrawn from politics, from the predominant British conservatism and the atmosphere it engendered.

Dibb's film focuses on the earlier period of Whiggish idealism and Georgiana's attendant celebrity, almost twenty years earlier, during the decade or so before the Revolution controversy began to heat up. The film is vague on the dates and seems to compress fifteen years into five, but the first of half or so takes place around the time Robinson dedicated Captivity to Georgiana. The process Georgiana goes through in constructing a successful public self to displace her miserable private one, according to the film, is analogous to what Robinson later does as a professional writer during the 1790s, which, while being her most prolific, was also a personally catastrophic decade for Robinson. Instead of showing Georgiana's cultural interests, The Duchess paints her as a political activist--at least briefly. One of the more preposterous scenes in the film depicts one of the Devonshire House dinner parties during which a self-righteous Georgiana (Keira Knightley), objects at table to the circumlocutions of Fox's political rhetoric. She thereupon schools an uncharacteristically sober yet pliant Fox on freedom as an absolute condition of humankind, dubious as she claims to be of the Whig party's commitment to it. At that point in the film, her husband, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), who, having eaten and become bored by speeches, leaves the party to take further refreshment with a chambermaid. Sensitive to her husband's unsociable behavior, Georgiana must carry on with her public obligations while he attends privately to his libido. Georgiana's sexuality, by contrast, is socialized through the requirement that she produce a male heir and publicized by her failure, in the eyes of the Devonshire circle, to do so. As she quickly learns, sex is a social obligation, not a personal matter. So, illustrative as this scene is of what the film gets wrong, it is also accurate in representing the social pressures imposed on the Duchess, Georgiana.

At one point, Dibb does show Georgiana dressed in her canvassing attire, blue and buff with her foxtail hat, and does show crowds cheering and applauding her; but this is as much as one sees of her political influence. Dibb's film wants to make her interesting by virtue of the powerful men in her life--which is partly accurate in the way Georgiana thrived socially in her network. In this way, too, the real Georgiana was often conflated with Mary Robinson, known in the gossip columns as "Perdita," a reference to her affair with the Prince of Wales. Both women canvassed for Fox; consequently, coverage of both women's activities implied their being political prostitutes, literally and figuratively. As a columnist for the Morning Post wrote: "The Duchess of Devonshire is so jaded by the fatigues of canvassing, that she must step down from the niche she has hitherto occupied among the BEVY OF BEAUTIES. Perdita is nominated for the succession by the High Priest of the Temple" (April 26, 1784). The "High Priest," in this context, would be Fox, who was romantically linked in the press with Robinson. Although Knightley is undoubtedly beautiful, her performance in The Duchess shows little of Georgiana's charisma, charm, or intelligence--beyond the hackneyed staginess some scenes. The movie defeats its own purpose because the main character remains a cipher; she is acclaimed and celebrated, the film conveys repeatedly but without showing why.

According to the marketing plan, The Duchess also wants to tell a modern story of celebrity, drawing obvious parallels with Georgiana's famous descendent, Princess Diana, and with that infamously "crowded" aristocratic marriage-triangle of the 1980s and '90s. What it does show is a celebrity isolated by her own fame. More often, the film depicts Georgiana as an ordinary young girl who has to grow up only to learn that no one really gets what they want and that they must make do for the sake of others. Along with her humanitarian benevolence, the real Georgiana was a celebrity train wreck. There is scarcely an addictive behavior to which she was not inclined--alcohol, drugs, adultery, and gambling. Her gambling debts nearly decimated her husband's wealth. Dibb's film presents most of these as mere pastimes for a lonely, neglected young wife because it wants to make Georgiana into a Diana-like martyr of put-upon public responsibility and motherhood. Amanda Foreman's biography (2001), upon which the film is based, provides abundant material for a modern story of female celebrities gone wild, enough of Georgiana's subjectivity to create a sympathetic, recognizable personality, and enough to craft an uplifting story of public redemption or of overcoming adversity through deliberate self-fashioning or female empowerment. Such would seem to be the appeal for modern filmmakers.

Despite close ups of Knightley's anxious countenance and several as pensive and alone in gigantic marble rooms, Dibb finally shows little more of Georgiana than her original public would have believed to be true. The film does not allow viewers to imagine Georgiana any more deeply than the average reader of the Morning Chronicle. The Duchess thus recreates the perception of Georgiana's celebrity self rather than interiorize and expand her character the way a film like Bright Star tries to do with Keats and Fanny Brawne. Since such attempts usually fail as hackneyed overtures to the real person, in the use, for example, of snippets of their writing as dialogue, perhaps the film is admirable for admitting that no one involved really knows what it was like to be Georgiana anyway. Having spent the last several years reading newspaper gossip from the 1780s and '90s, I can assert that, in this way, The Duchess at least feels accurately distorted in fixing on its subject a similar perception of Georgiana as a soulless fashion-plate, unprincipled pleasure-seeker, and failed baby-maker who can only be redeemed by breast-feeding her infants and finally delivering a male one.

This significant lacuna in Dibb's film--that is, Georgiana herself--suggests an uncannily apropos interpretation of an 18th century celebrity who cultivates a social network and a public self outside the home because she essentially has no private life, no true self. While cinematically the film is no Barry Lyndon, Dibb does construct some interesting visual motifs in which Georgiana's sociability is performed outdoors, in public, and among throngs of friends and admirers. In the film, Georgiana flourishes out of doors, when in reality she was most famous for being an entertaining hostess indoors at Devonshire House. But the film wants Devonshire House to be an oppressive prison, Georgiana's solitary confinement, punishment for her sexual inadequacy. Her public appearances and social engagements are opportunities for her to get out of the house, from under the weight of her personal life's oppressive emptiness. The opening scene shows her at play outdoors on her family's rural estate, flirting with her male friends and giggling with her female ones. She is summoned indoors by her mother who tells Georgiana that she is soon to be married:

  Lady Spencer: I have heard a rumor.
  Georgiana (anxiously): Yes?
  Lady Spencer: That I will soon be addressing my daughter
  as Her Grace, the Duchess of Devonshire.

Convinced that a man whom she has met only twice loves her, Georgiana then steps on the terrace overlooking the fields where she had just been playing with her friends; jump-cut to a dark antechamber and a close up on her anxious face as she proceeds down the aisle to join hands with the Duke. The title of the film is superimposed as she literally becomes "the Duchess."

The film goes on to circumscribe Georgiana's network of female friends, limiting it to Bess, the woman who is sleeping with her husband. The relationship between Georgiana and Bess is first established out of doors at Bath, where they discuss motherhood and children. Georgiana learns that Bess has provided her husband with three sons but that the abusive Lord Foster has cast their mother off and denied her access to them. The Devonshires take the destitute Bess in, whereupon they establish a cozy menage a trois. For the sake of titillation, the film concocts an erotic encounter between the two women under the guise of demonstrating their friendship, Bess's sexual experience, and Georgiana's dissatisfaction with her marital relations as well as her desire for Charles Grey. Creepily, Bess enacts upon Georgiana the sexual caresses she enjoys at the hands of her friend's husband, encouraging Georgiana to pretend that her touch is Grey's--resulting in a weirdly hetero-normative quadrangulation. Georgiana understands that, according to aristocratic social mores, she may have Grey as her lover once she has delivered a male heir--and thus her sexual subjectivity continues to be subverted by the failure of her sexual objectivity as the Duke's heir-bringer.

This intimacy established, Georgiana in time discovers that Bess is in a relationship with her husband, the Duke of Devonshire. Bess explains that she has capitulated to the Duke's lust because he, for some unexplained reason having to do with his duke-ness, can restore her children to her. "This is my only chance of ever seeing my children again," Bess cries, imploring Georgiana's understanding. Hurt and humiliated, Georgiana replies, "There are limits to the sacrifices one makes for one's children." The desperate Bess counters with what turns out to be the moral of the film: "No, there aren't. No limits whatsoever." Significantly, after ordering Bess to leave her room, Georgiana gazes out the window only to see the arrival of Bess's boys, who then bond beautifully with her husband over the workings of a rifle. The film implies that they are indeed his sons (a factual impossibility), while Georgiana looks wistfully on at the family she has failed to supply. Bess triumphs in private, while Georgiana succeeds in public.

So, in this film, Georgiana cannot even have one female friend. As Bess, Hayley Atwell is a voluptuous contrast to the waifish Knightley, although in real life it was the other way around. As the costumes emphasize, Bess's ample bosom is a visual metonymy for her role as Georgiana's adversary in both the erotic and maternal arenas. Even when Georgiana pursues her passion for Grey, seeking personal fulfillment., she can only do so because she becomes affiliated with his public career as a Whig statesman. The development of Georgiana's personal, sexual self is stunted by her failure to combine erotic subjectivity and maternal objectivity as successfully as Bess does. The private, the intimate, and the domestic are a nightmare for Georgiana.

Instead of going forward with a story of female self-fashioning, the filmmakers opt for a lame attempt at erotic tragedy. The narrative of the middle part of the movie concerns a partial sexual awakening, in which Georgiana, having finally delivered a male heir, learns she can separate personal sexual fulfillment from social sexual obligation. In The Duchess, however, sex is emotionally destructive, while motherhood is idealized as an outcome worth the expense of self and the failure of subjectivity; at the end, the film uncomfortably re-conflates sex and motherhood. Only briefly can Georgiana and Grey construct a private intimate world. She becomes pregnant, delivering yet another useless girl that she must give up to Grey's family. When the Duke discovers her infidelity, Georgiana considers an elopement with Grey and is impervious to the Duke's threat to destroy Grey's political future. But it is the Duke's assurance that Georgiana will never see her children again that destroys her fantasy; recalling Bess's predicament, Georgiana dutifully returns to her husband and joyfully reunites with her children, realizing in the end that Bess was right: there are no limits to the sacrifices a mother must make for her children. The Duchess finally reveals itself as a movie about Georgiana's journey towards realizing she must sacrifice her personhood to her motherhood. And as a poignant bookend to the opening scene, the film ends outdoors with Georgiana, not playing in abandon with her friends, hut chasing her children around a fountain in a circle.

The filmmaker thus re-assimilates his subject into the domestic sphere, dropping the successful social, public self, adding in a footnote at the end of the film that Georgiana continued to be celebrated and influential. He has to say it because, well, it is true, but he doesn't want to show it because the film requires the tragic Diana analogy. Lacking a similar death-by-paparazzi, Dibb has to find another way to make Georgiana a martyr, which he accomplishes drawing her back into this oppressive domestic situation with the Duke and Bess, who, upon Georgiana's death, becomes the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana may as well die at the end of the film, even though she lived for fifteen years beyond where it ends. But the Dibb is not interested in the rest of her life because whatever else Georgiana does after giving up Grey for the sake of her children does not matter.

In this way, the film fixes on the public figure of Georgiana a fetishization of her maternity that concurs with the contemporary public accommodation of Georgiana's sexual self. A significant example is Georgiana's choice to breast-feed her own children rather than to employ a wet-nurse. Although still rare among aristocratic mothers, her husband's family objected to it because they felt the activity would interfere with the production of an heir (Foreman 119-20). The press was delighted to publicize Georgiana's breast-feeding; the Morning Post, for instance, commended her for making such an egalitarian gesture in defiance of other "females in high life" (16 July 1783). In popular culture, Georgiana's breasts would continue to serve as synecdoches for her public, social self.

More than fifteen years later, Coleridge responded to Georgiana's politically inflected poem "The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard," published in several newspapers in December, 1799, with his own "Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire," published a few days afterwards, on December 24th, in the Morning Post--incidentally during the time Mary Robinson worked as Daniel Stuart's chief' poetry contributor and printed in the same issue as "No. VIII" of Robinson's "Sylphid" essays. On December 26th, the popularity of Georgiana's poem prompted either Stuart or Robinson herself to insert a paragraph in the Morning Post proclaiming that "The Duchess of Devonshire, from a congeniality of taste, is a zealous patroness of Mrs. ROBINSON, our LAURA MARIA." According to her footnotes to the poem, Georgiana based "The Passage of the Mountain of Saint Gothard " on her travels in the summer of 1793 and likely began the poem around that time. The dedication to her children likely reflects guilt Georgiana felt regarding her forced separation from them after the birth of her and Grey's child (312). The later publication of the poem, however, was inspired by the dispute between the Second Coalition, specifically the Austrians and Russians, and the French over the pass, which connects Switzerland to Italy, and the recent defeat of the Russian Imperial army by the French at the pass. This conflict coupled with the earlier conquest of the Swiss cantons and the fall of the 500-year-old Old Swiss Confederacy by the French give Georgiana's farewell to both Switzerland, or Helvetia, its patriotic avatar, and Italy the currency of a poignant elegy to liberty.

So, emphasizing the paradox of her sexual celebrity, Georgiana publishes what is actually a clever political poem, and Coleridge responds with a poem that culminates in an exalted image of her breastfeeding. In his poem, Coleridge praises Georgiana for celebrating medieval Swiss patriotism at a time when the Old Swiss Confederacy had fallen to the French and thus promoting republican ideals in the opposition press. His refrain is, "0 Lady, nurs'd in pomp and pleasure! / Whence learnt you that heroic measure?" He marvels approvingly at Georgiana's egalitarian principles seemingly at odds with her privileged position in society. Recognizing that Georgiana had dedicated her poem to her children, Coleridge in a long final stanza dwells upon the imagined spectacle of Georgiana nursing her babes, all of whom were now well into their teens. Coleridge writes,

  You were a Mother! at your bosom fed
  The Babes that lov'd you. You, with laughing eye,
  Each twilight thought, each nascent feeling read,
  Which you yourself created. Oh! delight!

Coleridge goes on to attribute anachronistically Georgiana's political awakening to her experiences literally and figuratively nursing her infants. "Thenceforth your soul rejoic'd to see / The shrine of social Liberty!"--the site, as Georgiana's poem notes, where William Tell defeated imperial tyranny. Foreman calls Coleridge's poem a parody, an understandable mistake since the poem is, instead, only ridiculously bad (312). Southey, however, thought enough of it to include a revised version in the second volume of his Annual Anthology--along with Robinson's "The Haunted Beach" and "Jasper." For many of her contemporaries, therefore, and strangely for the makers of the The Duchess in 2008, everything Georgiana is and was is realized in her maternity. Given her aristocratic status, the political implications of this stereotyping points ironically to an unintentional reification of primogeniture. Neither the real Georgiana, who certainly was progressive in this respect, nor the cinematic one, judging from the latter's scripted principles, would approve. But, again, the film responds to Georgiana's celebrity in a way that surprisingly accords with the contemporary portrayal of her. In both her maternity preserves her celebrity. In The Duchess, Georgiana announces her decision to breastfeed her first baby to her horrified mother when, in reality, Lady Spencer already had nursed one of Georgiana's younger siblings. But Georgiana must be the maternal iconoclast here. In the film Georgiana remarks, with some sarcasm, "I am her mother, after all, even if she is only a girl."


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Ode to Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire." The Morning Post (24 Dec. 1799); Dibb, Saul, dir. The Duchess. Paramount Vantage, 2008; Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Modern Library, 2001; Gamer, Michael, and Terry F. Robinson. "Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback." Studies in Romanticism 48 (2009): 219-56; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. "The Passage of the Mountain of St. Gothard." The Morning Post (20 Dec. 1799); Mole, Tom, ed. Romanticism and Celebrity Culture 1750-1850. Cambridge VP, 2009; Robinson, Daniel. The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; Robinson, Mary. Memoirs. Ed. Hester Davenport. Vol. 7 of The Works of Mary Robinson. Pickering & Chatto, 2010; Poems. Ed. Daniel Robinson. Vols. 1-2 of The Works of Mary Robinson. Pickering & Chatto, 2009.


(1) For two recent studies of Robinson's celebrity, Michael Gamer and Terry F. Robinson on Robinson's "comeback" and Tom Mole on Robinson's "conflicted celebrity" in his edited collection of articles on various aspects of Romantic-period celebrity. The first two chapters of my The Poetry of Mary Robinson (2010)explore in depth what the West End and Whig social networks had to do with the start of Robinson's career as a professional author.

(2) See Russell's made-for-television films Clouds of Glory: William and Dorothy (1978) and Clouds of Glory: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978) and Temple's feature-length film Pandaemonium (2000).

Daniel Robinson

Widener University

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