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

By Robinson, Daniel | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Robinson, Daniel, Wordsworth Circle


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. …

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