We’re having a holiday in America in honor of Christopher Columbus today, a nice relief from all the bad economic news since all the banks and most of the markets are closed. For my part I went to see a new movie called The Duchess, a British film about the 18th century beauty Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, 5th Duchess of Devonshire. Her story has some parallels to the story of Lady Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales, since there were three people (frequently more than that) in Georgiana’s marriage to the Duke, just as there were in Diana’s marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales. The coincidences in their lives are a bit eerie since Diana Spencer is actually a distant relation of Georgiana’s through Georgina’s brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer.
The movie stars Keira Knightley as the Duchess and Ralph Fiennes as her thoroughly unpleasant husband. Ever since Fiennes played the Nazi death camp administrator in Schindler’s List he’s been especially good at making my skin crawl. This time he made his impact by doing and saying thoroughly reprehensible things using that peculiarly English manner of registering no emotion on his face whatsoever, whether he was feeding a dog or violating a woman. Keira Knightly is gorgeous and was excellent in the part, and the clothes are really something to see. I also enjoyed Charlotte Rampling, a modern legendary beauty, as Georgiana’s mother. But I must say it was a bleak story. Perhaps more so because one can see that even though the story in this film took place in the 18th century, two hundred years later the peers of the realm are still behaving badly towards their women, as Diana, Princess of Wales, could attest if she had lived.
I was lucky to cover Diana during her one official visit to Washington in the 1980s. She was at the height of her fame, still married to Charles, Prince of Wales, and only the insiders knew then that the marriage was a sham. Seeing her in person at a tea the British Embassy in Washington gave for a small group of reporters covering her, I was struck by how much taller she was than I had thought, how much thinner, and by how unhappy she looked. I assumed at the time she was tired, what with two small children and jet lag. But we later learned the truth—that she had good reason to be unhappy. That same weekend, she danced at the White House with John Travolta and I often remember it now—how for that that short moment she did laugh with joy. She was beautiful, visiting the Reagan White House, and dancing with a star who was really good on the dance floor. Pretty nice.
But the new film and the old story of Diana also remind me why we don’t use titles in America—they were outlawed by our founding fathers, God bless them. We’re a meritocracy and though we love reading about the bad behavior of the royals in other countries we like the idea in America that you are not what you are born to, but what you raise yourself up to be. I wish Diana Spencer, and her ancestor Georgiana Spencer had both been born to a better world.