Your RDA of Irony

Family Traits

Last weekend I saw a double feature: the charming “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” and the horrifying “Never-Ending Commercial.” An exhausting pastiche of ads and trailers, “The Never-Ending Commercial” promoted cars and vacuum cleaners, neither of which were sold in the theater lobby. There were also features on upcoming television shows; if I really were interested in Gene Simmon’s and Shannon Tweed’s cohabitation, I would have stayed home to watch. While one could understand some trailers for movies coming next week to the theater; “The Never-Ending Commercial” was plugging films that are still in production. They may never be finished or released, but we still had to sit through the ads. (No, you can’t leave your seat because you don’t know when the actual feature will start.)

I can’t recall most of those distant productions but one did make an impression. You can see the setting is 18th Europe; a coach pulls up to a palace, and all the bewigged extras start talking about “the duchess.” She does this, she says that, she shocked whom, etc. However, the audience only knows her by reputation; we are denied a view of her. Then suddenly a very tall figure emerges but we still are denied the sight of any face. The intentional mystery sparked a frightening thought: Oh my God, it is another Will Ferrell farce. However, we finally see the face of Kiera Knightley, who looks as if she really hates her foot-high wig. She is “The Duchess”, and quite a celebrated one at that: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Beauty is not uncommon in the aristocracy; it is the predictable result of the same selective breeding in show dogs. Intelligence, however, is rare; and Georgiana possessed a mind as dazzling as her looks. In her day (1757-1806), women could not vote in Britain, but the Duchess certainly had her say. The politically astute Duchess was a patroness of the Whig party, but she was more than just a hostess for teas. With her considerable charm and wealth, she helped determine the party’s slate. And she was more than a power behind the scenes. The political pioneer publicly campaigned for Whig candidates; the cartoonists of the day caricatured her exchanging kisses for votes. If that were the case, that probably would have guaranteed the Whigs a landslide.

(Even without the gorgeous Georgiana, the 1780s were a propitious time for Whigs. Twenty years of Tory mismanagement had cost the Empire a number of colonies in North America.)

In her private life–which is to say her scandals, Georgiana also displayed an admirable enlightenment and a modern perspective. She was never so preoccupied with her adulteries as to neglect her husband, the Duke. In fact, she helped him in selecting a mistress. Of course, the Old Guard thought her notorious. Indeed, her family did have a tendency to produce beautiful and free-thinking iconoclasts. Her niece Caroline was a memorable patroness of the arts, abandoning her husband to run off with Lord Byron.

And what was the family name of these strong-willed, trend-setting, rebellious women: Spencer. Yes, someone should have warned Prince Charles.

  1. Leah says:

    Georgiana was a very beautiful and healthy woman (until later in life, when her eye problems got bad enough that she started sleeping with her husband again). She did not have the specter of anorexia hovering about her. Did Kiera Knightley restore some of her wasted muscle mass for this role? Or do you suppose it’ll be done with CGI?

  2. From the brief sight of a gaunt and apparently uncomfortable Ms. Knightley, I might concede that Will Ferrell would have looked better in the role.

    And it does seem sad that the Duchess’ eyesight so deteriorated that she had no idea that she was sleeping with her husband. The current governor of New York could have used that excuse, saying that he had no idea that those other women were not his wife.

  3. Brent says:

    Another annoyance: Movie trailers now include website addresses for those who just can’t wait for the film — such as “400,” the sequel to “300” — to hit the theaters. Re Miss Pettigrew, I recently rewatched Frances McDormand’s portrayal of the pregnant policewoman in “Fargo,” a movie that should have set Minnesota villagers to rushing the studio gates with torches — yah, sure, you betcha.

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