The Duchess and being mercenary by the year

I have just watched, in the name of research, both Gosford Park and The Duchess. Even as they bracket the time periods which Kali and I are smushing together for the novel, they both speak to it in that they are stories where no one is happy and everyone is constrained by matters of class and gender.

While Gosford Park is, by far, the better film (and I will readily admit I could watch Clive Owen read the phone book), it was The Duchess, which is deeply flawed in its structure (is it about the illicit romance between Georgiana and Gray or is it about the home situation between the Duke, Georgiana and Bess? — the film chooses one, and then when that seems unlikely to be as marketable or as easily a subject for a PG-13 rating, it chooses the other and becomes a bodice ripper before reverting back to its original trajectory), that is sticking with me in a way that is, actually, quite a bit miserable.

This sense of misery is, of course, ludicrous. A film about a vastly confining, misogynistic world I’m perfectly familiar with? Why should I find that troubling, when I not only know a bazillion versions of that story, but am, in fact, often engaged in creating similar stories.

But I suppose this is what is successful about The Duchess and, I suspect, why it was so poorly reviewed — not because of its structural flaws, but because it renders more successfully than many other films the confinement of the women of its story. For the tragedy is not that Georgiana is treated terribly by a man she loves, but merely by a man she is giddy to be chosen by as a child.

It’s the film’s rendering of her feeling of it being some sort of coup that she’s chosen, based essentially on no specificity of her own, to be a Duchess that makes it so effective. Even when I didn’t care about the affair with Gray or lost interest in the not-as-well-rendered-as-it-could-have-been friendship with Bess, I remembered that — those first 15 minutes of the film, that made me so shamefully curious, as I often am, of what it would be like to live in a world where one has but a single, clear, and universally accepted purpose regardless of what you get up to instead.

And yes, yes, I know it would be dreadful. Please don’t give me that obvious lecture. Obviously, it would be stifling. Obviously, I also wouldn’t even be of that class. But I just can’t help but wonder what it would like to have goals simple, clearly-articulated, and pre-chosen for me.

To be honest, I think a lot of women wonder about this; I think we’re often subjected to the suggestion that it’s reasonable for us to doubt the goodness of choice in our lives. And while that suggestion is almost always malicious in its intents, I don’t think the questions the suggestion leads us to ask are inherently bad. I mean, women in Switzerland didn’t even have the national right to vote until the 1970s; the world for my sex can, I think, always be different, in really terrifying ways, in a heartbeat. If it couldn’t, we wouldn’t have all these end of the world films in which women are some sort of chattel within a week and a half of civilization’s breakdowns.

Look, I’m just so fucking scared of medical stuff, you know? And surely there were young women terrified of the idea of childbirth in 1795 and did they just think, they would endure whatever physical miseries were involved with the process so they could have an heir, get a nice check or the house or the piece of jewelry and then be left to their own devices?

I just wonder what it’s like to be so mercenary with one’s body, not one hour or evening at a time (a mode not difficult for modern people to understand, I don’t think), but one year at a time — I mean, a year is an eternity in our digitalness, isn’t it? I have a very good imagination, but that one (marital relations and childbirth out of duty and for the paycheck gift) is truly beyond me, which may be, in fact, why I generally find it easier to write men, at least when working out of the here and now; it is easier for me to pretend that their choices and joys might be things I’m more likely to understand.

18 thoughts on “The Duchess and being mercenary by the year”

  1. I wonder to what extent the idea of children as an inevitability entered into it? Unless you were planning on becoming a nun (or to be otherwise celibate), you were going to have children at some point, given what passed for birth control at the time. With no control over reproduction there is already a pervasive sense there that your body is not entirely your own, and if your options as a heterosexual 18th century female are 1) no sexual relations with men or 2) bearing children, why not a womb rental to someone rich and powerful, if that’s an option?

    How I love the 21st century.

    1. I’m not as good with eighteenth century, but I’ve seen classical and medieval writings talking about the fear of childbirth. I think people did what they have to do, but there were women who really were terrified, especially if the first birth had been hard.

      I think a lot about the child mortality rate and how devastating it frequently was to parents to loose children.

      1. One of the best parts of a fun but sometimes regrettable fantasy romance called Outlander was when the modern nurse protagonist delivered someone’s 18th Century baby, then went out to tell the father… And found her lover and the father sitting and getting blind-drunk in preparation for the probability of losing both mother and child. Oh. Right. History.

  2. I love Gosford Park. I’ve never seen the Duchess. i’m goping to have to order it after the next library run.

    I often wonder those things too. How I’d have survived in Austen’s time, that sort of thing. I know how my ancestresses survived the Victorian era. The were working class, so their lives were less circumscribed. The things they did to survive still gobsmack me.

    I think of my Great Grandmother who outlived four husbands. I know her last choice was not sentimental at all. He was a boarder with a pension check, who was good with the children, but an alcoholic. She married him after my Gran’s father died of tb. She would dole out an allowance to him and they kept separate rooms. my Gran loved him fiercely, but I suspect from the stories my gran and Grammy told, my grin great grand mother looked on him with a sort of exasperated fondness with nothing of passion in it, rather like he was one of her children instead of a husband.

    1. Hilariously, Emma, came on the TV after my movie watch, and it was interesting, because people tend to find the Regency era so light, but is was SO restrictive. More-so, in many ways, than the era preceding it. I feel like when people look at Austen, they tend not to pay attention — they think it light, and fluffy and kind — and neither the work or the time is.

      And thank you for sharing those stories. Yes.

      1. There’s a passage in I think it’s Persuasion, but it could be Sense and Sensibility, where she describes the difference a generation made. The grown up children in the family they were visiting were very early 19th century, restrained and repressed. The parents are very end of the seventeenth: bold and a little to frank and bawdy.and rather embarrassing to the children.

        One of the things I like about Austen is the keen social satire and the tendency of certain of the characters to struggle in various ways against the social constraints that can be stiffing for the characters. It’s like birds breating wings against the bars of a gilded cage.

        The Brontes are way more overt about it, and are doing a whole bunch of other things besides. I think of how shocking Jane Eyre’s insistence on rebelling and choosing for herself over and over was to the first audience.

        I’m not a 19th century specialist, but I grew up with a lot of 19th century lit, and with my Gran telling family stories stretching back to the Victorian era. I think a lot about what things must have felt like for people living in other times.

        I also what to slap every smug modern who pulls that “they didn’t love there children” crap on my medieval folk, when I damn well know that some people fell into depressions the never recovered from and their is plenty of evidence of mourning. modern people are have a tendency to medicate grief and pretend death isn’t. They don’t seem to get that when your cow dies and you don’t eat if you don’t do your chores you have to make a virtue of keeping going no matter it hurts. Similarly, when your society allows you few options, you pretty much have to make the best of what choices you have. Some people made a fuss over arranged marriages they didn’t want. Some people ran away despite social stigma. (Hell, one of the sisters in Mansfield Park runs away with her lover and there is a divorce. Gasp.) Most people opted to keep on keeping on, because having food and a roof over your head is better than the alternative and they could see people all around them that didn’t have those things, and anyway, someone needed to take care of the kids.

        I do not idealize the past, but I do turn it over in my head trying to understand it.

  3. We watched Downton Abbey today – a series from the writer of Gosford Park – and were struck by the way the sisters had no career prospects other than snagging a husband from the rather limited pool of talent…

    The servants seemed to have a little more flexibility, interestingly. Without the responsibility of bringing in rich husbands, they could have a go at other careers, and were more likely to make love matches.

    1. Amusingly, that’s very high on the to-watch list also as reference re: the book. It’s all a matter, however of finding time.

  4. On the subject of goals in life being pre-chosen for someone, have you ever heard of some of the Buddists monks (that were) in Tibet? There were some whom were given to the monasteries as children. From what little I’ve seen they seem very accepting of that.

    (Or at least I’ve not heard of any of the arguments similar concerning oblates within the Catholic Church. An oblate is a child whose parents would pledged them to the Church, and the kids were stuck in the nunnery or monastery for life. I can’t remember the name of the monk who really wrote quite a bit on being unwillingly oblated to the church and even sued to be let go. Really horrid ending, he lost his case, and ended up walled up in a tiny room for life. )

    Japanese anime sort of touches on having a life chosen for you sometimes. Especially if you watch a shogun themed movie. Some of the characters start training so young, like they start learning sword-fighting at 7 years of age. Yet there’s no questioning of the elders choosing that life for the child.

    Hmmm glad I live now…

  5. You might also enjoy the Daniel Deronda mini-series based on a George Eliot novel (I think it’s on Netflix instant). Again, not very good film, but it makes even more clear this idea of choices v. not. The title character chooses between two women and two lives, one which represents choice and the other represents expectation. In the case of the women, the former is a Jewish artist who he meets while she is trying to commit suicide, the second a poor but high-bred woman who spends most of the film decrying her circumstances.

    It’s also kind of fun to watch for it’s portrayal of the old London Jewish quarter.

    1. Cool, thanks for the rec; this probably wouldn’t have crossed my radar otherwise, and I seem to be a big fan of painfully flawed films that get something or other very right anyway.

  6. “what it would be like to live in a world where one has but a single, clear, and universally accepted purpose regardless of what you get up to instead.”

    I wonder how much of the traditional bodice ripper plot relies on that desire for simplicity. I know most of my thing for mind control is driven by that, and romanticizing the “oh NO, I shall have to marry him!” situation seems related here.

    So much of choice is privilege. It’s hard to fathom how many choices we have compared to most historical upper class men, and what they had compared to corresponding women, and etc. through all the layers of power. (I know, this is not news. I’m just thinking through this out loud.)

    When I read stories where something is Fated or circumscribed, I’m fascinated with the idea of trying to solve the equation of choice in a system with enough constraints that there might be A Right Answer. To be as mercenary about hooking up with a Duke as I am about concealing my job hunt until I’m ready to give my two weeks notice is a very strange kind of clarity.

    1. I love how this comment draws some sort of link between between The Duchess and Tron: Legacy (mind control).

      I think there may even be a problem with the use of the word mercenary, which in this discussion I started with the initial post. In terms of connotation it’s a sort of craven, frowned upon choice. Where who you marry is the only choice you have and it is how you determine your societal position and it’s not particularly meant to be about love or not (it’s besides the point, really), how can it be mercenary. That ascribes tone to what is really tone-free. It is yes or no; successful or not. Really, my use of mercenary, the more I think about it, isn’t only a modern reading of the past but one that applies modern drama and misogyny between women to that same past (i.e., think of the words we’d use for a modern equivalent of Georgiana).

      1. Sure. In this context, the closest sound in my head to mercenary is “practical.” I’ll start using that word in the discussion instead if I need to chime in more, because in a situation with limited choice, going for as much as you can get is just… sensible. It’s not loaded for me.

      2. I thought “mercenary” was exactly the right word. A young woman in 1795 might reasonably think it was a good idea to trade marriage for more secure status and a better chance at wealth, knowing marriage would include uncomfortable, painful, potentially fatal pregnancies. Her brother might think a military career was a good idea, for similar reasons, even though that’s also a long-term commitment to doing things that are uncomfortable, painful, and potentially fatal.

  7. It’s incredibly hard to imagine from my modern vantage point what it would be like to have such a dearth of choice. On the one hand, yes – maybe the simplicity would relieve the pressure and mystery of what one’s fate might be, and if you’re raised with low expectations and there are no or poorly regarded examples of alternatives, you might not feel like you’re missing anything. Marriage and childbearing could be viewed as a career, with the husband as boss, and sentiment wouldn’t enter into it.

    At the same time it would be the only job for which you’re qualified and if the boss is cruel or you can’t fulfill your job duties (having kids), life could get really miserable really quickly with little or no recourse.

    Mercenary? No – for much of western civilization I imagine marriage for status and security was just business as usual, and for a woman the only (respectable) business available. Much as I love history and even given the long way women still have to go for full equality, I wouldn’t want to be a woman in any other time period!

    1. I had a roomate at my second college whose family had come from china a decade before. The young woman seemed very Americanized on the surface, obsessed with rushing a sorority, the right clothes, boys, the like. she was also profoundly horrified by my independence and was quietly agonizing over the marriage her parents in California were arranging for her to some man she’d never met. She was really freaked out about it, clearly didn’t want to do it, yet she was going to marry him.

      similarly, I had a friend at my first college who was in love with a girl who’s family had come from India when she was small. she was not allowed to date to keep her pure for the man they had chosen for her from back home. She had to have her friends call him for her. He used to enclosed his letters to her in envelopes addressed to her friends. he was trying to get her to run away with him so they might marry, but she had a hard time letting go of her family. she absolutely dod not want to marry a man fifteen years her senior, but if she didn’t and married a white American instead she would be disowned and would never see her sisters again.

      This stuff isn’t just the past. I still happens even in America.

  8. Damn it. We’ve been watching Downton Abbey from BBC, which spends a lot of time making me feel sad and angry about the lives women were allowed in 1912ish.

    Now it sounds like I need to spend more time obsessing over period film/TV. If the state of England leading up to WW1 is interesting to you, the series seems depressingly accurate from both the Peerage and the servants point of view.

    And as a Lord with an estate, the patriarch is struggling with the fact that he has 3 daughters, all of whom he loves but none of whom can inherit. Enthralling and infuriating at the same time.

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