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.