February 4, 2011

{The Two Ladies Spencer: The Duchess & The Princess}

[excerpt from the upcoming book - The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride]


from “The Duchess”
Before the opulent costume drama “The Duchess” was released in 2008, the marketing campaign highlighted parallels with its eighteenth century heroine, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire with Diana, Princess of Wales. “The two were related by ancestry and united by destiny,” declared the movie’s trailer. “History repeats itself!” The marketing campaign received a great deal of criticism about the comparison (including from its star, Keira Knightley, and from Amanda Foreman, the author of the bestselling biography on which “The Duchess” is based), although the movie’s young director, Saul Dibb, disagreed.

Georgiana Spencer was Diana’s great-great-great-great aunt—certainly the two most famous members of the Spencer family. In an interview with UK writer Andrew Pettie, the film’s director shared: “‘There are lots of connections. Georgiana and Diana are related to start with. And they married as girl-women in their late teens after a sheltered upbringing, probably with a romantic notion of what marriage is, to men who understood the marriage contract differently.’”

from “The Duchess”
In June 1774, seventeen year old Lady Georgiana Spencer married the older, reserved, and haughty 5th Duke of Devonshire, whom she barely knew. “Her bridegroom was ‘the first match in England’, 26 years old and immensely rich,” English historian Ann Monsarrat wrote in her book, And the Bride Wore…The Story of the White Wedding. The historian reports that the wedding itself was “slightly less dashing” than the very opulent affair of her parents, but in the custom of the day, it took place “in the midst of birthday celebrations and was wreathed in mystery.” The birthday was that of King George III and the “mystery” was such a tight secret that Lady Georgiana herself didn’t know about the wedding. After dancing with the Duke at one of the King’s celebratory balls on a Saturday evening, Georgiana was told the next morning by her mother of the wedding plans for that same day. (It was revealed later that the marriage had been arranged for some time, but without setting the date.)

As the movie portrayed, the marriage was an unhappy one. “He expected subservience and a male heir. When Georgiana produced only daughters, the relationship deteriorated. And while the Duke continued to have affairs, the duchess looked for love and attention in public life, where she became a shrewd political operator for the Whig party and a feted trend-setter,” wrote Andrew Pettie.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

However, the parallels with the two kindred spirits—Georgiana and Diana—are “more temperamental than biographical,” Pettie explained. As dramatic as Diana’s very public beyond-rock-star-status life was, “much of Georgiana’s story is too extraordinary to be echoed by anyone else.” It was a life “bigger and messier” and more grand-soap-opera-like than even the movie portrayed! Pettie said that although the biographer Foreman didn’t approve of the film’s marketing campaign comparing the two Spencer women, she had previously described Georgiana as a “‘cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana.’”

“‘One of the resonances with Diana is that Georgiana was one of the first celebrities,’ says Dibb. ‘When her face appeared in newspapers, they sold more copies. But, for me, the most fundamental connection between their lives is that Georgiana did lots of things she wasn’t supposed to, and Diana did the same. The establishment has never liked rebellious women, particularly if they’re sexual women.’”

This is very telling about Princess Diana’s life within the royal family—British royalty being an exemplar for the patriarchal establishment box that all women had to maneuver through. In her study focusing on the portraiture and image of Diana, Representing Diana, The Princess of Wales: Cultural Memory and Fairy Tales Revisited, Colleen Denney explores the “assumptions that cultures make about women and their behaviors.” She explains how the British monarchy—with the assistance of imagists, journalists, and the mass media—negotiated the future of Diana and other female members of the royal family based on their Victorian ideal of “feminine respectability.” 
No wonder the monarchy—and the restricted aristocratic society it spawned—struggled with their “desire to maintain the feminine fairy-tale construction” they had created when free-spirited Diana came along or even when any powerful woman broke or pushed those limiting, out-of-touch bounds!

Arms of the Earl Spencer
For both the young and beautiful Ladies Spencer, Georgiana and Diana—one becoming a duchess, one becoming a princess, both becoming fashionistas, social trailblazers, and influential women of their time—searched for self-empowerment in their own way, stumbling and falling into addictive, disempowering behaviors. They became the darlings as well as the ridiculed targets of the patriarchal-mindset press. In both lives we see how the media, as Colleen Denney says in her book, “represents and treats all women who step outside the good girl model.” Nonetheless, there are subtle shades of this double standard for women fading in the aftermath of the Diana era. This was an era which came at the time when “third-wave feminist thinking,” deeper global awareness, and communication technology were pushing through the cracks of a stale world order—leading the way into a new millennium of possibility. Princess Diana indeed stirred a revolution of change. Her revolution, however, came through the heart. ~

[Excerpt from The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride. Stay tuned for publication date information.]

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