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How to be an eighteenth-century duchess

Posted on 1 August 2008

"Would an eighteenth-century gentleman wink? What’s a strong eighteenth-century swear word? Who were the Whigs anyway?"

These were just a few of the questions York historian Dr Hannah Greig faced as historical advisor to The Duchess.

The film, set in late eighteenth-century Britain, examines the political role and private life of Georgiana, the melancholy and glamorous Duchess of Devonshire, darling of the Whig party.

Starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the film was shot in autumn 2007 at locations including Kedleston, Chatsworth, Greenwich and Holkham. For academics, used to commanding attention and asserting their intellectual authority, explaining specifically why a scene is historically inaccurate, but being overruled by the Director for ‘drama’ is surprisingly challenging — such as seeing an anachronistic Victorian pram trundle past! Nevertheless, being a good historian is far removed from being a good filmmaker.

The grossly wealthy Devonshires would have had their belongings, from luggage to watches, made new — to diamond-encrusted, crested excess. Those National Trust interiors, stripped back for filming, do not reflect their ‘conspicuous consumption’ and gaudy taste. Creating made-to-measure items is for Hollywood, however: the British film on a tight budget and schedule had only ‘standard issue’ period props.

The items which were made new for filming were impressive. One painstakingly crafted item was wielded by extras in street scenes: a fan hand-painted with Keira Knightley’s profile and emblazoned with Whig propaganda, for the 1784 Westminster election. Another was the pocket book in which the Duchess notes down her gambling bets. Dr Greig could find little to distinguish the art department’s reconstruction from original pocket books found in archives. Her role in the film included working with the art team to formulate the wording in an eighteenth-century newspaper and discussing the best period disguise for a parking meter which blotted a Bath street scene.

Dr Greig also drafted ‘crib notes’ for cast members with details about the fate of their characters and their position in the eighteenth-century social world. At some point, most departments — not only the cast but the sound department, camera crews, the firemen and even Knightley’s security detail — asked for clarification or further information. She also scrutinised the script for factual errors — for instance that Charles Grey was not yet the Earl of afternoon tea fame (or for decades to come). Ralph Fiennes’s determination to learn the lifestyle of his Duke led to mini-tutorials before filming, with Fiennes in full costume and wig frowning nobly at her.

Dr Greig was involved in all major scenes where history was at the fore, such as the 1784 election, filmed at Greenwich. A notable scene at the opening night of Sheridan’s School for Scandal in Drury Lane theatre (filmed at Bristol Old Vic) required an intense, 30 second ‘lecture’ to a tent full of extras.

Even as an expert, Dr Greig learnt much about Georgian Britain. The spectacle of the drunken élite at a ball will be in her mind’s eye when she next reads an eighteenth-century newspaper decrying decadent British politicians. The tension within a small theatre, where satire pours from the stage onto the audience packed with various ranks of society side by side, became more real through film re-enactment than from hours of reading manuscript notes or perusing eighteenth-century caricatures.

Notes to editors:

The film The Duchess is in the cinema from September 2008. See for further information.