Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Takes two to tango, or the Tragedy of the Duchess

I recently watched the movie "The Duchess" starring Keira Knightley, and I am still wheeling from it. I have heard, of course, that it was not historical on some things, but to be honest, I am not terribly interested in that.

It was a story of a woman born to privilege, who was married at seventeen for the politics and status. Her husband wanted only to have a son, and she had no idea what the hell she was getting into. From the beginning she was uncomfortable with her husband- who did not woo her, talk to her, or even get too affectionate while making heirs, if you get me. At one point her dear friend tell her to imagine a man kissing her back as he unfastened her dress, and she replied "They do not do such things." Oh how sad.

Suffering miscarriages and stillbirths, she believed that she as a woman was incapable of carrying a boy to term, as if it was her biological inability. (Oh the irony that it's the man that determines the sex of a child) Her husband had many affairs, sired a daughter out of wedlock, and Georgiana suffered quietly. Dressing extravagantly, going to parties and striving to be winsome and winning, she succeeded in being adored by everyone but her husband. When she did have an affair, one that may have promised love, she was forbidden by her husband to see him, and told her if she did not turn from him, she would be denied her children. (four, by now)
She bore a daughter to her lover, Charles Grey, and went off on "vacation" to be pregnant, and then hand over the tiny infant to her lover's family.

If ever there was a scene that ripped my heart from my chest and stepped on it, it was this. Accompanied by her best friend and her husband's mistress, she took her tiny baby Eliza and in the middle of nowhere, handed her over to a nurse. The baby was silent, until the carriage began to draw away, and then when her daughter began to cry, Georgiana flung herself forward, but her friend was there to hold her, whispering in her ear as G wailed and floundered.

Can any mother watch this, can any woman watch this, and not wither in horror and grief? A loveless life save for her children, a friendship that struggled to continue through the affair wiht her husband, and now this? The abandonment of her only chance for affection, and the giving up of her baby?

My poor husband didn't know what to do with me, as I quailed and silently sobbed as the baby cried. I went and held my sleeping boy in my arms for a long time, savoring his healthy adoring weight.

I watched a portrait of a woman whose extravagant exterior and social life belied a miserable shriveled marriage and a lonely interior life. Her children were her only source of love, and at the same time her burden. There was no blessing without it being mixed. How should I come away from this?

A selfless woman, who sacrificed her own happiness for the well-being of her children? A poor mistaken soul who suffered for no good reason? I think the movie lends itself towards the former interpretation, but truly, there was no overwhelming moral lesson. I found one moment interesting.

She confronts her husband after many years of affairs and failed pregnancies- after he has bedded her best friend. After exploding at him, she finally, in desperation and pure vulnerability, asks him "What is wrong with me?" implying his lack of interest in her. He goes to her, face full of concern and sorrow- and she leans towards him. Before he touches her, though, she shudders away and shakes him off.

There was one single moment where there might have been something real- a seed of possibility. Personally, I believe that no matter how ugly, a marriage can be patched up and given some kind of life. It takes a hell of a lot of work, and requires that one be completely vulnerable, and then be willing to continue with that. If she had let him hold her, as she so desired, if he had accepted her as she so wanted, (which it seemed he would) then their love might have become real. I believe the movie does make it clear that she wanted her husband to love her more than any other.

And the truth is, it takes two to tango, right? She wants his love, and he only has so much to give. He has a set idea of what will come of this, and does not believe that he is willing to change. But as the movie proved, he was willing, in some extent. If only they had read "The most important year ina Man/Woman's life." then maybe they would have had some luck!

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