Thursday, September 18, 2008

Debriefing the Duchess

I don't know why I get so nervous before doing these things. I've given dozens of talks, but then I have my paper to grip hold of, and it's easy to just read. But this, extemporaneously leading a conversation in front of an audience, is enough to throw stark terror into me. So I did the only thing that helps, thorough preparation, and made up a really interesting list of questions. I knew that this was just a publicity screening of The Duchess given by Paramount for our Jane Austen group, and that in the Q & A period afterward for Amanda Foreman and the producer, Gaby Tana, nothing would really be expected but to coo and act like a cheerleader and gurgle things like "How did it FEEL to be working with Keira Knightley!" and "Isn't Ralph Fiennes WONDERFUL!" and "Those sets and costumes - ooooh, scrumptious!"

But if they wanted somebody to do that, then they shouldn't have asked me. (Well, they didn't really; I more or less jumped at the suggestion.) I had read Foreman's book, and also prepared by reading all the articles and interviews about her. Her book's excellent, one of the best explications of 18th century society I've ever read; she explains the politics, introduces the extensive dramatis personae in a way that makes them ever memorable, and puts everything in its place in a truly coherent way. Although I'm so steeped in Austen and Byron, the book helped me sort out and understand their period much better than I ever did before. You'd think such knowledge would take half a century for her to acquire, but she wrote this book when only in her late 20s. She had a deservedly huge success with it, but there was also something of a backlash, as exemplified by that article by Kathryn Hughes which criticized modern biography for having been "Foremanized," meaning that publishers assign attractive young women to write biographies of frivolous ladies of fashion, with poor results. This accusation really isn't fair, for if there is such a trend, it's not her fault. On the other hand, many of the interviews and articles about her make her sound terribly privileged, connected, and consequently rather annoying (probably hence the backlash). She's the daughter of Carl Foreman, the famous film director, a Communist who was blacklisted, and she grew up in Hollywood and London with a brilliant older brother whom the father pushed intellectually, while apparently thinking Amanda a lightweight. Then the father died when she was 16, so she never had a chance to prove she was brilliant. Clearly driven to prove that very thing, she did it by going to Oxford and turning her thesis into a runaway bestseller. Then she married a banker and had five children in four years, nearly killing herself in the process. She's 40 now, and hasn't written another book, though she's apparently researching one about the Civil War. She has a townhouse in Manhattan (wait! It's only rented, she insists) and a flat in London and in all interviews twists herself in two to sound poor and ordinary, which is totally unconvincing and why bother. "Nobody's really poor if they went to university," she says in one interview. (Really?) And some of her poor student friends used to earn "anything up to L50,000." (To quote Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, "Your competence and my wealth are very much alike!")

Portrait of Dr. Amanda Foreman
by Susannah Fiennes

Considering she's described as wearing a fancy designer gown and a quarter million dollars worth of diamonds (carefully noting that they are "borrowed") for the London premiere of the movie, I wondered what to wear when interviewing this phenomenon. Well, never mind, dig out a cheerful turquoise jacket. Then I went to the screening, and saw the movie a second time. It actually struck me differently this time round. Absolutely beautifully produced and designed - not like a glossy BBC costume drama, but better, with the great houses made to look real and lived-in, and the fabulous costumes looking as if they were really hand-made in the 18th century. Not only a handsome production, but very well acted. Keira Knightley, who was Miss Trivial, Annoying, and Anorexic in Pride and Prejudice, really turns in a fine, full-scale, feeling performance. And Ralph Fiennes is absolutely brilliant as the mean Duke, sort of Voldemort crossed with Prince Charles. The first time I saw the film I thought it was very dumbed down, particularly the dialogue. The producers decided not to do a literal adaptation of the biography, but to focus only on the arranged and disastrous marriage, which is a valid dramatic approach, but they jettisoned far too much. All the politics, and Georgiana's bad habits like gambling, and her good habits like writing - all out. Instead, you get dialogue of this type: "Has the French Revolution started yet?" "Oh, no. But soon." I felt that dumbing down to the supposed comprehension of the mass audience is a really poor idea in this sort of film; people seeing an 18th century drama expect to be served at least a dollop of the wit of the period. So I put my initial disappointment with the film down to that.

On second viewing, I realized that another reason I didn't enjoy it that much is that this is simply not a feel good picture. It's very dark (although the visual palette is light). It's the story of a truly oppressed and imprisoned woman, and there is not one iota of hope for her. That's the nature of the story, and it was actually praiseworthy of the filmmakers not to make it all treacley, but it's depressing and stark when all her political and intellectual interests are eliminated from the picture. What's left? So it's not a great film, even though so beautifully produced and acted - it really suffers from the dumbing down thing and from truncating the entire political background in such a silly, condescending way.

But here I had an opportunity to interview the woman behind the original book, and also her lifelong friend who was the producer behind the movie. I was curious about them - I don't meet such people in my every day life, and of course I'd like to know what made them tick creatively and as women and with each other. Well, I might have found out if I'd been able to do an in-depth interview, but what they were expecting here was publicity fluff. They were on this huge whistlestop tour, where they were to sit and be asked the same questions at a dozen different screenings, and although perfectly gracious, I could tell they really didn't want to be there. That made sense; Foreman does have five children under the age of six back home in New York, why would she want to be sitting in a screening room in L.A. being asked "How did you come to write the book?" for the thousandth time since it was published in 1998. I wouldn't like it myself. She doesn't need money, so I suppose she's doing it to make the movie she is associated with a big hit, in which effort I fear she will not be entirely successful, despite her father's shade.

So the lights came up after the screening and I made my way down to the front, where open-faced, blonde Foreman and thin, dark, friendly Gaby Tana shook my hand and the publicist ushered us to three high "director's chair" type seats, each with a hand microphone and a bottle of water. I thought of the scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder, when she had to teach school for the first time at the age of 15: "That is the teacher's chair," she thought. "Oh my - I am the teacher."

So I started by telling a joke, as one does: I'd written a review of the film last week, and the editor called me up today to query my review before printing it. I'd said something like, "Chatsworth looked magnificent," and he asked, "But who is this Chatsworth? I don't see his name in the cast list."

Then I rather awkwardly started reading from my list of questions. I'll put some of them down, with what I remember of the answers, but the answers I got were mostly canned - that is, they came word for word from other interviews, and she just reeled off the same things. I kept hoping I'd break through and make her say at least something new. Once or twice when I asked a question she'd never been asked before, she got a visibly pained look on her face, but she never really broke the canned-answer mold. Here goes:

First I asked where she and Gaby met, but they were completely and strangely obstructive about this, only saying "we've known each other for a long time." I pressed and asked, "In California or England?" "Well, both." I was so frustrated that afterwards I buttonholed Gaby and asked "But how did you know each other?" "Oh our parents were friends," was all I got. Well, yes, then who were her parents who were friends with Carl Foreman? Never mind. Not telling.

Me: Amanda, one thing about your life that interests me is the way you've gone back and forth between England and America - sort of like Frances Hodgson Burnett or Frances Trollope. I'm sure this affected your outlook in all sorts of ways, but how did you develop this incredibly deep and wide knowledge of the English 18th century so young? They didn't teach it in California, and it should take a lifetime of study to be able to write a biography like yours.

Her: (canned facile answer word for word from one of the newspaper interviews, about how she was unpopular in school and while everybody else went to parties she just read.)

Me: Your transatlanticism must have brought you to your next project, about the Civil War, isn't it? Will you tell us about that?

Her: Canned answer, word for word from...etc., about how it's a study of some of the English people who volunteered in the American Civil War, to be called Our American Cousins, and how "it's a biography only about many people instead of just one."

[Re the black studies, later I ask if she knew Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, author of Black London: Life Before Emancipation, and Black Victorians, and first woman English department head at Dartmouth, whom I know from my Burnett list, but she'd not heard of her.]

Me: You've had 5 children in 4 years, I've read articles where you say this has made you look at Georgiana differently, and that you might have written about her differently. Yet the movie is very much informed with this sensibility - motherhood is of key importance to Georgiana and Bess. Did your imput have to do with this?

Her: No, it was there in the screenplay, that's one thing that attracted me to it. (Goes on a bit about other earlier versions of the screenplay which emphasized Georgiana's gambling and opium use and made her seem like a bimbo.)

Me: Yet the filmmakers chose to eliminate any mention whatsoever that Georgiana was a writer. And she was a good one, too - I've read The Sylph, it's terribly good and pre-Austenian. I can see how this couldn't really be shown well in a film, but wasn't the gambling a huge part of her life, one of the most important things about her? She's shown gambling in the film but it's made to look like all good fun - there's no indication of the overwhelming addiction.

Gaby answers this one, talks a bit about choices they made, and how they felt they had to eliminate much of the political background too, in order to focus just on the theme of the marriage. That there was so much that was unused and cut out, there was enough for a sequel, and they hoped there might be one, if the movie was a big enough success.

Me: One more question about your background...You're the daughter of the famous director Carl Foreman, who was at one time a Communist and was blacklisted. Yet you've written about the most frivolous, hard gambling, conspicuous consumer of her century. How did you get from there to here? Is there any connection with your upbringing, or was it a reaction against it?

Amanda: Looks pained and alarmed, as this was one question clearly never on the syllabus. First she clearly states the famous films her father made, as I'd naturally forgotten (High Noon, etc.), and then says rather primly that she was always taught to care about the Oppressed, which included Women's Rights, and that led to this study of the repressions within marriage in the 18th century.

Me: In a concession to the conventions, I gush a little about the houses and costumes in the movie. Both Gaby and Amanda tell the same stories I've read in previous Keira Knightley had fifty gowns, what a lot of trouble it was to take lightbulbs out of chandeliers and put in candles and how careful they had to be, how wonderful it was for the actors to actually inhabit those environments. (Yawn. This interview is getting duller by the minute, circling the drain.)

Me: Amanda, I've heard you were an extra in the film and I was looking for you but didn't see you. What scene were you in?

Her: (genuine tone of amused distress) I'm on the cutting room floor!

Me: I've got to ask this inevitable question [she looks alarmed again] Georgiana had it all and she had nothing, poor little rich girl, but I do think the parallels with Princess Diana in the PR campaign were overdone. [I thought that would please them, but they both look very displeased] Yet, I definitely saw echoes of Diana in Keira's wonderful performance. Was she directed this way deliberately, to subtly channel Diana, or was it her own idea?

Gaby takes this question, very firmly as if she is delivering rote policy: I want to emphasize that Keira was eleven years old when Princess Diana died, she never met her, and remembers very little about her. She never intended anything in the way of imitation, and we were all extremely surprised when many people said she reminded them of Diana. It is simply that she is an English rose...


Me: A minor question that bothered me...would they really have talked so indiscreetly in front of the servants? I can see it happening accidentally sometimes, but practically every major marital revelation and indiscretion is shouted out with four footmen standing there looking impassible. Would that have happened in real life?

(They laugh in relief, a "safe" question.)

Amanda: Absolutely! (explains how there was no getting away from servants, ever, so they just ignored them)

Me: You mention somewhere that it was reading a letter of Georgiana's that set you on her in the first place. Do you remember which it was?

Amanda: Explains how she was doing a Ph.D. in attitudes about people of color in the English 18th century, focusing on Charles Fox who called for the abolition of the slave trade, and found a passionate letter of Georgiana's to her best friend, about him. (She was at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and "got down on her knees" to beg the committee to let her change her thesis to Georgiana, which they did.)

Me: The best friend wasn't Bess?

Amanda: No, someone else...(she calls Bess some very hard names, insincere, user, schemer, etc.)

Me: Not nice, hm? So who did Bess like better, him or her?

Amanda: Her, definitely.

Lady Elizabeth Foster by Angelica Kauffman

Me: Have you ever heard anyone speak in the Devonshire House Drawl? It's not used in the movie, but perhaps you've heard some decayed aristocrat use it?

Amanda: Says the last person to use it in England was said to be Bertrand Russell and that tapes of his voice still exist.

[Later I go home and listen. I don't hear the specific distortions of Devonshire House, but he does have a most quaint old-fashioned way of speech that has certainly died off this earth!]

Me: Lady Caroline Lamb talked baby talk, which she is said to have got from Georgiana, her aunt, but her cousin Harry-O, Georgiana's daughter, criticized her for it. So, did they all use this drawl?

Amanda: Lady Caroline's was probably exaggerated.

Me: But her husband, Lord Melbourne, was still using it in 1837 when he was Queen Victoria's Prime Minister, he's said to have used "goold" for gold" and so on. But he certainly was not affected.

Amanda: All the Whigs of their circle talked in that way, it wasn't only for society ladies.

Running out of steam, and the end of my question list, I asked the audience to ask some, and they asked a variety of questions about what the film cost, who did the music, more about the costumes, etc. I tried to keep it going but Amanda, looking tired, said, "that's plenty, it's been a half hour." She and Gaby thanked me for asking "such good questions" and split, not staying for the cookies and wine.

Exhausted myself.

I always do wonder...when people are rich and famous, why do they have to keep going around doing exhausting self-promotion? For that matter, why do I eagerly say "yes" to doing an interview like this, which is pointless, pays nothing, and doesn't really reveal anything interesting about the person I was interviewing? I read a quote in Leigh Hunt's memoir about Lord Byron the other day, which expressed the situation: "Lord Byron was always saying yes to things, that afterward he would bite off his fingers to avoid having to do."

But the best summing-up quote is from Emma: "I was pleased with my own perseverance in asking questions, and amused to think how little information I obtained." (Emma)

(Ellen Moody has written a linked post to this, a critical analysis of Georgiana's biography and work as a "foremother of the novel." See