Sunday, October 25, 2009

Inspiring Women: Great Biographies

I recently finished Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Spencer, The Duchess of Devonshire, on which the film The Duchess was based. I love a good bio and I'm naturally drawn to women' stories. After reading Antonia Fraser's bio of Marie Antoinette, I'd become pretty interested in Georgiana's era and milieu (Georgiana and Marie Antoinette were good friends).

I had half watched the film starring Keira Knightley before picking up the book; when I say half I mean that it played on my TV while I went about doing something else such as housework, writing or reading. I'm terrible when it comes to watching television at home, as I try and multi-task all the time, to the detriment of pretty much every task, I'm afraid.

So honestly I came to the book knowing very little about Georgiana other than that she was an ancestor of Princess Diana, super famous in her day and that she had endured a very bad marriage. Amanda Foreman's biography is such an intelligent, thoroughly researched and nuanced read, that by the time I finished it I came away feeling as though I had known Georgiana personally. Amanda's inclusion of so many of the Duchess' intimate letters certainly helped.

It really is a very strong, well-written biography which gives a wonderful insight into Britain at that time. Georgiana was a very intelligent woman who was ahead of her time. Not only did she set the trends in dress, she was also one of the first women to become involved publicly in politics as the doyenne of the Whig party. She canvassed for them, door knocking all over England; something that was practically unheard of for women at that time.
The film - with its fabulous costumes - concentrates largely on Georgiana's marriage, her relationship with her best friend and husband's mistress and her love affair with Charles Grey. With the book you get this but so much more; you learn about her groundbreaking political career, her staggering gambling debts, her literary leanings and so much more.

As mentioned, I have also read Antonia Fraser's excellent biography of Marie Antoinette. As a woman, I certainly preferred Georgiana - she came across in her biography as truly one of a kind - but Fraser did great justice to Marie Antoinette and her life story by bunking so many of the myths about her. Sofia Coppola's divine film adaptation of Fraser's book (and I say divine mainly because of the art direction and costuming ... so, so gorgeous) helped to disseminate Fraser's version of her life to an even wider audience. I watched The Duchess properly after finishing the book and now I rather fancy watching Marie Antoinette again too.

Besides I love being reminded of my visit to Versailles last year as part of my European adventures. Le Petit Trianon is one of the most beautiful man-made spots I've ever encountered, and the opulence in the Palace of Versailles is mind-blowing. The over the top spending of the French aristocracy might have contributed to a revolution (and been downright immoral too), but it almost made me glad they'd lived like that, just to be able to see so much beauty in one place.

And here are a few of the other biographies I've enjoyed lately. Does anyone have any recommendations for me?

1 comment:

Ms. B said...

I watched The Duchess and really came away from it feeling so awful for her. I suppose I must really read the book to get the full picture. I along with everyone else LOVED Marie Antoinette. Such a good movie and truly art.