Saturday, 13 August 2022

Putting history on screen

Daisy Goodwin and Amanda Foreman

QUEEN Victoria didn’t only bequeath her name to an era and a culture, she also left an astonishing total of 62 million words in the shape of diaries and letters.

So said Daisy Goodwin who, together with historian Amanda Foreman, made up a panel chaired by Natalie Livingstone that discussed “Drama: how to put history on screen”.

Daisy Goodwin is the creator and writer of the Sunday night hit TV series Victoria, while Amanda Foreman is the biographer of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, filmed a few years ago as The Duchess starring Keira Knightley.

There is a Cliveden connection for both Queen and duchess. Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, was a close friend of Victoria, mistress of Cliveden and also the grand-daughter of Georgiana. When she (Harriet) grew large and less mobile she was wheeled round the grounds by the Queen, who was a frequent visitor to the great house just upriver from Windsor.

Both speakers talked to a large audience about their close, personal relationship with their subjects, and of how they are driven by the desire to bring them back to life — the kind of “recovery mission” which is often made more difficult when writing about women either because of the lack of evidence in the first place or its later destruction.

This happened even to the prolific Victoria, whose diaries were filleted and censored after her death.

For Amanda Foreman the connection to Georgina was so intimate that, although she has written other historical books since, including an account of British involvement in the American Civil War, she hasn’t felt able to begin another biography.

Both writers spoke of the emotional impact of seeing their work being committed to the screen: Daisy Goodwin watching the filming of Victoria and Albert’s wedding (in Beverley Minster in Yorkshire) and Amanda Foreman witnessing an area of Greenwich recreated as a packed, bustling 18th century backdrop for a sequence in The Duchess.

Even so, Foreman felt the film didn’t give her heroine enough agency or independence — although she said that complaining about what film-makers do to your work was like complaining about what the people who’ve moved into your old house have done to your kitchen.

For Goodwin, meanwhile, Queen Victoria was in control as the “prototypical working mother”, and before that a girl in her late teens who woke up one morning to find herself the most powerful woman in the world.

There was interesting speculation about the relative peacefulness of the United Kingdom over the past two centuries. Was this because it has been largely the era of two queens, women who have put family, duty and service above the more militaristic and ambitious concerns of the continental kings, kaisers and czars who have almost all gone? Without the settled, domestic example of Victoria and Albert, would we even have a royal family today?

This was an engaging discussion in front of a packed house and the grand setting of the Great Hall of Cliveden seemed a more than appropriate venue for talk of duchesses and queens.

Philip Gooden

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