Last week, the BBC showed The Duchess, which stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. The film focuses on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, who was famed in the eighteenth century for her beauty, sense of fashion, and political liberalism. She was also involved in a loveless marriage in which her husband took Bess, one of her best friends, as a long-term mistress and then forced her to live with the woman and raise the daughter of another mistress as her own. The film is based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography and winner of the Whitebread prize.
In one of the film’s scenes, Bess who has yet to marry her friend’s husband is trying to convince Georgiana that their mutual friend Charles Grey has feelings for the young Duchess. Georgiana rejects the idea that the young politician is anything but her friend. Bess, not deterred, informs Georgiana that sex doesn’t have to be boring. To convince her friend, she has her close her eyes and imagine Grey kissing her neck and unbuttoning her shirt. In an effort to add realism, she kisses Georgiana’s skin softly as she does so. The scenes ends there – appropriate heterosexual barriers intact – but the movie leads us to believe that it was partially Bess’ touch that awakens Georgiana’s sexuality and leads her to eventually have an affair with Grey. Indeed, it is ultimately Bess, in an effort to apologize for her affair with her friend’s husband, who arranges for the first clandestine encounter between the two.
Watching the scene reminded me of a book I read for prelims and may have already mentioned on this blog, though I couldn’t find the post: Sharon Marcus’s Between Women. In this book, Marcus argues that the Victorians believed that relationships between women helped to prepare for more mature relationships with men. In playing with other girls, caressing their hair, tending their wounds, and declaring their affections, women learned how to love and be in a relationship – skills that would do them well in their later marriages. The scene in The Duchess illustrates Marcus’s argument quite vividly. Without Bess, without their emotional closeness, physical contact, and shared gossip, it is unlikely that Bess ever would have had the emotional ability to be a relationship with Grey or ironically would come to terms with her husband later.
Although it is far removed from the drawing rooms in which Marcus sets her book and the palaces in which the Duchess lived, it might be useful to use her thesis to think about the relationships between Mormon men and women. When Emily Faithfull visited Utah in the late nineteenth century, she focused on the ways in which women supported and reinforced patriarchy. In her work, Eliza R. Snow is not the feminist that she claimed to be but an angry woman who used her influence to force women to stay in unhappy marriages and accept polygamy. We might also ask whether bonds between sister wives could sometimes strengthen the marriage between husband and wife. Such questions are important because they challenge the ways in which feminists have approached history. As Marcus points out, there has been an assumption that relationships between women are necessarily transgressive when it is just as likely that they at times worked to reinforce existing power structures. We might also think about the ways in which the current Relief Society might be examined through these lenses. Posts on women’s blogs suggest that while such places can be important for building relationships between women that allow them to create alternative spaces of belonging. They also, however, suggest that going to the Relief Society can be painful and work to limit what is acceptable rather than expand it.