Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about Renaissance women and Medieval women who need movies made about them. Back in the 18th century, we’ve also previously nominated Rose Bertin for a screen treatment.
There are tons of 18th-century movies and TV shows about Marie Antoinette and her crew, but that’s pretty limiting. Who else in the period has an equally fascinating biography? Let’s explore…
Mary “Perdita” Robinson
Actress, courtesan, politico, poet … Mary Robinson is one of the coolest chicks to come out of 18th-century England. She came to prominence as one of the first recognized mistresses of Prince George (later George IV), which helped launch her 20 year career at the center of the London ton. Contemporaries with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, she moved in the same circles and supported the same political causes with outspoken zeal, at times eclipsing Georgiana entirely as the woman to know in London society. Her status as a common actress didn’t seem to work negatively against her, nor did her ahem association with many of the most powerful men in European society at the time.
She was the muse of artists Romney and Hoppner and sat for Gainsborough, her dresses were reported on with frantic attention to every detail as she promenaded at Vauxhall, and her style and taste were copied by any woman who cared about the fashion of the time. She’s even credited as the first woman to appear in the chemise à la reine in London, a gift from Marie-Antoinette who took an instant liking to the charming Mrs. Robinson during her “tour” of France (really, it was a well-timed escape from scandal, where she laid low in the salons of Paris and visited the French queen regularly, waiting for the whole thing to blow over before returning to London). Her nickname came from the role she made famous, the beautiful shepherdess-cum-princess Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Given that she’s such a strong female role model, it’s practically a tragedy that no one has devoted a film solely about her remarkable life.
If you want to know more about this remarkable woman, I highly recommend Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, and Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson by Paula Byrne.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
I’m sort of cheating with this one, since there has been one film produced about Joseph Bologne in 2011 for French television, but it looked really cheesy. Also, is it selfish of me to want an English-language film made about him? He’s really a fantastic person of historical import who has been largely overlooked by modern historians, despite being HUGE in his day. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a premier composer and violinist, and as his title suggests, also a soldier of distinction, being glorified as the greatest swordsman in France during the latter quarter of the 18th-century.
Also, as you can see from his portrait, he is not the typical stuffy white guy in a wig and cravat. No, Joseph Bologne was the product of a liaison between a wealthy plantation owner in Guadeloupe and an African slave. Skin color being a far less prohibiting factor to success at this time than you might imagine, young Joseph was whisked off to France by his father and enrolled in a prestigious academy for fencing and horsemanship, no doubt intending to mold the young man into a military career, where he also managed to best just about every master fencer thrown at him.
Somewhere along the way he also managed to find time to devote to music, another skill he excelled at to such a degree that in 1769, despite being in the employ of the king as a chevalier and soldier, he was given a position as a violinist in the celebrated orchestra Le Concert des Amateurs. Two years later, he was the orchestra’s concertmaster, and in 1772, performed his own violin concerti as the soloist violinist. Predictably, he became something of a lightening rod in the debate surrounding abolition in France and England, and the more famous he became, the more difficult the elite had with reconciling their attitudes towards slavery. In 1792, having declared allegiance to the Republic, an all-black regiment was created for and named after Saint-Georges (also worth a mention, Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, the father of author Alexandre Dumas, served as Saint-Georges lieutenant-colonel). Despite his military achievements and declaration of loyalty to the Republic, Saint-Georges narrowly escaped the guillotine, though lost his regiment in the process. He entered a sort of retirement in his early 50s, focusing once again on music during the reconstruction of post-Terror Paris, living out his days in relative comfort as a composer and violinist.
Wouldn’t you love to see a film about Marie-Antoinette as told through the eyes of her favorite artist? I sure would! Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun spent a considerable amount of her life surrounded by the elite women of Versailles, Paris, London, as well as detours into Italy and an extended period of exile in Russia. Her soft-focus portraits were highly sought after, as was her company. She entertained her patronesses in costumed parties depicting ancient Greece where elegant men and women lounged in chitons and drank champagne, and painted them in similar modes of dress on canvas.
Personally, I would love to see such a film deal with the professional, personal, and political tension between her and fellow artist Jacques-Louis David, rather than focus solely on Vigée-Lebrun’s friendship with Marie-Antoinette. David was a Jacobin, Vigée-Lebrun was a Royalist, yet they had a working relationship in the early 1780s, and both were admitted into the Académie in May 1783. There’s quite a bit of potential there for some interesting story telling, if you ask me!
What other fascinating 18th-century people you want to see on screen?