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?
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, the Chevalier d’Eon.
OK, so there HAVE been a couple films, but from the sounds of them, neither ought to count….
Good point about the Chevalier d’Eon. She’s one of my faves!
I want a film where she teams up with St-Georges and the swashbuckle and fight crime. I think there is an English political cartoon where the two of them are fighting the Prince Regent.
YES. YES. YES.
I would be there for a film about Perdita or Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. (I would also be THERE for a film that portrayed Georgiana’s life with, I don’t know, a modicum of historical accuracy?)
Also, if you want to know more about Mary Robinson, I would recommend reading her own memoirs, which she began and were completed after her death by her daughter, as well as any of her own fictional works. After a late night carriage ride chasing her lover (Banastre Tarleton), during which she was supposedly pregnant, she contracted a fever that left her without the use of her legs, and she had to write to support herself and her daughter. She became very feminist (proto-feminist, if we are being technical) and her Letter to the Women of England rivals Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. I don’t mean to disparage Byrne’s text by any means, but I really think Robinson’s own fiction is tragically understudied, which needs to be remedied!
“I would also be THERE for a film that portrayed Georgiana’s life with, I don’t know, a modicum of historical accuracy?”
Elisabeth Farnese, second wife of Philip V of Spain, who was seemingly underestimated by the Court of Spain as plain and simple but ended up being the true ruler of the realm, specially during the period of mental instability of her husband.
Also, a movie about the love story between Ferdinand VI and Barbara of Bragança would be fantastic. Because the story itself is really sweet… And then he loses her and his mental stability completely breaks.
Was she the one who brought in Farinelli to sing as music therapy and it actually kind of helped Philip for a while?
Yes, that would be her! Elisabeth became a bit of a patron of the arts herself, and it’s thanks to her (and Barbara, who succeeded her as queen) that we had artists such as Farinelli or Scarlatti visit Spain
Mary Anning? Probably more exciting if you like palaeontology. Elizabeth Canning? That was a really weird Rashomon-type legal case, and I think it could make a tense drama.
Mary Anning, you say?? There’s going to be a movie based on Tracy Chevalier’s “Remarkable Creatures”!!!
Rose Bertin would surely be someone to make a film about. Think of all the frockery!
Agree so much that I wrote a post about it in 2014! https://www.frockflicks.com/hollywood-take-note-rose-bertin-rocked/
I don’t believe my favorite composer, Haydn, has ever had a film made about him, and I would love to see it provided it was done right. He had an amazing and long life and invented many of the musical forms we now consider standard.
And even after his death, there is quite the story connected with the travels of his skull.
Haydn is also my husband’s favorite composer (apart from Handel). Percy Adlon’s “Herschel and the Music of the Stars” is about his 1792 visit to the Herschel siblings-astronomers and their innovative telescope. Tastefully romanticized just a bit, it’s pretty charming. Good costumes as I recall, and heavenly music: http://archive.bampfa.berkeley.edu/film/FN5989
(Off-topic Said husband and I keep a mental list of cultural and scientific geniuses who were kind and decent people, as opposed to self-centered jerks. We have noted that feminist tendencies are common to them all. Haydn is on the list; he had lots of cultivated women friends and composed music for them to play.)
Lady Mary Wortley Montague English gentlewoman, writer and poet. She wrote masses of letters from Constantinople where her husband was ambassador.
Both Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun and Rose Bertin deserve them. Also Chevalier St George, Haydn are both deserving. So is Handel.
Near to BPC’s heart is his hunky brother, Henry Benedict, Cardinal of the Catholic Church.
Mrs Moira FitzHerbert who may have married Prinny and was also Catholic. His father George III was not amused.
Those are some people from off the top of my head. Some you listed.
There is a 1947/48-ish ‘Mrs Fitzherbert’ film which I saw on TV recently. Low budget, b/w.
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier! Was her husband’s awesome lab partner/translator (wow, a decent marriage even though she was 13 when they got hitched) and was trained in drawing by David himself. She married two famous scientists and I just love her.
YES, Madame Lavoisier! I love her, and their double portrait by David is one of my all time faves. She just dominates the entire canvas.
How about Mary Woollstonecraft, English feminist, mother of Mary Shelley, had a very dramatic personal life, wrote one of the first widely read feminist texts, and died tragically young, got involved in the French Revolution….
+ 1 Mary Woollstonecraft is a fascinating woman.It surprises me there has not already been a film made about her but I guess there are no superheroes..
Wrong century (kind of connected however) but I was disappointed that the film about Ada Lovelace never came to pass.
I saw the film ‘Conceiving Ada’ at a film festival – it stars Tilda Swinton as Ada Lovelace in a somewhat convoluted tale about talking thru the past via computers. Swinton was excellent as always, but yes, there should be a proper Ada film.
Charlotte Corday? Costumes probably wouldn’t be super pretty but I’d still watch it.
I just picked up a book on Emile Du Chatalet. I haven’t had a chance to get into it yet, but she was a fascinating lady…
“Although today she is best known for her fifteen-year liaison with Voltaire, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749) was more than a great man’s mistress. After marrying a marquis at the age of eighteen, she proceeded to fulfill the prescribed-and delightfully frivolous-role of a French noblewoman of her time. But she also challenged it, conducting a highly visible affair with a commoner, writing philosophical works, and translating Newton’s Principia while pregnant by a younger lover.”
The addition of Mme Lavoisier and Emilie du Chatelet sounds great. I can just see Emilie and Voltaire looking over a letter he received from Catherine II. And commenting on if an absolute monarch can be considered ‘Enlightened’. Then maybe attending a concert conducted by Chevalier St George.
Interesting that everyone is proposing women. The brief for this wasn’t gender-specific.
Probably because most of the readership here is female and, unsurprisingly, are interested in historical women. However, people have also suggested the Chevalier d’Eon (mtf/non-binary/female identified depending on who is telling the story), Lavoisier (somewhat of an early feminist), Voltaire (who probably has a whole ton of movies devoted to him), and I threw in Jacque-Louis David as a co-star for Vigée-Lebrun.
I welcome more men to the discussion!
I’m not a man; I just felt 18th-century men needed to be represented if we were going to take the topic literally. Men are people, too.
Prove it. (Yes, snarky joke.)
Strangely enough, when I was reading the list itself I thought it was *meant* to be just women. When I got to Joseph Bologne I had to go back and check the title before I realised I was confused. I wonder if others did the same?
Alexander Hamilton — what a life! (and yes I was a fan BEFORE he had a hit musical on Broadway!!)
How about Thomas Paine?
what about Potemkin? John Dickinson, Josiah Bartlett and Edward Rutledge all signers of the Declaration. On the Irish front, Edmund Fitzgerald, patriot, noble son of one of the daughters of the Duke of Richmond?
An interesting 18th C. man who might be an interesting subject of a bio-pic is Benjamin Thompson. Otherwise known as the Reichsgraf von Rumford, Thompson was born in Massachusetts in 1753 and is sometimes considered ‘the Tory Benjamin Franklin’ because of his many inventions and discoveries involving thermodynamics and cooking. After backing the losing side in the American Revolution, Thompson went to England where his scientific discoveries garnered him a knighthood and a fellowship in the Royal Society. He then moved to Munich and became the right-hand man of the Prince of Bavaria. Here he continued his experiments, created the Englischer Garten city park in Munich, convinced Bavarians to grow and eat potatoes, and reorganized the army. For these efforts he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire. Among his inventions are smoke-free fireplaces, sous-vide cooking, coffee percolator, and a variety of industrial furnaces.
Of further interest, he married Marie-Anne Lavosier, the chemist’s widow.
Another one I forgot!
Blas de Lezo, the half man, who managed one of Spain’s greatest victories against the English in the siege of Cartagena. The Spanish had everything against them and the English were so sure about their victory that they even started to mint coins. But Lezo had another strategy, aka burn the few ships he had to create a barrier against which the English Fleet crashed. He also happened to have lost an arm, a leg and an eye in previous battles, thus his name of The Half man. Would allow for a really really impressive movie.
Slightly biased answer here since they’re my ancestors, but I’d love a good show about John and Sarah Churchill, the 1st Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.
His all-over-the-place allegiances, his ambition, his military tactics, his ruthlessness…
And her own gutsyness, her volatile friendship with Queen Anne, her stranglehold on the constuction of Blenheim Palace…
Honestly between the pair of them I think we could have quite a few good, long tv series.
You know, at no point did I notice the “18th century” bit. -.-
Blenheim was fought in 1703-1704, I forget which year, but am sure of it being in either 1703 or 1704. And Marlborough’s other victories in 18th century as well.
There was a whole TV series, The First Churchills decades ago on Masterpiece Theatre. Susan Hampshire played Sarah, and I believe Margaret Tyzack.played Queen Anne. (Need to check that.)
What about the First Churchills? It’s based on your cousin, Winston’s multiple volume biography of Marlborough. You can get it on DVD.
You beat me to it! Didn’t mean to duplicate.
NP. But in a Stuart vein, what about James II, whose on brother said of him in the First Churchills, ‘Jamie, you have the soul of a medieval Pope.’ James Stuart, Duke of York, was flattered. I lol everytime I watch it. He was alive during the very early 1700s.
The Tulip movie blog post put me in mind of a late 17th century person I would like to include: William of Orange aka William III of England. Much has been written about this monarch, but no movie exists. He did make a brief appearance in First Churchills.
And my other choice is Vivaldi. I can just see Damian Lewis as the Red Priest.
oooh! these are great!
Ok, she is not XVIII Century, she is XVII century, but I’d love to see the life of Julie D’Aubigny.
Quoting “Badass of the week.com” (very funny, and enlightening history site that uses a lot of bad language):
Julie D’Aubigny was a 17th-century bisexual French opera singer and fencing master who killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels, performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world, and once took the Holy Orders just so that she could sneak into a convent and bang a nun.
Ps: I love your site. You give me so much good info and reference material for comics <3
Madame de Pompadour! Absolutely fascinating story — born a bourgeois and rose to essentially be the Prime Minister of France. Unprecedented (not only for a bourgeois to rise so high in Court but also for a female). She ruled France by ruling Louis XV. And her life so perfectly sets the stage for the crumbling of French culture that led directly to the Revolution.
A good solid war adventure of Deborah Sampson, pretty please!
As I wrote biography of Pattie Ferguson, would like to do one on him…
Also, would like an accurate biopic of Max Robespierre – based on recent Leuwers and McPhee biographies.