This month, we are flying to London and Manchester, then journeying on to two of England’s grandest and most fascinating stately homes: Hatfield House and Chatsworth House. On the flights, we’ll prepare by watching 2018’s much-praised and awards-tipped The Favourite, filmed in Hatfield House; and the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which gives a starring role to Chatsworth.
Queen Anne inherited the British throne in 1702. The Favourite is set some years later, when the widowed queen (Olivia Colman) is suffering from the physical and psychological trauma of multiple miscarriages and stillbirths.
Two court favourites, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), engage in a tense battle for the ear – and rather more – of the queen.
The palace is not just a location: it’s a central character in the story. Aside from a couple of scenes set in the Houses of Parliament, the film is shot in Hatfield and its grounds. The gout-stricken and often bedridden queen is confined to her rooms while her courtiers party, flirt and intrigue in the state rooms below. (The dance sequence between Weisz and a court dandy in an early scene is like a bizarre, baroque homage to Pulp Fiction’s Travolta/Thurman double act.)
Director Yorgos Lanthimos frequently uses a fish-eye lens to capture the protagonists’ goldfish-bowl lives. On the rare occasions we venture outside into John Tradescant’s formal gardens, it’s to see Weisz and Stone continue their battle of wits over shotguns and target practice involving the local duck population.
The real Hatfield House sits within London’s green belt, where the suburbs give way to the gentle Hertfordshire countryside. It is indeed a place fit for a queen, in fact and fiction – although its actual historic connection is with Queen Elizabeth I. Hatfield was both a childhood refuge and a favourite retreat for the Virgin Queen as she negotiated her way through the perilous religious, political and dynastic dramas of her age. The real Queen Anne dwelt in Kensington Palace, a then-rural retreat a short distance from London’s political heart at Westminster. Nearly three centuries later, Kensington would be at the heart of a very modern royal drama as the home of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The principal characters of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family, are also Hertfordshire people. Austen obsessives have tried hard to trace the real model for Austen’s fictional village of Meryton. The best guess is the small riverside town of Ware. In any case, its medieval alleyways and handsome architecture make for a more pleasant day out than rival claimants, the frankly prosaic Hemel Hempstead and Welwyn.
The location scouts for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, were true to the source material when they chose Chatsworth as their model for Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s home. In the novel, Elizabeth Bennet does indeed take a walking tour in Derbyshire, where Chatsworth lies at the heart of the Peak District. For that scenic area’s marketing people, the money shot is Knightley standing all windswept and poetic on Stanage Edge, an outcrop above a valley of epic grandeur. It’s certainly far removed from the meadows and byways of Herts.
Director Joe Wright makes the most of his short time in Chatsworth. We see Elizabeth wafting dreamily through the Painted Hall and up the great oak stairs, then falling into an erotic trance (note: not in the novel) among the classical nudes of the Sculpture Gallery. Her embarrassed encounter with Darcy shows Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s fairytale gardens and the distant limestone peaks to their, and the characters’, best advantage.
Architecturally, the two houses – the Jacobean intimacy of Hatfield and the baroque majesty of Chatsworth – have little in common. And The Favourite – explicit and earthy in content, experimental in style – is a world apart from the more conventionally romantic Pride and Prejudice. So choose which version of England’s past you want to inhabit.