It’s a beautiful summer day, and on the grounds of a magnificent estate (actually, I’m pretty sure this was filmed at the lake at Stourhead, which is, indeed, a magnificent estate) members of Britain’s upper crust are frolicking, flirting, and playing croquet, as they do. A pair of old biddies in black glare a young coupe off a bench and take a seat to watch events unfold. Meanwhile, a tall man in an even taller hat strides purposefully through the party while a young blonde woman plays tag with a young man.
Off in a totally separate area near a decorative temple, presumably far from the fuss and noise of the party, sits the host, the Duke. He’s snoozing with a glass of champagne in his hand, and he’s gently wakened when his nephew, Plantagenet Palliser, arrives. Plantagenet Palliser has to be the most upper crusty upper crust name in literature. Plantagenet is the tall guy from earlier, and he’s a member of the House of Commons, as the Duke helpfully tells us. He sits for his uncle’s borough, so I’m sure there was no nepotism there, but he’s one of those rare rich boy MPs who actually takes the job seriously, instead of just treating it as a way to pass the time until he inherits his title. The Duke couldn’t care less about politics, he just thinks they should adhere to family tradition by having a Palliser in the Whig party, and to thank his nephew for doing so, he’s increasing his allowance considerably. The Duke just happens to mention that, when Plantagenet gets married to “the right kind of girl,” that allowance will go through the roof. Plantagenet bids his uncle farewell and moves off.
From a distance, Plantagenet’s audience is observed by a right dandy puffing on a cigar. He’s Dolly Longstaffe, a regular at these types of gatherings. We’ll be seeing a lot of him. A friend asks him who the man talking to the Duke is, indicating that he’s probably both very new to this social set and also a total moron, because you’d think he’d take a moment to identify the enormously rich heir to the enormously rich host whose party he’s attending. Dolly calls him Planty Pal and explains he’s the Duke’s nephew and heir, but he doesn’t really care much about being a duke someday. He’s not even interested in the usual pursuits of men of his class—he doesn’t shoot, hunt, bet, smoke, or, presumably, chase tail. The idiot’s name is George, by the way. George asks if Plantagenet’s married yet, as the two men stroll thorugh the party in Plantagenet’s wake. Dolly says he’s not, as they observe Plantagenet bearing down on one particular female guest. A married female guest—she’s married to Lord Dunbellow and, according to Dolly, she’s as dull as she looks. Which must mean she’s dull enough to put most people into a coma. George thinks Plantagenet’s just being polite by saying hello to her, but Dolly knows better.
A smiley Plantagenet strolls along the lake with Lady D., who has an incredibly annoying, affected way of speaking. She pronounces Dunbellow Dun-bee-leeeewwww. But she’s fascinated by politics, which is obviously a huge turn on for Plantagenet, who hardly needs any encouragement at all to start babbling about some dull act, with Lady D. hanging on his every word like he’s writing a Shakespearian sonnet for her right there. Wow, Plantagenet’s got himself a groupie.
And now we join those two bench-sitting biddies from earlier. They observe Plantagenet and Lady D. and one of them, Charlotte, comments on their closeness to her friend, Adelaide. They both notice that the Duke’s noticed Plantagenet’s attentions to Lady D. as well, and indeed, the Duke, who really is a seriously creepy old man, has a telescope set up next to his frigging throne that he uses to spy on his nephew and Lady D. He orders his flunky to find out what the deal is with his nephew and Lady D.
Blondie’s companion, Burgo, has taken her parasol hostage and is teasing her with it. She playfully tries to get it back, and then things start to get really flirty as he takes her hand and kisses it. The orchestra strikes up a dance, and blondie (she’s Lady Glencora, our leading lady) and Burgo hurry to join. Charlotte the Biddy frowns as she watches them, because Glencora’s her orphaned niece, and it’s Charlotte’s job to make sure the girl makes a good marriage. I’m guessing a match with Burgo is out of the question, because he’s young, fun, and somewhat attractive, and in these stories, those traits never seem to be accompanied by ‘reliable’. Charlotte’s pissed and ready to make a scene about her niece daring to dance with a guy in public at a party where there’s dancing going on. God forbid! Thankfully, Adelaide holds her back.
George asks Dolly for some exposition, and Dolly fills us in on Glencora’s family background: she’s the only child of the late Lord of the Isles. And she’s super rich. Burgo, naturally, is living on very little.
Charlotte continues to cluck and bluster about how scandalous a match between Glencora and Burgo would be. Jesus, ladies, it’s a teenage crush! Take her to Paris for a little while and she’ll forget about it. But no, that won’t do. Adelaide suggests a match with some young man, but Charlotte shoots it down because of some scandal we, sadly, don’t get to hear about.
The dance ends and Glencora and Burgo leave, bumping into Plantagenet and Lady D. right near the dreadful aunts. Glencora merrily asks Plantagenet if he’ll be dancing, but no, he’s not a dancing man, since any sort of enjoyment apparently takes away from time better spent in the Commons, or talking about the Commons, or just being dry as brick dust. Lady D. snootily tells the younger woman that Plantagenet’s been telling her all about the House of Commons, and Glecora’s face clearly says: most boring party guests ever. She recovers decently, but after Plantagenet and Lady D. leave, she wonders to Burgo which of the two is the most boring. They, too, leave, but the dreadful aunts’ faces have lit up the way they clearly only do when they’ve hatched some horrible, selfish plan. Having now seen Plantagenet and Glencora in the same shot, they’ve decided the two should get married. After all, they’re both rich and…well, who needs more than that? They sweep off to go suggest the pairing to the Duke.
The Duke is not delighted to see these two, but he agrees to an audience. Charlotte wastes no time in proposing the marriage. The Duke asks if they’ve set this before Glencora, and they say they haven’t, but it’ll be fine, she’ll be cool with it. The Duke considers it for about five seconds, then agrees, saying he finds the proposal will suit him well enough. Suit him?
George and Dolly arrive at their club after a long, hard day of gossiping like old women. George, we learn, has been out of the country in “the colonies” for a while, and made a good amount of money there. Now, he plans to go into Parliament. Sure, why not? Dolly figures George’s grandfather won’t approve of that, but George doesn’t care, and he’s confident the old man won’t disinherit him or anything, so full steam ahead.
George asks Dolly if he knows about the recent engagement of his ex-fiancee, Alice (who is also his first cousin) to a Mr. Grey. Dolly does, of course, and also knows that Grey’s pretty boring. Their gossip’s interrupted by the arrival of Burgo, who greets George happily and joins the two men.
Talk turns to politics as Dolly asks George where he plans to run. He’s got his eye on the Chelsea districts, which Dolly points out could be a problem, because the man he’s going to run against will soon inherit his title and estate, which means George would have to fight an expensive by-election and a general election. George doesn’t seem all that concerned. Dolly takes off to get some dinner, and Burgo takes the opportunity to pull George aside and asks him to help with a bit of subterfuge. See, George’s cousin Alice is also a sort of cousin to Glencora (she’s related to everyone, isn’t she?), so Burgo wants Glencora to call on Alice the same day George calls on Alice, bringing Burgo with him. Then, Burgo and Glencora can sneak away and have some time to themselves away from the hideous aunts. George isn’t keen on the idea, because Alice is fairly straightlaced, but he finally agrees to help.
Charlotte and Adelaide are laying down the law with Glencora, forbidding her from having Burgo in the house. Adelaide warns Glencora that the man’s a bankrupt who’ll spend all her money and then beat her when it’s gone. Glencora haughtily says she’d rather be beaten by Burgo than kissed by anybody else. See if that sentence stands up when he’s whaling on you, sweetie. Glencora declares her intention to go for a walk in the park, and Charlotte shrills that she’s not to meet Burgo there. Glencora’s got spirit and says she’s a free woman and she’ll go where she wants to, and anyway, what’re they worried about, Burgo seducing her right in the middle of the park? Adelaide orders her to take her maid with her, and Glencora agrees, saying Burgo can ravish her too, then, if he wants.
Plantagenet arrives for a meeting with the Duke, who brings up Lady D. right away. Plantagenet says he and Lady D. have interests in common, and it’s no big deal. The Duke says there may be nothing to the gossip, but Plantagenet’s going to have to stop seeing Lady D. if he wants his allowance to continue. He then suggests Plantagenet start hanging around Glencora, if he wants female companionship. Plantagenet spits that Glencora’s entirely frivolous, but the Duke says she’ll be able to understand politics just fine, if they’re explained the right way. I get the impression that, to him, explaining them the right way would involve speaking very slowly, loudly, and perhaps illustrating using dolls.
Plantagenet takes a walk in the park with Lady D. and wonders just how he should go about dumping a woman he’s not even dating. He talks nonsensically about how politicians can be corrupted, and she reacts really bizarrely to it, like he’s talking dirty to her or something. What an odd acting choice.
Meanwhile, Glencora and her maid run into Burgo, who draws Glencora into a copse of trees by whistling at her. She’s charmed by that and runs to embrace him. He quickly fills her in on the plan to meet up at Alice’s. She’s so happy she lifts her veil and kisses him before hurrying back to the maid.
Lady D. receives a scandalized letter from her mother, who reveals there are rumors swirling that Lady D. is going to ditch her husband and run off with Plantagenet. For some reason, Lady D. is delighted by this, which just shows how completely stupid she actually is. This is 1860s England. Women didn’t just leave their husbands. Men didn’t just run off with other men’s wives. There were serious repercussions. Plantagenet’s whole political career would have been over. He’d never be reelected. Hell, there’s a good chance he’d be disinherited by the Duke, unless he sent Lady D. away, because for sure such a fallen woman would never be considered appropriate for a duchess’s title. And even if she did manage to get divorced (not easy at all in that period) and Plantagenet married her, she, at least, would have been a total social pariah. Not a single respectable woman would have ever called on her, or gone to her parties or dinners. She’d be completely isolated. And yet, she doesn’t seem to consider any of that at all. Moron.
Plantagenet’s working on some papers with his uncle’s flunky, who I suppose is a secretary. Flunky asks Plantagenet why he doesn’t get married, and hints that the Duke has a lot in his power to both give and take away. That bump in allowance, for starters. Plantagenet’s not happy to be strong armed this way, but he really is at his uncle’s mercy in every way, and unlike Lady D., he knows it. Once the flunky leaves, Plantagenet pulls a note written on hot pink paper out of his coat pocket, reads it, smiles, and tucks it away.
Naturally, after being warned repeatedly against doing just this, he takes Lady D. for a walk in the park. Hand in hand, no less. He leads her to a bench, and she obviously thinks he’s getting ready to propose, and furthermore, she thinks this is all going to be, well, a walk in the park to arrange. Man, this woman is stupid beyond belief. Instead, Plantagenet starts babbling about his plans for a new currency. Sexy!
George is paying a visit of his own—to Alice, who is the very definition of severe. Seriously, she should be playing every uptight school ma’rm role out there. She tells George he really should go up to Vavasor Hall to bend a knee to their grandfather and make amends. George thinks that his sister, Kate, who lives with grandpa, will do all the smoothing over necessary, but Alice breaks the news that Kate will soon quit the Hall to join Alice and Alice’s father on a 12-week tour of Switzerland. George selfishly says it doesn’t suit him to have Kate leaving grandpa for so long, and Alice shortly tells him he’ll just have to suck it up.
Alice mentions Mr. Grey, whom George is no fan of, despite never having met the man. She reminds him that she broke off their engagement for very good reasons, and she’s not about to remain a spinster forever just because George sucks. George goes to leave, mentioning his plan to bring Burgo with him the next time he visits.
Plantagenet goes to meet with the Duke, who surprises him by having two other guests in the parlor already: Lady D. and her mother-in-law, Lady Hartletop. Like any sensible person, Plantagenet looks like he wants to flee the whole damn city of London at the sight of these two. Nonetheless, he swallows hard and greets everyone. Plantagenet takes a seat next to Lady D. and the Duke invites her to tell Plantagenet what the Duke’s just been telling her. Lady D. passes along the word that this relationship between the two of them is never going to happen and they need to back off now, before both of their reputations, Plantagenet’s career, and her marriage are ruined beyond repair. Plantagenet tries to appeal to Lady D., but she’s seen the light, and she quickly leaves with her mother-in-law. As soon as they’re gone, the Duke tells Plantagenet that Lady D. never really wanted him, and he doesn’t really want her. And he should move on and marry Glencora, like a good boy.
Alice is relaxing at home when Glencora’s announced. Glencora comes sweeping in, dressed in a floaty white dress, a total counterpoint to Alice’s dark, dull browns. Alice rather bitchily sniffs that Glencora’s not visited in a while, but spirited Glencora shrugs that off and begs her cousin to tell her all about Mr. Grey. Alice doesn’t put much effort into selling her fiancé. Glencora observes that Mr. Grey must live a quiet life and Alice snaps that she likes a quiet life. Glencora brings up George, and then foolishly asks if he’s planning on visiting soon, with Burgo. Alice isn’t dumb enough to miss that brick lobbed right in her face, and she immediately twigs to what’s going on. Just then, the maid announces George and Burgo, and Alice tells her to send Burgo away. Glencora begs her to let Burgo in, and then George comes blustering in and demands to know what’s going on. Alice coldly tells him that nothing is going on, not in her house, at least. I’ll say. George, she says, is perfectly free to visit, but she won’t have her house used as a place of assignation. George swirls out angrily, and Glencora weepily calls Alice heartless and asks why she shouldn’t be allowed to marry Burgo if she wants to. Alice says she has no idea why she shouldn’t marry him, but there’s clearly something fishy going on here, and she won’t have it.
Glencora begs her for help, but Alice won’t give it. She apologizes, but tells Glencora she has to find the strength to reject Burgo. Glencora cries and goes to leave. As she reaches the door, Alice lightly says Glencora can come anytime. For some reason, that came across as the most heartless, mean thing she’s done this whole scene.
Glencora returns home, where the aunts join forces in henpecking her into marrying a man she barely knows. She calls Plantagenet a milksop and doesn’t care about the money the duke can throw their way, since she has plenty of her own. They remind her that Plantagenet will be a duke someday, but she doesn’t care about being a duchess. And then things start to get creepy. The two aunts surround her on the sofa and double team, reminding her that Plantagenet will be out of the house a lot, attending to political matters, giving Glencora plenty of time to pursue her own interests. Just in case we don’t get it yet, one of the aunts suggestively strokes her cane. I wish I was making that up. I need a shower now. They go on to say that, basically, once Glencora pops out a couple of sons, she can go ahead and bang Burgo all she wants, just as long as she’s discreet about it.
Now duly browbeaten into submission, Plantagenet and the Duke, and Glencora and the aunts, meet in a tree-lined allee in the park, both of them looking like they’re heading to a duel with their seconds. The Duke and the aunts hold back as Plantagenet and Glencora meet in the middle for the least romantic proposal scene of all time. Here’s how it goes:
Plantagenet: Our friends say we may do very well together. Can it be so?
Glencora: If you wish it, Mr. Palliser.
Plantagenet: I do wish it, with all my heart.
Glecora looks up at him for a second, then looks away. He takes a three-stone diamond ring out of a box and slips it onto her finger.
Glencora: There’s something you should know. There has been another and I really loved him.
Plantagenet: It shall not signify. You must love me now.
Glencora dips into a deep curtsey, and the aunts nod to each other in satisfaction. I run off to take another shower.
Now that Plantagenet’s fallen in line, the Duke increases his allowance, as promised, and also gives him Matching Priory as a country seat, along with the family jewels and a new carriage with six pairs of horses. He’s also getting a substantial amount of railway and mining stock. Not bad at all. Plantagenet thanks him with all the enthusiasm of someone being presented with a bucket of pond sludge. He frets a bit about the fact that he and Glencora aren’t at all in love, but the Duke says that when Pallisers marry, they do it for more important reasons than love. Plantagenet doesn’t take that too well, so the Duke pulls the same deal the aunts did, telling Plantagenet he can go out and find himself a mistress he loves once he and Glencora have a couple of kids to secure the line. Plantagenet’s horrified by the very idea, as he intends to take his marriage vows seriously. Good man. The Duke doesn’t really care what he does, as long as the marriage goes through.
Glencora heads right to Alice’s house, where she announces that she’s being forced to marry Plantagenet. Alice tells Glencora Plantagenet’s a nice guy who devotes himself to Parliament. Alice, a hug here would be more helpful, instead of a lecture. Glencora tells Alice that Plantagenet’s nice and all, but he means nothing to her, and she’s being forced to marry this guy, despite being in love with someone else. She bursts out of the room and settles down to cry on the stairs, murmuring Burgo’s name.