I happened to catch this miniseries on TV this weekend and I found it really engrossing. It was called The Devil’s Whore in most of the world, but we puritanical Americans needed the modified title of the Devil’s Mistress. Because if you pay her in the street she’s a dirty whore, but if you get her an apartment and buy her some gifts, she’s a classy mistress. Apparently.
The miniseries is from 2008, and features a lot of well-known actors who have gone on to be quite famous. For the Doctor Who fans, we have John Simm (the Master) as Edward Sexby, and Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor) as the ill-fated Charles I.
Dominic West (the Wire) plays Oliver Cromwell, Andrea Riseborough (W./E., Oblivion) plays fictional Angelica Fanshawe, and Michael Fassbender (every movie ever) plays Thomas Rainsborough. Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove in Mr. Selfridge) plays Honest John Lilburne.
As you’ll have guessed (if you know even basic British history), this miniseries takes place just before and during the English Civil War. If you haven’t learned basic British history, here’s the 2 cent tour of the era. Charles I was a dictator of Scottish descent with a French wife. That meant people thought he was too close to ‘Papists’, and that his policies would benefit Catholics at the expense of Protestants. After all the bloodshed and confusion of the 16th century battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England, the majority of the English were vehemently opposed to ‘Papists’. Charles I and Parliament engaged in a very long struggle for power, which ended with Charles I being beheaded in London. Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the Long Parliament, and appointed himself ‘Lord Protector’. Though he’d argued against monarchy, he very quickly established himself as a king in all but name. This lasted until the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles’ son returning to England after Cromwell’s death. The monarchy has existed without any real interruption since that time.
This miniseries starts with Angelica Fanshawe preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart, Harry. She’s wealthy and connected; King Charles himself attends and blesses her wedding.
We see brief flashbacks. Angelica was raised by a Catholic mother, during the very violent time just after Protestantism was established in England. Her mother abandoned her for God, and Angelica was (understandably) angry. She proclaims that there is no god, and that is the first time she gets a vision of a demon. She sees them all her life.
A lot is going on during the day of her wedding. John Lilburne is whipped for distributing pamphlets arguing against the tyrannical rule of King Charles. Sexby sees Angelica and immediately falls in love with her, though he is quickly reminded that his social standing (lowly soldier for pay) prevents him from even thinking about her in an untoward way. The ribbing of his friends causes her groom Harry to have a really pathetic problem with insecurity. He spends the rest of their marriage being jealous and angry, trying to make her give up her independence and her ability to make decisions. To say I hate him would be an understatement.
Thankfully for me, Harry meets a sticky end at the hands of the ever-more tyrannical Charles I. We see Angelica’s situation change overnight. She’s no longer wealthy or desired, she’s out on the streets. At the same time, Sexby, Cromwell, and Rainsborough are leading the charge against Charles; they are allied with Honest John Lilburne, but not for long.
Episodes 2 and 3 see Angelica change a lot. She is forced to become independent and to examine the world she’s living in–rather than just accepting it as good based on her own privileged experiences. *Cue Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘* As a woman, this is a lot more difficult than for a man. She has no property, no money, no skills. Starving, she accepts some soup offered to her by a wealthy man. As soon as she is done eating, he tries to claim his ‘payment’. After a bit of a tussle, she stabs him to keep him from raping her. Sexby turns up as Angelica is on the run, and helps to protect her from justice.
Angelica finally sees the bitter truth of life for those who aren’t as privileged as she has been. Her loyalties change and she abandons the royalist cause and takes up with the Roundheads (aka those allied with Parliament in their conflict with the king. The royalists were called Cavaliers). She is drawn to Fassbender’s Rainsborough. He is a good mix between the too-earnest and impractical Lilburne and the severely pragmatic Cromwell. The two take up a love affair, but alas. It’s not to be. Joliffe, the best friend of the man Angelica killed, is after her. He wants to hang her as a murderess and a whore, and seems to take extreme pleasure in the idea of punishing a woman who wouldn’t give a man what he thought he deserved.
Things turn uglier as the miniseries continues. Rainsborough and Angelica get married, but he is killed soon after–by his supposed friend Cromwell. Angelica is pregnant and mourning a second husband, and is soon after arrested and sentenced to hang. She is due to be executed the same day as the king, newly convicted by a brutal Parliament and Cromwell, its leader.
As he can generally be expected to do, Sexby turns up to save Angelica. I won’t spoil what happens in the 4th episode, but it doesn’t turn out particularly well for anyone. I will say that at least one person dies, Sexby has at least one more chance to save Angelica from a terrible fate, and a baby is born at the end.
Here are a few things that struck me about this miniseries:
1-The more things change, the more they stay the same. Under Charles I, John Lilburne is imprisoned for causing trouble, there is corruption and tyranny from a despotic ruler, and women are under the proverbial boots of incredibly awful men. After Charles I is killed and Cromwell takes over…it’s all the same. It was a time of great revolution in England, but the changes seemed to be superficial and ineffectual. Certainly nothing seemed to change for the better. John Lilburne rots in prison for criticizing Charles I, but he dies in prison under the governance of his supposed friends.
2-I have mixed feelings about Sexby. I think he’s quite heroic and certainly a friend a girl wants to have if she’s going to constantly be in danger of being raped/murdered/executed. His long slow burn of pining love for her is romantic, when it’s happening on screen. But if it were real life, I don’t know that I’d feel the same way. If the miniseries was set in modern times, I feel too much that he would be wearing a fedora and complaining that the girl he liked kept him in the ‘friendzone’. Side note, if you’re unfamiliar with the trope I am discussing, look at a few pages of this tumbr (or this one) and you’ll learn a new breed of men to avoid. Sexby is a loyal and good friend to Angelica, but it’s quite clear he spends each moment hoping for more, and-once-gets unjustifiably angry and almost violent with her for not feeling what he feels.
While I find Sexby quite engaging and interesting, Angelica tells him she can never love him, and then ‘realizes’ her feelings for him almost the very next time she sees him. Who wrote that? I have never once had that sort of reversal of feeling. Any women reading this: has this ever happened to you? Did a man write this? Because I find it really hard to believe.
3-Note to self: do not attempt to lead a happy life during Civil War or revolution. Both Angelica and Sexby get fucked around by the royalists and the roundheads, and the system in general. There’s no hope for a happy ending.
4-Why on earth did they make her see the devil? A lot of the miniseries paints Angelica as a liberated, almost modern, woman, which was very dangerous and could be considered demonic during that (literally) puritanical period. She’s seen by several of her opponent’s as the Devil’s Whore, because she’s living a life outside social norms. That’s all pretty powerful and makes me feel so grateful I don’t live in the 17th century. I would have been burned or drowned long ago. The whole hallucinating a demon thing just seems like a strange distraction. It lessens the lunacy of their claims that she is the Devil’s Whore, and almost gives their accusations some weight. I don’t understand the purpose of it at all.
Despite my reservations, I think it was a good miniseries. I found it engrossing and easy to watch, and I did learn some things I never knew about that period of English history. I take it all with a grain of salt, but a little bit of history and some entertainment are (in my book) a good way to spend an evening.