Keira Knightley is no stranger to Chatsworth House. She spent some time there filming the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice;” Knightley was portraying Elizabeth Bennet, and Chatsworth was standing in for Darcy’s fictional stately home Pemberley.

The actress returned to Chatsworth for the 2008 motion picture “The Duchess,” a biopic about Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. Ralph Fiennes played the Fifth Duke, her older and rather inattentive husband.

Chatsworth House was already more than 150 years old by the time this controversial couple married in 1774; Georgiana was only 17 at the time, a member of the noble Spencer family – in fact, she is the great-great-great-great-aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales – and her husband-to-be was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the land.

Despite her beauty, well-honed social skills and presumed good luck in marrying so well, Georgiana was not entirely happy. It took her 16 years to produce a male heir, and that conception was the result of her husband’s brutal sexual assault. She was also not the best judge of those who might be worthy of her friendship, since the woman she adopted as her kindred spirit, Lady Bess Foster, had personal designs on the Fifth Duke – she later became his second wife.

Fair share of drama

Chatsworth House has certainly witnessed its fair share of drama, both as a motion picture location and the home of 16 generations of the Cavendish family. The present building, which I toured last month on a day trip from Lincoln, can be divided roughly into two parts.

The so-called “main block” dates from the time of the First Duke – earlier Cavendish males carried the title of Earl – and his desire to create a setting for a royal visit that never happened. William Cavendish, Fourth Earl of Devonshire, was elevated to the dukedom for his role in bringing William III and Mary II to the throne, and he spent 20 years – 1687 to 1707 – rebuilding the original Elizabethan manor house on the estate into a baroque palace worthy of entertaining the royal couple. They never came.

Today’s visitor

Today’s visitor, however, is greeted by the opulent interiors that William and Mary missed. The main entrance is through the two-story painted hall with murals of the life of Julius Caesar rendered by Louise Laguerre. From there, one proceeds to the chapel with its alabaster altarpiece and paintings representing the balance of church and state – the First Duke backed William and Mary against James II because he feared the latter’s despotic bent. Above those spaces are the state apartments, including an audience chamber for the royal couple, a withdrawing room for their most trusted courtiers, a state bedroom and a state closet – actually a room for displaying rare porcelain and drawings collected for the edification of their majesties.

That is not all that Chatsworth has to offer. Starting in 1818, the Sixth Duke, Georgiana’s longed-for son, spent 20 years nearly doubling the size of the home. Nicknamed “the Bachelor Duke,” William Spencer Cavendish inherited, at the death of his father, eight estates amounting to around 200,000 acres. He had so much money that he could indulge himself as he pleased. He began by adding a whole new wing in the Italianate manner and then filling the rooms with his collections. He was, for example, passionate about books. During his time, Chatsworth boasted four Shakespeare folios and 39 quartos, but all of those were sold to the Huntington Library in California in 1912 to pay estate taxes. Still, among the 30,000 volumes that remain in the family collection are many rare illuminated manuscripts and early printed books.

Equally impressive are the neo-classical sculptures collected by the Bachelor Duke. From the age of 28 until his death at 68 – still unmarried – he avidly acquired the work of contemporary artists, sometimes traveling to Italy to buy their works. On one of those trips, he befriended Antonio Canova, perhaps the most important sculptor of his age. One of the highlights of the magnificent gallery that William Spencer Cavendish built to house his collection is Canova’s “Sleeping Endymion,” whose beauty and eternal youth, according to classical mythology, the gods preserved by placing him in an endlessly unconscious state.

Current owner

Peregrine Cavendish, the present duke, lacks the disposable income of his bachelor ancestor, but thanks to a family trust established in 1946, he and his heirs can still harvest the rent from dozens of farms and 450 homes in the neighboring villages, as well as the agricultural bounty of approximately 35,000 acres. As their living quarters, the Twelfth Duke and his children can also lay claim to the nearly 100 rooms in the house that are not currently open to the public. It is good to be a Cavendish.

A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken.