Jane Digby: Lindsay Duncan on playing the aristocratic adventurer in Around the World in 80 Days
Lindsay Duncan, one of the stars of new BBC drama Around the World in 80 Days, talks to Jonathan Wright about her role as aristocratic adventurer Jane Digby – a trailblazing woman who filled her life with travel, culture and romance
You guest-star as Jane Digby in an episode of a new drama based on Jules Verne’s Around the World In 80 Days. Who was she?
She was a real woman they’ve put into the drama, which is a really clever idea. Years ago, someone had told me about a book called The Wilder Shores of Love [1954, by travel writer Lesley Blanch]. It’s an account of the lives of four quite extraordinary women. And one of them is Jane Digby [1807–81]. In the last part of her life, which is where we see her, she was married to an Arab sheik, Medjuel el Mezrab, and she spent half the year with the Bedouin in the desert in Syria.
How did Jane Rigby cope in this environment?
Digby was more than capable of living that life, she was a brilliant woman. She raced camels, she fought in inter-tribal warfare, she knew how to look after animals and she gained a great deal of respect from her adopted people. What is very appealing is that this last part of her life was also the happiest. She was deeply in love. And she absolutely adored the Bedouin and the way of life, so she was a fulfilled woman.
What was Jane Rigby's life like before this?
A quarter of her life would be enough for most of us! She had several marriages and many, many lovers. She was a great romantic, but she was also a fearless and remarkable woman who spoke and read nine languages. She was very cultured. To me, it’s clear that one of the reasons she was able to live the way she did was because she came from an aristocratic background, and she had some money.
She was able to get divorced young [and three times in total over her life], and then just go off to travel and have marvellous adventures. The skills she brought to living in the desert, she had learned as a country woman in Norfolk. Her grandfather [the politician Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester] owned Holkham Hall in Norfolk.
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Jane Rigby is sometimes described as a bohemian – is this accurate?
She was more than that. Bohemians can be bohemians and sit around in salons, but she was out there. She lived a life that not many people could live, let alone women of her generation. She was able to live without physical security and that’s brave.
How does Jane Rigby feature in the series?
Journalist Abigail Fix (played by Leonie Benesch) is desperate to find Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) and she asks Jane to take her to a very dangerous part of the desert. Initially, Jane is intolerant of the naivety of this young Englishwoman, but she’s won over by Fix’s determination.
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Where to watch Around the World in 80 DaysThe first two episodes the new eight-part adaptation of Jules Vernes’ 1872 adventure novel will be broadcast on BBC One on Boxing Day, with the rest of series to follow in the new year.
This content first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine