[--the future Queen Anne, writing to Sarah in the mid-1680s]
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744), was a formidable woman living in turbulent time. She was shrewd, ambitious, hot-tempered, and strong-willed, a royal favourite and hugely-influential political player during a period of multiple upheavals: the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which, though neither revolutionary nor especially glorious, ousted the Catholic James II from the throne), the 1707 Act of Union between England and (a subjugated) Scotland, the end of the Stuart dynasty in 1714, no less ten general elections between 1694 and 1714, and the on-going development of faction-ridden Parliamentary politics into the defining feature of British government. All this - and the myriad personalities and interests and overseas wars that fed into it - forms the backdrop to Ophelia Field's lengthy and overtly sympathetic biography of Sarah, The Favourite.
Field's major interest, as her title indicates, is Sarah's role at Court and her relationship with Queen Anne (1665-1714). Their intense friendship - one in a series, for Sarah and more especially for Anne - dated back to well before Anne's accession to the throne. Her attendance upon Anne, and Anne's extremely vocal regard for and dependence upon her, gave Sarah a position of considerable influence. She put this to use for her husband, John, and his allies - to the extent that Marlborough himself was frequently the one left to run the household and raise the children while Sarah resided with Anne - winning stipends and governmental posts for them. Together, they gathered a fortune, helped topple a king, and bolstered Anne's position against her sister Mary. Sarah also worked in furtherance of her own ambition and political sympathies - she was a Whig by inclination and (self-)education, albeit not to that extent of her close friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and aided the Whig cause with the Queen when she could. She was a conduit to Anne, through whom all requests for favour were channelled (or not); Anne's husband George, by contrast, was cultivated by no-one.
Sarah was neither the first nor the last of Anne's favourites (all of whom, unlike Elizabeth I's, were female), albeit probably the most significant one. Field devotes a substantial portion of the book to a discussion of the nature of Anne and Sarah's relationship. Most of Sarah's letters to Anne were destroyed (by the latter), but Anne's side of the correspondance survives, in which - as the extract I've quoted at the top of the post demonstrates - Anne laid out her affection and devotion in no uncertain terms. This was not unusual, either for Anne or for the time. Friendship between women during this period was often expressed in language that to us is surprisingly eroticised, but to contemporaries was largely conventional and unremarkable. Anne's sister Mary addressed her close friend Frances Apsley as her "husband", and wrote to her declarations such as,
What can I say more to perswade you that I love you with more zeal then any lover can I love you with a love that ner was known by man [...] to kis the ground when once you go to be your dog in a string your fish in a net your bird in a cage...
One of the strengths of Field's biography, it seems to me, lies in her consideration of the much broader (and bolder) meaning of friendship during this period. Devotion to and love for truly close friends could be as strong and lasting - or even more so - than those within marriage; for women in particular, same-sex friendship might mean the only type of social relation in which they were not inescapably inferior and subordinate. This latter factor is reflected in the nicknames that Anne and Sarah adopted in their later correspondance, addressing each other as Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman - that is, as (low-born) social equals.
And the lines, it seems, did blur. The extent to which any of these relationships were also expressed physically is, of course, impossible to tell from the historical record. Male homosexuality was a crime and thus can be traced through legal cases; not so for women. Furthermore, while lesbian relationships were certainly not unheard of (and could be another weapon in the slanderer's arsenal), they were viewed as isolated acts, rather than set-in-stone definitions of identity.
All caveats aside, Anne's affections certainly seem to have tended towards the distaff side. Sarah's predecessor as Anne's Lady of the Bedchamber was one Lady Cornwallis, to whom Anne penned letters of such passion that they were censored by her father's orders (surely suggesting that they were perceived to go beyond conventional language and the "schoolgirl crushes" dismissed by many biographers). Sarah herself, in a rare surviving letter to Anne of July 1708, is quite direct in her characterisation of the Queen's preferences:
I remember you said [...] of all things in this world, you valued most your reputation, which I confess surprised me very much, that your Majesty should so soon mention that word after having discovered so great a passion for such a woman. For sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange & unaccountable, to say no more of it, nor can I think that having no inclination for any but of one's own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.
This is part reproach - prompted by jealousy (and snobbishness) over Anne's increasing favour to the upstart, low-born Abigail Masham - and part veiled threat in an attempt to preserve her position (Sarah would later take this further, patronising a number of anonymous pamphlets decrying Anne and Abigail's closeness). The other major source we have for Sarah's views on all this come from her published memoirs (and their various drafts). In the 1715 version, narrated to her co-author in third person, for better distance and objectivity, we get the following commentary:
This favour quickly became a passion; and a passion which possessed the heart of the Princess too much to be hid. They were shut up together for many hours daily. Every moment of absence was considered a sort of tedious, lifeless state. To see the Duchess was a constant joy; and to part with her for ever so short a time, a constant uneasiness, as the Princess' own frequent expressions were. This worked even to the jealousy of a lover. She used to say she desired to possess her wholly. [emphasis in original]
The fact that the bulk of the heat-of-the-moment material comes from Anne's direction, coupled with Sarah's undoubted ambition, has led many writers to conclude that the relationship was at best one-sided, at worst unrequited, encouraged by Sarah only for political ends. It is impossible to be sure; however, Sarah seems to have been a largely unromantic person in her own writings (her letters to John, with whom she is known to have had a very close relationship, are markedly pragmatic and undemonstrative in comparison to his, even in the days of their courtship), so her apparent coldness may not be all it seems. (Field is largely convinced, describing the women's relationship as a "fraught romance", although acknowledging that Anne was likely the more smitten).
Sarah's position, however she maintained it, was not popular; political ambition was held to be a masculine quality, political power an exclusively male preserve, and Sarah was pilloried for daring to so aspire. The advent of a free press after the Restoration of 1660 allowed for an avalanche of popular pamphlets and newspaper pieces that savaged her reputation from every angle, making her, in Field's words, "probably the most continuously libelled Englishwoman of her lifetime". Her involvement in the elections of November 1705 - in aid of her family and allies - earned her comparisons with that other most-hated (and even more nepotistic) favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (whose overweening influence, coupled with truly spectacular military inexpertise, had finally seen him assassinated during the reign of Anne's grandfather, Charles I; incidentally, Buckingham is widely believed to have been James I's lover). Upon Sarah's fall from the Queen's favour in 1711, Viscount Bolingbroke wrote to the Examiner celebrating Britain's liberation from,
the Caprice of an Insolent Woman. Unhappy Nation, which expecting to be Governed by the Best, fell under the Tyranny of the Worst of her Sex! But now, Thanks be to God, that Fury, who broke Loose to execute the Vengeance of Heaven on a Sinful People is restrained
This sentiment is something of which she was all too aware, and was careful to downplay in her memoirs, disclaiming responsibility for influencing the decisions of her 'betters'. For all her clear and widely-acknowledged influence - and the respect of men such as her husband and more particularly of Godolphin, who discussed politics with Sarah as if she were a fellow government minister - Sarah met a glass ceiling when she went after more overt political power. Anne, by far the weaker and lazier of the pair, met similar resistance (and caved much more readily), although under Sarah's guidance she did make an effort to present herself as more suitably masculine (a queen could not afford to be too feminine, for 'feminine' meant submissive - not a desirable quality in a monarch, as Mary I's subservience to her Spanish husband had proven the previous century). Anne's authority was steadily scaled back by her ministers - and Sarah, as her influence waned and she eventually fell from favour, found a favourite's role in government could be very fleeting.
Sarah did not give up politicking, but in her post-favourite life she turned her attention increasingly to clever and prudent investment (through which she made more than enough money to constitute a private, independent income, along with the settlement she received upon John's death in 1722), the building and embellishment of the new Marlborough estate of Blenheim Palace, and the management of her public image and legacy through memoirs and the sponsoring of satires. The memoirs, much-revised - in her 1715 version, Sarah crossed out all her co-author's sycophantic references to her beauty and indiscreet mentions of her accomplishments, leaving behind only praise of her "spirit" - were finally published later in Sarah's life. They received a positive review, in 1742, from none other than Samuel Johnson, who recognised Sarah's purpose in writing and publishing (itself still seen as a rather immodest activity for a woman):
The parent of all memoirs is the ambition of being distinguished from the herd of mankind.
She also, as Fields puts it, "ran her family like a miniature Court", marshalling her offspring and in-laws like some latter-day Catherine de' Medici, to create a web of political and social connections. She had poor relations with most of her children, to the extent of almost complete estrangement after John's death. She had never had much time for her daughters, much preferring her husband's company or that of her closest friends, and the cold legacy of this early neglect was exacerbated by her hard-headed approach to their marriages, which were conducted for the Marlboroughs' political gain to the exclusion of sentiment. Not uncommon, of course; but Sarah would countenance no escape for her deeply unhappy daughters, nor even for her granddaughter, Anne, whose husband was abusive.
Field goes to some length to present a sympathetic portrait of Sarah, and to some extent she succeeds; certainly, the biography is a useful corrective to the centuries of bad press Sarah has received for, quite simply, failing to measure up to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images of womanhood. Still, other modern works make clear how much of an ogre Sarah could be to her family, threatening with disinheritance any who did not obey her; she, too, had her favourites, while those who earned her antipathy were rarely able to work their way back into her good graces. The prose mostly flows well, but the detail can be dense and the profusion of people with shared first names (there are a multitude of Annes, Marys, and so on) are not always differentiated as clearly as they might be. Finally, as is always a risk in biography, Field's closeness to her subject sometimes leads her into editorialising and assumptions regarding Sarah's feelings that can hardly be borne out by sources, like (emphasis mine):
During the ceremony Sarah may well have pondered Anne's Tory proclivities and her own position at Court
The question now was not whether Sarah had to leave her posts, but how. [...] There must also have been unadmitted pain that Marlborough was unwilling to resign on her behalf.
Yet there is much to admire and enjoy about this largely unsentimental account of a decidedly unsentimental woman, one who gained power in a man's world and who was systematically scorned for it. Or, in the words of Mary Delariviere Manley (normally hostile to Sarah), from The Adventures of Rivella (1714):
If she had been a Man, she had been without Fault.
(who just about restrained herself from launching into a tirade about Charles I during the writing of this piece. be thankful!)