At the end of June, I finished my long-term, back-burner read of The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Ophelia Field, which I started reading back in February. This political-history tome was first published in 2002 and re-published in 2018, with a tweak to the title: I presume to tie-in more obviously with the critically-acclaimed film, The Favourite (2018); where Sarah was played by the brilliant Rachel Weisz.
Sarah Churchill, 1st Duchess of Marlborough, is remembered as the glamorous and controversial favourite of Queen Anne, and thus became the object of hundreds of satires, newspaper articles and publications during her lifetime and after. Through her intimate friendship with Anne, Sarah wielded great power and influence for many years, but when their relationship very publicly soured, she suffered a slow, painful fall from grace. During which time she began to blackmail Anne with letters revealing their intimacy and accusing her of lesbianism – including with Sarah’s own cousin Abigail Masham, who had replaced her in Anne’s affections.
As well as her infamous letter writing, Sarah was a compulsive and compelling writer of her own history: narrating the major events of life at Blenheim Palace and at court, often with herself centre-stage. It is through her writings and by casting a critical eye over images of the Duchess handed down through art, history and literature (most of which are extremely biased and sexist), Field has been able to write, what I feel, is a balanced biography, that brings Sarah Churchill’s own voice back to life, and fairly shows the light and dark sides of her character.
While I can’t say I came to ‘like’ Sarah after reading this – I do feel her treatment of Anne was pretty abominable – I did come to admire and have some sympathy for her. As she was time and again attacked for traits that would have been applauded had she been a man, whilst completely overlooking her virtues, such as how she was capable of inspiring intense love and loyalty, deeply committed to her principles and to living what she believed to be a virtuous life, that included many kindnesses to those less fortunate than herself.
I must admit I found the swathes of political tracts a little like wading through treacle sometimes. However please don’t mistake this for a criticism of the biography or author, as I feel that with Sarah’s strongly held Whig sympathies and her passionate commitment to reform and religious freedom, you couldn’t have written this without her politics! Instead, for my personal taste, I found myself reading through more swiftly the sections on her ‘friendship’ with Anne; her life-long love story with her husband, John Churchill; and her relationships with her daughters, friends, enemies, servants and tenants.
Overall I thought The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough was a fascinating history, and while it took me a long time to read it, I really enjoyed finding out more of the real history behind this controversial character. And I believe Field has created a fair and comprehensive portrait of a woman, who cared intensely about how we would remember her. Good read.
(Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion)
I’d love to hear from you: Have you read this? Have you read any other books about Sarah Churchill? Or have you see the film, The Favourite (2018)?
This is book #4 for my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2020.