Book Review: The Favourite, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Ophelia Field

By Holly Marsden

Ophelia Field’s 2002 (revised in 2018) biography of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough is a fascinating insight into the eighteenth-century elite. The biography focuses on the intensity of the relationship between Sarah and Queen Anne, with the two having grown up together in and around the court of Charles II. Sarah was later given two of the highest positions of the early modern court when Anne ascended the throne in 1702: Keeper of the Privy Purse and Groom of the Stool. These positions are just two roles discussed by Field, a focus of her biography being the positions, hierarchies, and structures at play in Anne’s court. Another predominant theme is the writer’s voice. Like in much discussion of queenship, Churchill’s agency and self-fashioning is both emphasised and questioned throughout. Moreover, Field also analyses the use of the spoken word, exploring slander, gossip, and scandal. The depth of Field’s research provides ample background to Sarah’s story, especially for those who enjoyed Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film of the same title. Field explores shared desire, passion and love as suggested by existing historical sources including correspondence between the two women. This part of Sarah’s life, and indeed Anne’s, had not yet been explicitly researched and discussed by scholars, who had previously focused on Churchill’s political ambition and patronage. In all, Field demonstrates that Sarah wielded great power, painting a portrait of an ambitious, intelligent, and passionate woman.

Despite Field’s heavy referencing, The Favourite is both accessible and exciting for non-academic audiences. Field predominantly uses written primary sources, such as ballads, letters, diaries and broadsides. In doing so, she recreates an early modern world in which the printing press was a vital tool in political slander. Through these sources, the audience are invited into Sarah’s world of privilege and power. This biography is entirely accessible for wide audience through the personal nature of these historical snippets. Field writes in an alluring manner, apt for the scandalous situations she dictates and for Churchill’s penchant for gossip. A particularly page-turning event is described by Field in chapter 7. She describes how Sarah confronted Anne, begging for her forgiveness, and attempting to clear her name from courtly rumour. The ‘private hour’ ultimately led to her downfall and expulsion from court. Although written to be engaging, The Favourite doesn’t trivialise or negate the love shared between these women. She also does not overly dramatize the suggested sexuality of their encounters. Field uses close analysis of predominantly textual sources to understand the nuances of Sarah and Anne’s relationship, and how it served the hierarchies of power and political intentions at play in Anne’s court. It is particularly interesting how Field discusses Sarah’s memoirs, which document her relationship with Anne, and how Sarah revised and re-wrote these in her later years in accordance with her changing narratives and agendas.

Although she wasn’t the primary focus of the biograph, Field’s portrayal of Queen Anne is particularly outstanding. Unlike common depictions, including the 2018 film, Anne is presented as a figure with autonomy. Field acknowledges public opinions of Anne that deemed her controlled by her favourites, mentioning how Anne intentionally overturned these accusations and assumptions. Field does not just reference the Queen’s miscarriages, or physical illnesses, which seems to be common in her modern depiction, but shows her to be an active player in the political sphere. She demonstrates Anne to leverage her relationship with Abigail Masham, Sarah’s cousin and rival, whom she knows Sarah was intensely jealous of, as well as to liaise with politicians in the exercise of her power. However, Field also demonstrates how Anne’s relationships with her favourites were used as a weapon against her. This is particularly through the discussion of Sarah joining with Whig politician and satirist Arthur Maynwaring to write anonymous letters that threatened to out Anne’s ‘lesbianism’ and thus tarnish her reputation as queen. In all, both women are written to be active participants in their relationships, whilst power imbalances and political intentions are also acknowledged. Reading this biography is particularly powerful during LGBTQ+ History Month, which seeks to celebrate identities, lives and practises that fall within this acronym. In The Favourite Ophelia Field ultimately shows us that the Duchess of Marlborough’s life was full of excitement and desire, whilst demonstrating the variety of relationships that women had in the early modern period.

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