This is an interesting biography of a woman I can’t help viewing as the Hillary Clinton of turn-of-the-18th century England: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a prominent, divisive, highly political woman closely connected to her country’s leader, but not naturally suited to her supporting role. Opinionated, partisan, determined, self-righteous and stubborn, even today Sarah Churchill remains a colorful figure often portrayed in a highly negative light.
Churchill is best known for having a very close relationship with Queen Anne, up until their dramatic falling-out largely due to political issues: the queen leaned conservative while Churchill was a committed Whig, and after decades of friendship Churchill seems to have assumed too much in terms of her influence once Anne ascended the throne. During the course of their friendship, Anne sent Sarah a lot of letters that today come across as highly romantic in tone and vocabulary, leading many to assume that the two were lovers.
Author Ophelia Field looks at both sides of that question, but without spending too much time on speculation, preferring to focus on known facts. It’s pretty hard to figure out centuries later whether people were sexually involved, but we do know that many of the female courtiers at that time wrote each other letters like this, perhaps in part due to overheated epistolary conventions and in part because friendships were prioritized more at the time than they are now. It’s also worth noting that certain words simply had different connotations at the time (people declared their “passion” for their parents and children as well as their friends). On the other hand, while Anne dutifully got pregnant with her husband an astonishing 17 times (none of which resulted in a child surviving to adulthood), she did not have quasi-romantic relationships with male courtiers in the way other queens of England did, and Sarah evidently saw something untoward in Anne’s letters, as after falling out of favor she used them to blackmail the queen.
This book though is a rather exhaustive chronicle of Sarah Churchill’s life, of which the Queen Anne episodes were only a part. There’s a lot about her relationship with her husband and his military victories, a lot about political maneuvering, and a lot about various satires and attacks against the Churchills in the press at the time. I also appreciated the final chapter dealing with the various portrayals of Churchill since her death. I don’t disagree with the reviewers who say the book goes on a little long, in perhaps too much detail, with the letters, politics and press attacks. It’s interesting stuff, but it may not need to be quite so granular and as a result the book takes a little while to get through.
In my view Field does an admirable job of remaining balanced: Churchill was clearly a difficult person in a lot of ways, prone to strong opinions and long-running arguments (though perhaps not quite as contentious as some of her detractors portrayed her). She doesn’t seem to have been an attentive mother and was controlling toward her grandchildren, using the fortune she amassed through clever investments to keep them in line. At the same time, her willingness to step out of the standard role of a woman of her time is admirable, and she was clearly tough, committed, charismatic and intelligent. She wrote a lot, and was very concerned with how posterity would view her, so we get many excerpts in her own words.
Overall, this is an interesting and at times dramatic biography of a strong personality, though at times it does drown a little in detail, while there were a few areas (such as Churchill’s children) that I would have liked to see fleshed out more. This book is a good choice for those interested in the topic.