Our book today is Susan Holloway Scott’s 2006 historical novel Duchess, not to be confused with Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, about the Duchess of Devonshire, which was retitled The Duchess to coincide with its movie version. Scott’s Duchess is Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who’s never had a big-budget movie made about her, although nobody who’s ever seen Susan Hampshire’s magnificent turn as the character in the BBC’s 1969 production The Churchills will ever forget it (if this were Stevesees, I'd write up a storm about that mini-series, so good, so well done). It’s hard to know who a modern casting director would find to play Sarah – we only know the actress would be really, really skinny. A walking skeleton was found to play Georgiana, after all, and even more hilariously, another walking skeleton was recently cast to play a young Queen Victoria, who was never in her life anything but butterball-plump.
Not that it matters: who needs movies when there are books? And this is a fine, fun book – Scott has inconspicuously mined the historical sources (there are fewer factual errors in this novel about the age of Queen Anne than I found in the last history of the period I read) and transmuted them into a narrative bursting with life.
One life in particular, of course, that of Sarah Jennings, who came from an old, well-born family late of Somersetshire and by the 17th century long based in Hertfordshire. She and her sister Frances were both attached to the court of the Duke and Duchess of York while Charles II was on the throne and careers were being made. In 1675 Sarah was 15 and energetically dancing with the court’s brightest rising star, the young and stunningly handsome army officer John Churchill, who in Scott's passage semi-teasingly questions how many of her motives for serving the Duchess of York are in fact selfish:
Careful, I thought, careful, careful. “I’m loyal to my mistress, Colonel, just as I believe you should be loyal towards your master, the Duke of York.”
He smiled, pleased, I think, by what I’d said. “You’re scolding me, Miss Jennings.”
“If you need scolding, then I shall do it,” I said warmly. “The duchess has been very generous in her kindnesses to me.”
“Nothing in Whitehall is given for free,” he said. “You must have worked hard to earn that kindness.”
“I have,” I said, “for isn’t that one of the purposes of coming to court? To make oneself agreeable to those in high places, so that they will be agreeable and obliging in return?”
He laughed. “You’re an ambitious lass.”
I didn’t join his amusement. “I AM ambitious,” I said. “As are you, Colonel Churchill.”
“True enough.” His laugh had changed to a thoughtful smile: another judgment, and I passed.
Sarah’s most famous descendant, 20th century Prime Minister Winston, in his epic biography of her husband, aptly summarizes her with the line “she owned, when roused, the temper of the devil.” This is putting it mildly – Sarah Jennings was a brash, opinionated, omnivorously pugnacious woman, and that was before she became Sarah Churchill, the first noblewoman in the land. She bristled like a porcupine, and the wonder is that she never turned on her famous husband. “It was a case of love, not at first sight, but at first recognition,” Sir Winston wrote. “It lasted for ever; neither one of them thenceforward loved anyone else in their whole lives” … and then the end-note expected by anybody who’s ever read anything about her, “though Sarah hated many.”
The most famous and problematic person she both hated and loved was the woman who eventually became Queen: poor rheumatic Anne, who had for most of her life shared a sisterly intimacy with Sarah. Both of them were smarter than outsiders usually estimated, and both of them loved sharp, elbow-throwing humor. Anne called her “Mrs. Freeman,” and she called Anne “Mrs. Morley” – in part in knowing testimony to their belief that they’d have been fast friends even if they’d met as commoners, that their hearts were in sympathy regardless of titles.
Of course that sympathy could be strained, as when Sarah’s husband was off fighting the French – campaigns that cost Anne’s government heaps of money, as her advisers were forever telling her:
“Oh bah, Morley, don’t be so timid,” I said with disgust. “It’s a different tale when the messengers bring word of another victory. Then you order the church bells rung and the guns fired from the Tower to celebrate the new glory that’s come to your reign. You can’t have that without paying the piper.”
She sighed again. “I’ve never said the victories have not been appreciated. It’s only that Mr. Harley and the others believe there might be ways to accomplish the same good without spending so very much.”
“Oh, I see!” I snapped my fingers together. “We’ll pay for gunpowder with fairy dust, and sell pippins for cannon. Is there any wonder that Lord Marlborough writes to me constantly of quitting the army altogether and retiring to St. Albans?”
“I won’t allow it,” the queen said, aghast.
“John would indeed quit the army, and resign his commissions,” I said, my voice rising with emotion. “and so would I retire, and join him in the country. After all the service we have given, there’s only so much we can bear.”
The queen’s face crumpled. “Oh, Mrs. Freeman, don’t speak so, I beg of you! You know you are still my dearest friend! Why must you insist that I agree with you in all matters? Why can’t I be permitted to hold my own counsel, and you yours, the way you once did?”
I rose from my chair, unable to listen to any more. “I’ll be the same Mrs. Freeman when you can manage to be the same Mrs. Morley.”
The story of a woman who could behave so to a queen (and Scott is only nominally inventing, for this and many other such scenes) is well worth a novel or two, and this one will stand as the best of the generation. Now if only some enterprising soul, some modern Winston perhaps, would embark on the 800-page straight-up biography this infuriating woman deserves ….