Duchess by Susan Holloway Scott

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The duchess of the title is Sarah Churchill, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most fascinating women in British history. This novel, written in the first person, began promisingly: its presentation of Sarah’s early life at court and the development of her relationships with both John Churchill and Princess Anne was very well done. The portrayal of Anne and all the tragedies she suffered – seventeen pregnancies and no surviving children – was sympathetic without being overly sentimental, but also showed Sarah’s irritation with a woman who was considerably less intelligent than she was.

It did indicate that there was a lesbian relationship between the two, at Anne’s instigation, and that’s something which remains uncertain and controversial. I’m inclined to think that the idea was dreamt up by male journalists and male politicians and propagated in later years by male historians because none of them could handle the idea that a woman favourite should have had as much power and influence as Sarah did, but we can’t know for sure and the writer of a novel is free to interpret things however he/she sees. Susan Holloway Scott at least steered well clear of some of the horrendously patronising nonsensical comments about Anne and Sarah which certain male historians have come up with over the years – was it JH Plumb who said that Anne’s court was like something out of an Angela Brazil school story?

My problem with the book was that, of the 363 pages of it, only 63 covered the period after Anne became queen, and only the last few of those covered the period after Anne’s death. Did the author just get fed up and think she’d written enough? Did she think that the politics of Anne’s reign were boring? There were references to them, but only in brief. The word “Junto” was never even mentioned, and the events of the War of the Spanish Succession were rushed through and the end of the war and the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht never referred to at all. Sarah’s brilliant management of her financial affairs when so many people were ruined by the South Sea Bubble only got half a sentence, and there was nothing about her arrangement of the marriages of her daughters or her involvement in the lives of her grandchildren. Then, to add insult to injury, the last couple of paragraphs weren’t even about Sarah herself but about the fact that she was an ancestress of Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales

The start was promising, but the rest of the book was just far too rushed. . Why decide to write a novel about such an interesting personality and then not do it properly? This wasn’t a bad read, but it could and should have been so, so much better.

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