When I was at university, I read a book by an incredibly patronising male historian who said that the court of Queen Anne was like an Angela Brazil novel, with the Duchess of Marlborough as the glittering Head Girl and Queen Anne as the dull fourth former who had a grand passion for her. Abigail Hill would presumably have been the sneaky new girl who split up two old friends. Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about a male monarch and their favourites?! This film does largely portray Anne as a weak ruler manipulated by the two other women, not to mention an eccentric who was obsessed with bunny rabbits and didn’t realise that the Battle of Blenheim hadn’t actually ended the War of the Spanish Succession, which is a bit harsh. However, it’s intended as a black comedy, not a faithful retelling of events and personalities, and Olivia Colman plays the role superbly. Rachel Weisz as the brilliant Sarah and Emma Stone as the devious Abigail are equally good, and it’s great to see this incredibly important but often neglected period of history getting some attention for a change … even if there are rather a lot of historical inaccuracies and omissions!
I’d love to write an essay about the War of the Spanish Succession, about which I can bore people for hours (I get slightly over-excited at the mention of the word “Blenheim”); but I won’t. Suffice it to say that it went on for over a decade, and, whilst the French candidate did eventually become King of Spain, Britain emerged as top dog, gaining Gibraltar and former French territory in Canada. And becoming Britain: the Act of Union between England and Scotland came into force in 1707. And there was a big fight between Madrid and Barcelona, and I’m not talking about football; but that isn’t very relevant here.
Meanwhile, at home, the country was split between different factions – to say Whigs and Tories might be an oversimplification, as a lot of it was more about Court v Country and City v Country and those factions weren’t always aligned with the party divisions; but this period was crucial in the development of the two-party system. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Anne’s long-term friend, became an ardent supporter of the so-called Junto Whigs, who included her son-in-law Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland. They came into conflict with the party led by Robert Harley, cousin of Abigail Hill, later Abigail Masham, who was also Sarah’s cousin. Anne is often, rather unfairly, portrayed as having had few opinions of her own and being pushed around by other people.
The negative view of Anne is partly due to the picture of her given in Sarah’s memoirs, but they were certainly very close at one time. Were they lovers? Well, they are in this film, but I personally don’t think they were in real life. We seem to have lost the concept of “passionate friends”, but I think that’s what they were. However, there were certainly rumours that Anne and Sarah were lovers, and then, later, strong rumours that Anne and Abigail were lovers.
At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter that much. The favourite phenomenon is fascinating, because, in just over a century, we had a whole spectrum of different relationships. Elizabeth I had male favourites, and it seems pretty certain that she was in love with at least one of them, Robert Dudley, but that they probably weren’t actually lovers. James I had male favourites, who almost certainly were lovers. Charles I seems to’ve been happily married to Henrietta Maria, but he had male favourites who were just friends … and who caused a lot of trouble. Charles II and James II both had umpteen mistresses and illegitimate children. Depending on what you read and how you interpret things, William III may have been gay, straight, bisexual or asexual: everyone seems to have a different view on that. He was certainly close to the Earl of Portland, the Earl of Albemarle and Betty Villiers, but was he actually having affairs with any or all of them? Then Queen Anne had female favourites, who were probably “passionate friends”, but maybe, especially in Abigail’s case, lovers. So we’ve got a lot of different relationships there, both in terms of the actual nature of the relationships and in terms of sexuality.
It’s great, really, because people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a female monarch having a lover, and people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a monarch having a same sex lover. And, as the 18th century went on, an increasing number of British men went to India and formed relationships with Indian women, and people didn’t have a problem with that either. Then attitudes changed completely during the Victorian era, whether it was because of the religious revival or whatever, and it’s taken us a long time to get back to society having a more equal view of things.
So, anyway, the exact nature of the relationships wasn’t really the issue, and sexuality wasn’t really the issue. The issue was the power and influence held by the favourites, whether they were friends, lovers, someone whom the monarch had romantic feelings for but wasn’t actually having a full-blown affair with, or “passionate friends”. And Anne’s reign is the one time when it was all about women – a female monarch with female favourites.
Sarah certainly had a very strong personality. I really like her. I’d probably have disliked her if I’d actually known her, but, as a historical figure, she definitely appeals to me. She really got stuck in there, not just during Anne’s reign but earlier on, during the Glorious Revolution. This was a time when women were not generally involved in politics, but she certainly was. And she wasn’t a toady. OK, her big mouth got her into trouble sometimes, and she’d have been wiser to have been a bit more toadyish with Anne – she apparently once snapped at her to “Be quiet” – but you have to admire her spirit. She came from a fairly minor gentry family, and became the second most powerful woman in the country. And (sorry for being irrelevant) her red hair genes have come down through three centuries to Prince Harry: I love that too! I’m rather put out that Rachel Weisz didn’t dye her hair red for this film!
Incidentally, it’s quite interesting that Sarah Churchill was a direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, and that, of William of Orange’s two “main” male favourites, one (Hans Bentinck, created Earl of Portland) was a direct ancestor of the Queen Mother, and the other (Arnold van Keppel, created Earl of Albemarle) was a direct ancestor of the Duchess of Cornwall. I’m not sure what that signifies, but it feels like it ought to signify something!
The way Sarah comes across in the film is a great image of her. I’d love to think that she was like that in day-to-day life – always ready with a clever remark, brilliant retort or put-down. It would be wonderful to be like that, rather than thinking of a smart remark half an hour after the event, and knowing that you probably wouldn’t have had the guts to say it anyway! The portrayal of her probably goes a bit far, but it does a good job in getting across the impression of a very strong woman who knew what she wanted and went for it, and who can accurately be described as the power behind the throne, without ever seeming like a monster or a caricature. Superb performance from Rachel Weisz.
Abigail, on the other hand, has never appealed to me. That’s illogical, because she seems to have been a much more gentle and pleasant person. But I think it is this idea of the sneaky new girl who comes between two long-time best friends. That’s very unfair, because- quite apart from the fact that we’re all entitled to make new friends (I think I probably sounded like someone out of an Angela Brazil novel just then!!) – Anne and Sarah’s friendship had begun to run its course by the time Abigail came to prominence, partly because of political differences and partly because Sarah was often away from court, spending time with her children and overseeing the building of Blenheim Palace.
The film does not show Abigail as being gentle and pleasant, though – it does show her as the sneaky new girl. And it goes way OTT. Pretty much everything it says about Abigail is OTT. Her father lost money and she had to go into service, before Sarah took her into her own employ and then found her a position at court. According to this, her father sold her, to a dirty old man, and, when she arrived at court, she was sent to scrub the kitchen floors! Er, no, not quite! But I kind of like the fact that she’s shown as devious, scheming bitch, who pretends to be oh so nice and sweet, plays Anne like a violin, and is determined to take Sarah’s place by whatever means possible – and succeeds in doing so. Emma Stone does a great job! It’s probably very unfair to poor Abigail, who was probably nothing like that bad in real life, but … well, she’s just never appealed to me, and I’m afraid it rather amused me to see her portrayed like that. Sorry, Abigail!
So many historical inaccuracies, though! The fact that Harley and Abigail were cousins was conveniently ignored: he was shown as getting her to pass information to him by threats and bullying. And where was George of Denmark, Anne’s husband, who was alive until 1708? He was never even mentioned, never mind shown! Nor were Sarah’s children or their spouses, despite the fact that her ambitions for them were such an important part of what went on. Nor were the Jacobites: neither the issue of the succession nor the fear of a French-backed Jacobite rising got a single mention. Nor did the Act of Union. The relationship between the Marlboroughs, who do seem to’ve had a very happy marriage, wasn’t portrayed very accurately. As for the language … the term “Prime Minister” wasn’t in use then, and, as much as Robert Harley was a prat, I hardly think that anyone in c.1705 would have described him as one 🙂 . And the men’s costumes are much more Georgian than of Queen Anne’s time.
Then there were the bizarre bits that they completely made up. One of them involved Abigail spiking Sarah’s drink, causing Sarah to have a riding accident from which she was rescued by a brothel keeper. Oh dear. I don’t expect 100% historical accuracy in a film, but at least keep it real! It’s not meant to be a parody, or a Carry On film. And they claimed that Sarah tried to blackmail Anne by threatening to publish explicit letters which Anne had sent her. Even if they had been lovers, there’s no way Anne would have written explicitly about it. Their letters are full of codewords. And the whole incident was a fabrication. OK, it’s fiction, but I do wish they’d explained somewhere that it wasn’t meant to be accurate!
And poor Anne! What was all that bunny rabbit stuff about – who dreamt that up? I found the depiction of her very annoying early on, but it did improve. It was explained that she’d had seventeen pregnancies and no surviving children. Poor woman. How horrendous is that? Medical historians seem to think that it was due to “sticky blood”, Hughes Syndrome, but obviously that couldn’t have been diagnosed or treated at the time. And, although the Glorious Revolution was mentioned, I think she must have had “issues” over that, given that she seems to have been quite a conservative person. Did she genuinely believe the warming pan story? Did she talk herself into believing it? Then there was her gout, which played a big part in this film, with Abigail shown at being good at alleviating her pain.
She certainly didn’t have things easy, and it seems quite unkind that the film … mocks her, for lack of a better way of putting it. But it does show her coming good in the end, realising what Abigail’s really like and putting her in her place … but that isn’t historically accurate either!
In summary – gold star for raising awareness for a neglected period of history, low marks for historical accuracy, high marks for a very entertaining script with some brilliant lines, top marks for great performances by three great actresses!