Things that are worth naming

Linda Colley

  • A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Frances Harris
    Oxford, 421 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 19 820224 5

Among the illustrations in this book is a painting by John Closterman of the Marlborough family which hangs today in Blenheim Palace. On its right-hand side, as convention dictates, sits the head of the family, John Churchill, at the time of the painting, first Earl of Marlborough. On its extreme left, at a slightly lower level, stands his only surviving son and heir, the ten-year-old Lord Blandford. Each of them is shown gesturing to the other, presumably because the artist wanted to create a connection in the spectator’s mind between the author of the family’s grandeur and the source of its future hopes. But the effect is to carry the eye to the very centre of the work, to the figure of Sarah Marlborough.

Clad in luxurious silk, with her feet apart and her arms relaxed, she sits with her back to a massive pillar. She and the artist had quarrelled, and this, legend has it, is why he portrayed her staring sourly out of the canvas, fixing anyone who surveys it with an unyielding gaze. If the story is true, it was a poor revenge: for the result is to make the other members of the family appear almost simpering by comparison in their desire to please and impress. Only she, apparently, refuses to compromise. Take her or leave her: she is what she is. And she is powerful. Flanking her are her four daughters, Elizabeth, Mary, Henrietta and Anne. She would marry two of them off to dukes, and two of them to earls. And when the time came, she would net as partners for her seven granddaughters five dukes, an earl and a viscount. As for her husband and son, she would outlive them both by years. Viewed retrospectively, this is an image of triumphant matriarchy and female dynasty-building of a kind which historians have barely begun to understand.

Superficially, this neglect of the female component of Britain’s one-time patrician élite seems very odd. The high political history of this country was, after all, dominated for an extraordinarily long time by a limited number of great landed families closely interlinked by marriage. And before the emergence of mass democracy and a large and professional civil service, a great deal of political discussion and intrigue took place at country-house weekends and over polite dinner parties. One has only to glance, say, at Trollope’s Palliser novels to be reminded of that. Why, then, have those women who arranged the political marriages between clans, and who acted as hostesses at country-house weekends and at dinner parties, so often been left out of serious histories of past politics? Why have the real-life Lady Glencoras eluded historians?

In part, the explanation lies in changing fashions of historical writing. Before the 1960s, when high political history was still intensively studied, the history of women was virtually ignored. Now the position is almost completely reversed. The last thing most politically correct historians choose to focus on today is political history. And although women’s history flourishes, a lingering prejudice remains that its purpose must be to disinter victims, or rebels, or achievers in their own right, not apparently conventional and well-padded married women who propped up their husbands and the existing order. Moreover, many women’s historians remain wedded to separate spheres methodologies. They hold it as axiomatic that men hogged the public sphere to themselves, whereas women were increasingly confined within the home and family, until partially liberated by the vote. So women like Sarah Marlborough can fall very easily through the cracks between scholarly prejudices. They are the wrong sex for traditionalists. They are too privileged to appeal to those intent upon the dispossessed masses. And because their power challenges accepted notions about women’s place in the past, they are likely to be swept under the scholarly mat as exceptional women of the wrong kind, representative only of themselves.

But women of this sort also suffer from silences in the sources. Because it was exercised informally, their influence was frequently not communicated to paper. Even when it was, such evidence had to run the gauntlet of subsequent generations, who sometimes destroyed the papers of their dead womenfolk out of delicacy, or threw them away unread on the assumption that they were bound to be unimportant. Moreover, the women themselves were often diffident for one reason or another. Even Sarah Marlborough, scarcely the retiring type, insisted on her husband and Queen Anne routinely burning all the letters she sent to both of them.

For all these reasons, studies of this remarkable woman have in the past been numerous but in the main soft-centred, preoccupied – as Frances Harris puts it – with her ‘tempestuous personal relationships’. Harris’s own book, by contrast, is founded on careful research in some twenty-five different archives on both sides of the Atlantic. As a curator of the manuscript collection in the British Museum where the Blenheim papers are now deposited, she knows the main archival source for her subject impeccably. She locates Sarah where she needs to be understood – in the context of the highest political junketing of her time. And she writes lucidly and well. The result is one of the most impressive and attractive political biographies to have been published for a decade.

This said, the bare bones of the story she tells in the first half of the book are familiar enough. Sarah was born in 1660, the year of the Restoration. Her parents seem to have separated while she was still a child, and her father died when she was eight. So, at just 13, she became a maid of honour to the Duchess of York, putting up with the toadying, the gossip and the endless hours of card play involved in court life because it was her only chance of a salary and some kind of prospects, and resolutely keeping both her virginity and her wits about her. Then, when she was 15 and he was 25, she met John Churchill, a professional soldier and adventurer. Both came from the declining gentry class which had been hard hit by the disruptions of the civil wars. Both possessed almost startling physical beauty. And both of them were deeply emotional, highly-strung, acutely ambitious, and resolutely on the make. In 1677, they were secretly married.

The next dozen years proved vital to their joint ambition of founding a dynasty to be reckoned with. They produced a family, and forged a lasting friendship with Sidney Godolphin, an unvaryingly modest, thoroughly decent and impeccably professional bureaucrat and politician who was devoted to them both, perhaps because their characters were so different from his own. He offered stability, they gave him verve and vicarious glamour. But it was Sarah herself who made a far more important contact. In 1683, she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess Anne, at that time second in line to the throne. Anne was a dumpy, stubborn and seriously religious woman, a gynaecological disaster, and limited in high-society life by her extreme short-sightedness. To her, Sarah’s wit, looks, self-confidence and evident female success seemed dazzling, and she developed a crush on her of almost schoolgirl intensity. In November 1688, when William of Orange landed in England to oust Anne’s father, King James II, the Marlboroughs seized their chance. Sarah helped the Princess to escape from Whitehall and brought her safely to William’s camp, while her husband deserted from the King’s Army and took as many officers and men as he could over to his opponent.

The full rewards for these actions, which helped to drive James out of his kingdom for ever and so made Anne heir presumptive, only came after the latter’s accession to the throne in 1702. Marlborough was appointed Captain General of the British forces in Europe, and as such won a succession of brilliant victories against the French – Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Malplaquet and Bouchain. His friend and close political ally, Godolphin, became Lord Treasurer and effective first minister until 1710. As for Sarah, she was now Anne’s Groom of the Stole and Mistress of the Robes, in receipt of an annual salary of £6000. This continued until 1711, but her influence over the Queen ended years earlier. Anne held conventional views both of her own importance as monarch, and of the restrictions on womankind in general. From Sarah, she wanted a sticky intimacy based on confidences, gossip and discussions of female ailments. What she got instead was an increasingly disrespectful barrage of political advice unapologetically biased in favour of the Whig party. The Queen almost always ignored it. ‘The things that are worth naming will ever be done from the influence of men,’ Sarah would write later in her bitterness. Women could be the playthings of kings and ministers, she remarked on another occasion, but that was the closest they were ever likely to come to political power.

Seen in a certain light, this was indeed the lesson of her life. Because of her sex, her burning interest in politics could find no proper formal outlet: ‘I should have been the greatest hero that ever was known in the Parliament House if I had been so happy as to have been a man.’ As it was, she was confined to court intrigue for which her uncompromising directness was entirely unsuitable. ‘I was not a cunning, dextrous favourite,’ she admitted once, ‘yet I was a true and sincere one.’ But this was the problem. Candour has no value at court. She could lecture the Queen and she could threaten her. But she could never make the Queen a Whig, any more than she could become a Whig minister herself. Sharp intelligence, boundless confidence and huge reserves of energy and ambition: Sarah had them all. Yet these gifts were always cramped by her gender. And her recognition of this must have lain at the root of much of the recurrent foul temper for which she was notorious.

Given this, however, it is one of the virtues of the Harris biography that it suggests a rather different way of appraising what the Duchess achieved. True, she was not able to exert power like a man. But as the woman she was, in the position that she held, her impact was dramatic. And she owed her position directly to her sex. Had she not been a woman, she could never, given the constraints of court etiquette, have become the bosom friend of Princess Anne. Nor, self-evidently, could she have married the man who became Britain’s most remarkable though least understood general. Nor could she have become the platonic confidante of the widowed Lord Godolphin, who never remarried, and seems desperately to have needed an attractive but virtuous woman to talk to. Royal power, military power, civil power: to all of these Sarah acquired access because of who she was and what she was.

Moreover, one of her main weapons – and this Harris could have made more of – was her sheer physical splendour. Kneller captured it in a succession of paintings and sketches, the long red-gold hair, the arrogant and heavy-lidded blue eyes, the dimpled chin, and the long limbs and indulgent figure which the age admired. It was all this which helped to bind Marlborough to her throughout his life (‘I swear to you the first night in which I was blessed in having you in my arms, was not more earnestly wished for by me, than now I do, to be again with you’). His masculinity established beyond dispute by war, he was willing sometimes to give in to his wife’s political advice. So was the adoring Godolphin, who wrote to her every day when she was away from London, and shared with her his official correspondence with the Queen. It was through her hold over these two men, a hold based on qualities of body as well as of mind, that Sarah was able to exert most influence on policy and on the distribution of patronage.

She was clever, of course, and lucky. She was never tempted to be unfaithful to Marlborough or to remarry after his death, preferring to use her blazing sexuality to dazzle a variety of powerful males, not as a means to her own submission. For some unknown medical reason, her childbearing career ended when she was 30, so she was never drained of her health or taken from the centre of events by repeated pregnancies as was Queen Anne herself. And she was one of those women whose energy is actually enhanced by the menopause. This book is full of vignettes of the alarming pace she set after middle age. Sarah in her late fifties, after the Duke had suffered a major stroke, romping furiously with her grandchildren while he wept helplessly by the fireside. Sarah in her late sixties at the coronation of George II, commandeering a drum from a soldier because for once she wanted to sit down. Sarah in her seventies terrifying that frail, waspish bisexual Lord Hervey by the aggressive allure that she was still able to exercise: ‘She is as coquet as if she was 18, and as rampant as if she were drunk. I expect to hear soon of her listing some strapping lusty grenadeer in her service, or taking some young actor off the stage.’ Sarah buying a new town house at 81, upholstering all the chairs herself, and throwing a celebratory supper party which lasted until 3 a.m. And near the end, a bedridden Sarah yelling at a rapidly retreating doctor: ‘I won’t be blistered, and I won’t die!’ Nor did she – until she was 84.

It is in her account of this older Sarah that Harris really breaks new ground. Far more of Sarah’s letters survive among the Blenheim papers from this stage of her life than from before 1712, when she and her husband were at the centre of events, so it becomes possible to reconstruct her political and other activities in her own words, rather than having to rely on the reports supplied by more or less reliable contemporaries, or on the patchy memoirs which Sarah compiled late in life, which are certainly not reliable. Harris shows how quickly she took control once the Duke was stricken in 1716, monitoring all of his correspondence and meetings, watching over the completion of Blenheim, and regulating the family’s wealth. Marlborough had always allowed her full control over her own savings and investments (which by law, of course, were his to dispose of), but now she took charge of both their fortunes. And since – exactly like Margaret Mitchell’s fictional Scarlett O’Hara whom Sarah so often seems to have resembled – arithmetic and an aptitude for accounts were among her fortes, she did very well. Thousands of people lost money in the financial crash known as the South Sea Bubble in 1720-21. But she sold out their stock just in time and made a profit of £100,000. She also purchased 25 landed estates in 12 different counties.

After the Duke’s death in 1722, his will made her the chief trustee of his wealth and effective head of the family. And it was this formidable combination of riches, broad acres, and matriarchal power that allowed her a second lease of political life. For much of the 1720s and 30s she acted as an unofficial but much courted member of the Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole’s Administration. She exerted the electoral patronage she possessed on her landed estates, and especially in Woodstock and St Albans, in favour of Opposition candidates. She used the marital alliances of her daughters and granddaughters with a variety of great families to put pressure on any of their male members who had seats in Parliament, threatening to cut them out of her will if they did not vote with the Opposition. She entertained and corresponded with the Opposition’s leaders and pet intellectuals, Lord Bolingbroke, William Pulteney, Lord Stair and Alexander Pope. During the crisis caused by Walpole’s attempt to put an excise tax on tobacco in 1733, she distributed division lists and other political propaganda and received deputations of voters. And she used some of her wealth to further the cause, leaving a promising young man called William Pitt £10,000 in her will, for example, so that he would be able to maintain his political independence.

So the verdict on Sarah’s widowhood which Winston Churchill supplied in his biography of the Duke of Marlborough – ‘She lived entirely for her husband’s memory’ – is far from the truth. She loved her husband all her adult life: but she also loved exercising power of all kinds in her own right and was entranced by state affairs. No more than in the first half of her life were her political activities at this later stage crowned with success. She certainly made a contribution to the Opposition’s campaign and persistence. But it failed to oust Walpole from power until 1742, by which time she had long known herself to be an irrelevance. Nonetheless, what she did was significant in two very different respects.

To begin with, her energetic identification with the Opposition confirms just how seriously she took her Whig loyalties. To her, it mattered not at all that Sir Robert Walpole called himself a Whig. In his religious policy, in his foreign policy and in his determination to concentrate power in himself, she detected a dereliction of true Whig principles, and she was right: ‘I have not near so much desire to put Sir Robert’s reign to an end, as I have to recover our Constitution. And if we cannot do that I think ’tis no matter who governs.’ She herself was a Whig by temperament as well as out of conviction and hard study. She was suspicious of royal authority, ambiguous in her response to all organised religion, and horrified by French power and Roman Catholicism (though this did not prevent her from liking individual Catholics and Frenchmen). ‘Liberty’ was her favourite word. The starkness of her political views is noteworthy since it is often argued that women of Sarah’s type automatically took their political colouring from their menfolk. But, with her, this was manifestly not the case. Marlborough and Godolphin started out as moderate Tories. It was she who encouraged them to incline in a more Whiggish direction as their careers advanced: they never converted her.

More importantly, though, Sarah’s activities throughout her long career confirm that, if they wished and if they were sufficiently determined, women of her social class were able to impinge on political life in a wide variety of ways. Most obviously, they could seek to influence those of their menfolk who held political posts of some kind. But they could also intervene in the unreformed electoral process, particularly if they were single or widowed and owned land in their own right. Moreover they could use their social power as hostesses, or as participants at balls, supper parties, country-house weekends or even at race-meetings, together with the power they naturally exercised in families as wives, as mothers, as grandmothers and as marriage-brokers, to make their opinions felt and to get their views listened to. If this book has any one lesson, it is that power-broking in the past was much less confined than it is today to cabinet meetings, smoke-filled committee rooms, and grey buildings in Whitehall, venues which are still largely closed to women and which were formerly closed to them entirely. Instead, the uses of power were discussed amidst the splendours of the Royal Court, in the great houses, at the various social events patronised by members of the élite, and of course in bedrooms as well. And from these arenas, women were not excluded.

None of this is to say that women in the past were not politically disadvantaged. They were; and they are still. But just as political history must be rewritten so as to include – not exaggerate – the participation of women, so women’s historians must liberate their subjects from the crude and inappropriate categories of public sphere versus private sphere in which they so often confine them. In the past as in the present, men had their own private lives and many of them found their greatest fulfilment there. Conversely, women, especially if they were affluent, could often play a variety of public roles. The kind of power that women like Sarah Marlborough exercised was no substitute for the vote or for direct access to political office. But neither was it negligible.