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.

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