Why the richest woman in Britain changed her will 26 times

Mark Kishlansky

  • The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough by Ophelia Field
    Hodder, 575 pp, £20.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 340 76807 X

The memoirs of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, are among the more remarkable documents of the 18th century. Begun by 1704, they were written, rewritten and ghostwritten over three decades before publication in 1742. An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, from Her First Coming to Court to the Year 1710 was a none too subtle attempt at vindicating her brief period as favourite to Queen Anne, justifying her personal and political roles, refuting slanders against her and her warrior husband, and defaming her enemies, both dead and alive. Through their numerous recensions, Sarah’s memoirs became more rather than less embittered. The slights she imagined in middle age stung harder as the years passed; the losing Whig causes, now lost, needed more emphatic defence. The mud Sarah cleansed from her own reputation she daubed on the reputation of others, especially the Queen who abandoned her and the favourite who replaced her. Although she was dissuaded from printing the most damaging of Queen Anne’s love-letters – the ones that had earlier been used for blackmail – Sarah was not unaware of the power of suggestion. Nor did she consider any measure of revenge beneath the dignity of a duchess. When Voltaire was shown a pre-publication manuscript he urged moderation. As one contemporary commentator observed, ‘the book was an answer to itself.’

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