Duchess is a biographical novel, told in first person by Sarah Jennings, who went to court as a young woman and rose high in rank. She married the war hero John Churchill, became Duchess of Marlborough, was the confidant and intimate friend of Queen Anne, and for a time was the most powerful woman in England.
When Sarah Jennings’ father died, her mother obtained a position for her as maid of honor to Mary Beatrice of Modena, wife of James, Duke of York, the brother and heir to King Charles II. Charles has no legitimate children, but James has two daughters, Mary and Anne, by his first wife, and Mary Beatrice is young and may have a son. To have a male heir would normally be cause for celebration, but James has become a Catholic and if he has a son, he will be raised a Catholic as well. This makes the English uneasy.
Sarah manages to negotiate all the ins and outs of court and befriends Princess Anne, a lonely, plain girl who is out of place at the licentious and sophisticated court. Sarah also meets John Churchill, a formidable military man with whom she falls in love. Alas, Churchill’s military prowess has not translated into monetary wealth and he can’t afford a wife yet. Churchill is ambitious though, and very successful in war, and eventually gets the title of Baron and an income that will allow him to set up a household. He and Sarah marry and are very much in love. Princess Mary marries Prince William of Orange and Princess Anne marries Prince George of Denmark.
There are plots aplenty when King Charles II dies and James becomes king. Even though James is a Catholic and a fanatical one, he might – just might have been able to keep his throne, but when Mary Beatrice gave birth to a son, the idea of a Catholic dynasty is too much for the English to take and they drive James out in the Glorious Revolution. William and Mary ascend the throne as co-rulers, and since they have no children, that makes Anne the heiress presumptive. Anne is happy enough with her pleasant but dull husband, but all her children die, she is out of her depths in William and Mary’s court, and Sarah is just about the only person in the kingdom whom Anne trusts and truly loves. When Anne becomes Queen, Sarah becomes the most powerful woman in the kingdom, she has all of Anne’s confidence and is named Mistress of the Robes and Keeper of the Privy Purse. However, Sarah loses Anne’s affection to her own relative Abigail Masham. But Sarah and John are nothing if not survivors.
The strength of Duchess, is also its weakness. Sarah tells it in the first person, and it is all Sarah, all the time. We come to know her intimately, but I would have loved to be in Queen Anne’s head, and John Churchill’s too. Normally, I enjoy first person point of view, but this is one instance I would have liked to have seen the omniscient point of view for a book.
The book sugarcoats Sarah’s character a bit. Most of what I have read portrays Sarah as a quarrelsome woman who fought with almost everyone around her. She famously fought with the architects who designed Blenheim Palace and when she died, she was estranged from all her children. It was only her husband who claimed her total affection. When he died, she was still lively and beautiful but she never remarried, saying that no one could replace John Churchill.
This book also shows the relationship between Sarah and Anne as a lesbian one. Historians disagree on this, some say they were lovers, others say they were not, but there is no doubt that their relationship was an intensely emotional one. Anne is portrayed in this book as immature, rather whiny, and a deeply unhappy woman. She liked her husband well enough, but there was no passion in their relationship and of her eighteen pregnancies, fourteen ended in miscarriage or stillbirth. Her only child to live any length of time died at the age of twelve.
Duchess was an interesting historical novel and the Restoration setting was a welcome change of pace from the usual Regency. There is a reader’s guide at the end of the book, for those who want to use this in a book club, and a preview of the author’s next book which is about the relationship between Lady Castlemaine and King Charles II. I may have to check it out.