Everyone knows that weekend house parties, especially parties in distinctive British country houses, mean trouble. A pity that ambitious architect John Vanbrugh didn’t brush up on his Poe before accepting an invitation from the Duchess of Marlborough, Winston Churchill’s cousin-in-law, for a 1905 weekend at the ducal seat, Blenheim. Coincidentally (or is it merely coincidence?), John Vanbrugh was the name of the 17th-century architect who designed the palatial home for John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, against his own Duchess’s wishes. The present Duchess, the American Conseulo, née Vanderbilt, wants to remodel her living quarters. Hiring Vanbrugh, she insists, will lift the curse left on Blenheim by the enmity between the old Duchess and her architect. When she leaves the second Vanbrugh to investigate the walls, he discovers an ancient, desperate message behind the paneling and similar letters behind the wall coverings. Were the first architect and his Duchess really enemies? Infatuated with the Duchess—a feeling she encourages—Vanbrugh wonders if history is repeating itself. The beautiful Duchess and mean-spirited Duke’s marital struggle embroils all Blenheim’s household and guests: the servants, sharply divided in their loyalties; painter John Singer Sargent, frantic over a lost sketchbook; politician Winston Churchill, proud of his heritage; the Duke’s mistress, covetous of his title; and soon Vanbrugh and his pregnant wife Margaret, both, in classic Gothic ingénue fashion, naïve to the point of imbecility.
If Vanbrugh weren’t such a hypocritical prig, one might feel sorry for him, trapped in an atmospheric house among a devious household in this coldly stylish debut.