Why would the likes of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and other literary lights of 18th-century England devote their talents to vilifying (along with the popular press) a “cranky old lady”?
First-time English author Field acknowledges joining what one of the duchess’s many previous biographers has called a “moth-like tribe,” aiming to produce a balanced, or at least less distorted, account of a life made fascinating by the power it wielded and confronted. It seems that in her time, Sarah Churchill (1660–1744), who with her war-hero husband founded the Churchill-Spencer dynasties, exerted more influence on national politics and policies, amassed more personal wealth, and made more enemies than any Englishwoman since Queen Elizabeth I. She did it, the author recounts, the old-fashioned way. Both Sarah (née Jennings) and husband-to-be John Churchill were thrust early into the court patronage system by which British gentry aimed to improve their standings and fortunes. But while John went off to save the Holy Roman Empire by force of arms, Sarah conquered the royal inner sanctum, becoming a confidant of Princess Anne, younger daughter of James II. Field ably follows Sarah through an era of turmoil, with the Whigs hell-bent on preserving a Protestant line of succession and out to scourge Tory Catholics. With Anne’s coronation in 1702, Sarah had the royal ear and used it effectively to advance Whig issues while her husband, embarrassingly, retained Tory tendencies. Then came the famous fall from grace. The Queen’s affections bordered on the unnatural and, at least according to Sarah herself, were unrequited; it may actually have been otherwise, the author allows, quoting numerous sources on the possibility of a physical relationship. Spurned in favor of a new favorite, Sarah played the lesbian card, threatening blackmail in correspondence with the queen, and the Marlboroughs were dismissed from court in 1710.
Richly detailed and documented, if not the final word.