Please welcome Joanne Limburg to The Seventeenth Century Lady! I’ve known Joanne for several years now because we started working on our novels at the same time (me on William & Mary, she on A Want of Kindness). Joanne’s novel is soon to be released (and I’m still looking for a publisher!), so please give a warm welcome to Joanne Limburg, who is here today with a post about Queen Anne’s letters to Sarah Churchill.
‘Pray Stay Till Sunday’ – Queen Anne’s letters to Sarah Churchill
Posthumously, Queen Anne suffered a terrible fate: her ex-best friend published a book about their relationship, an intimacy which had begun at the court of Charles II and lasted through the reign of James II and William and Mary, only to turn sour in the years after Anne herself came to the throne.
This ex-best friend was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. She was a gifted propagandist. In her memoirs, and in her ‘sketches’, she fashions a convincing image for Anne, and hands it down to posterity. She begins with Anne’s appearance, which she conceded was ‘not at all ungraceful, till she grew exceeding gross and corpulent’ – she was never that special, and then she got fat.
Sarah moves from Anne’s weight issues to her ‘sullen and constant frown’, an external blemish that betrayed internal flaws: ‘cloudiness of disposition’, moroseness, stubbornness, which produced, in Sarah’s view, a sort of ‘bigotry in religion’, and an unreasonable, unswerving prejudice towards Sarah’s political party, the Whigs.
It goes on: Anne had an excellent memory, but wasted it on trivial matters, and personal grievances; she was entirely unoriginal, incapable of any thought or opinion that had not been dictated to her by someone else; her conversation ‘had nothing of brightness or wit’, and as for her letters, they were: very indifferent, both in sense and spelling, unless that they were generally enlivened with a few passionate expressions, sometimes pretty enough, but repeated over and over again, without the mixture of anything either of diversion or instruction.
Sarah may well have found Anne’s letters dull, but she hung onto them. They were preserved along with the rest of the Duchess’s correspondence, and are now stored at the British Library. I was lucky enough to see them there, and have read the earlier ones, dating from 1683 to 1701, the year before Anne became Queen. Sarah’s description of her friend’s letter-writing style is true enough, but partial, and unkind. Anne’s letters were never intended as literary productions. What she was writing were the 17th Century equivalent of texts and emails – quick scrawls to her BFF to share her news, ask after Sarah’s health and that of her family, offers of help, condolences, requests that Sarah, as her Groom of the Stool, send or purchase little items for her – another pair of gloves, shoes better suited to the weather – and thanks when these arrived. More than anything else, they are a reflection of Anne’s feelings for Sarah, the ‘tenderness’ and ‘kindness’ she ‘has in [her] heart’.
The second letter in the first volume, written when Anne was trying to persuade her father, the Duke of York, to allow her to take Sarah as her Lady of the Bedchamber, sets the tone. She begins by declaring that ‘the trouble I am in is not to be exprest’ and says that she ‘must beg’ Sarah not to leave London for Windsor until the following Sunday ‘tho you have great temptations to go yet in meer pity and compation to poor me (who you say you love).’
Could Sarah imagine how well Anne loves her, she would not refuse her ‘so small a request’. She tells Sarah how glad she is to hear that she won a hundred pounds and cards, and signs off with ‘pray stay till Sunday’. [Blenheim Papers, BL Add Ms 61414]
These then are some of the ‘passionate expressions’ that Sarah will later dismiss as ‘sometimes pretty enough, but repeated over and over again’. Poor Anne – if she said continued to say them, it was only because she continued to mean them. The main impression I took away from the letters was one of heart-breaking insecurity. During the turbulent years of her early adulthood, as Anne found herself alienated first from her father and then from her sister, and lost child after child, she clung more and more to Sarah, her clever, capable, beautiful friend, who could never disappoint her, and who was surely too blessed and too strong to ever die. When her sister, the Queen, gave her stark choice – dismiss Sarah, or face banishment from Court – she would choose Sarah, for as she said (and only once):
… let them do what they please, nothing shall ever vex me, so I can have the satisfaction of seeing dear Mrs Freeman [her name for Sarah], and I swear I would live on bread and water between four walls with her, without repining, for as long as you continue kind, nothing can ever be a real mortification… [BL Add Ms61414]
What Sarah may have written in response we do not know, for Anne faithfully destroyed Sarah’s half of the correspondence, presumably on the assumption that her friend would do the same. What is abundantly clear is that Anne loved Sarah, had good reason to believe herself loved in return, and never imagined, in those years before her accession, that this could ever change. Sarah, too, believed that she could rely on Anne’s friendship and loyalty, but they were both to be disappointed. Sarah blamed her alienation from Anne entirely on the machinations of Anne’s subsequent favourite, Abigail Masham, and Abigail certainly played a bit part in their falling-out, but I would also argue that the causes of their final arguments had been lurking between them, all unsuspected, from the start, in the stark differences between their political and religious views – Anne was a staunchly Anglican Tory, Sarah a more tolerant Whig, and while this mattered little when Anne had no power, once she was Queen, it came to matter more than anything else.
The final bust-up, when it happened, dismayed both women. And it is worth remembering, as one reads the cruel account Sarah gave of her late friend, the Elie Wiesel quote:
‘The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference’.
No matter what happened, Sarah would never be indifferent to Anne.
Joanne Limburg’s previous books include the poetry collections, Femenismo, Paraphernalia and The Oxygen Man, her memoir The Woman Who Thought Too Much and a poetry collection for children, Bookside Down. A Want of Kindness is her first novel. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and son, and is currently working towards a PhD in Life Writing at Kingston University. You can follow her on Twitter @JoanneLimburg
Her novel about the life of Queen Anne, A Want of Kindness will be out in June.