Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Charming History, Dirty Politics

Review: Exit Lady Masham by Louis Auchincloss 

You know of John and Sarah Churchill, the Marlboroughs, although perhaps you know them primarily as the forbears of Sir Winston Churchill. You may even be aware of the stormy relationship between the Duchess of Marlborough and Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart line to reign in England. But have you heard of the Queen's chamber-woman, Abigail Hill?

Or maybe you know her better as Lady Masham, the reputed lesbian lover of the Queen.

Auchincloss wrote this novel, the first-person look at this tempestuous triangle, from the point of view of Abigail Hill, later Lady Masham. Abigail was a first cousin (cousin-german, in the parlance of the era) of Sarah Jennings Churchill. She was one of four children from a bankrupt family, and was working as a laundress when Sarah took her up to be nanny to the Churchill children.

At the time, Sarah was the intimate favorite of Princess Anne, the heir to William and Mary. Auchincloss uses Abigail's position to voice the complexities of succession in England at the time, and to foreshadow the future troubles between Sarah and Abigail. Although Abigail constantly refers to herself as "a red-nosed, brown-faced laundress," Sarah becomes jealous of her ability to talk with the Earl, John Churchill. To remove her from the house, but still take advantage of her abilities, Sarah recommends Abigail to Queen Anne as bedchamberwoman.
In a less exalted milieu I should have been considered a chambermaid, but royalty sheds dignity over the most menial tasks.

Once there, history tells us that Abigail supplanted Lady Churchill as the favorite. (Although the fact that Sarah was made Mistress of the Robes after Anne's coronation argues that she continued to be a favorite for years after the introduction of Abigail Hill.)

In the perfervid political climate of the Palace, Abigail falls into the pacifist camp of another cousin, Lord Harvey and his coterie of literary folk. She marries one of his friends, and works with Harvey and Irish activist and anti-Papist Jonathan Swift. They want Abigail to encourage the Queen to withdraw her support for the War of Spanish Succession, and for her Captain-General, the Duke of Marlborough. The first step in that campaign is the removal of Sarah from her post at court.

In Lady Masham's world, the equivalent of blogging is one's propensity to correspond. Writers collected letters (especially from the famous), and published them with their own letters, editing as they desired. Queen Anne's fear that Sarah will publish correspondence between them, edited to indicate the Queen's attraction for Sarah was "distasteful" (subtly helped along by Lady Masham), finally tips the balance.

This is a short novel, and a very charming tale of nasty political infighting and influence. That it is dedicated to Barbara Tuchman is not surprising; that it is reminiscent of much in politics today, surprisingly—is.