Monday, February 22, 2010

Review- Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill by Susan Holloway Scott

Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill
by Susan Holloway Scott
Aug 1, 2006
Historical Fiction/Romance (M/F, F/F)
Novel- 384 pgs. (over 60K words)

by Guest Reviewer M. A.

Buy it Amazon, B&N, Penguin

London:1673. With her family ruined by war, penniless thirteen-year-old Sarah Jennings is overjoyed to be chosen as a maid of honor at the bawdy Restoration court of Charles II. She soon wins the trust of Lady Anne of York, a lonely princess who becomes one of her staunchest allies. And though Sarah’s beauty stirs the desires of jaded aristocrats, she wants a grander future for herself than that of a pampered mistress. Only one man possesses ambition and passions that match her own: John Churchill, a dashing young military hero. He would ask for her hand—and win her heart for a lifetime….

But Whitehall Palace is ripe with ever-shifting alliances and sexual scandal, and Sarah will need all her cleverness to succeed. Titles, power, and wealth are the prizes, while an idle whisper in the wrong ear can bring a cry of treason, and the executioner’s ax. Will Sarah’s loyalties––and her dreams––falter when a king is toppled from his throne and a new queen crowned? And will she dare risk everything when her one true love is tested by a passionate, dangerous obsession?

Brimming with the intrigue and sensuality of one of history’s most decadent courts, Duchess brings to vivid life the story of an unforgettable woman who determines her own destiny––outspoken, outrageous, but most of all true to herself.

Wow. What a great read.

The Stuart Dynasty represents an intriguing study to anyone pondering the possibilities of sexual orientation being more a result of genetics/heredity than environment. Numerous Stuart royals were known to support same gender favorites, and it’s debatable they “learned” these preferences from their parents since their parents did not raise them. Housefuls of servants raised them instead. The tendency was noted and re-noted throughout generations of the family.

Sarah Churchill, a gentry commoner who survived the court intrigues of the Glorious Revolution and retired Duchess of Marlborough, enjoys a notorious reputation as a woman ahead of her time. Ambitious, politically astute, a great beauty according to the times, she was also the intimate friend – some say the mistress – of Anne Stuart, the last Stuart monarch to rule Great Britain.

This book has so much going for it. Excellent editorial quality and first-rate writing. Despite the novel’s length, Sarah’s story flies off the pages. Scott’s style combines detail, fascinating subject matter, and sufficient variety of structure to keep readers entranced. Even if you’re already familiar with Sarah’s story this novel’s worth reading.

I felt like Scott presented Sarah’s characterization honestly. Sarah is a flawed character and very much a product of her day even as she struggles to “break the mold” concerning her own expectations and reach beyond possibility. That said, I’m unsurprised that I disliked Sarah at times. Sarah was known to be manipulative, avaricious, an opportunist and a bully. Since she lived in an era where nice girls often finished last, I understand her bitchiness and self-centeredness. Sarah’s “voice” in this story is very genuine, revealing an ambitious woman who knows all the cards are stacked against her and behaves accordingly. When she recognizes potential benefit to herself in doing her duty or going beyond her duty, she acts without hesitation, even at exceptional personal risk. Unfortunately, because she is equally capable of deceit and betrayal to promote her interests, her heroism is less admirable. It’s understandable -- her principles and her actions demonstrate hypocrisy and self-interest typical of the times – but not likeable.

Sarah’s “fatal flaw” is her inability to admit her own shortcomings. She is capable of justifying or denying pretty much anything to rationalize her behavior. Again, this isn’t a likable trait, but it’s consistent with what’s known of Sarah. I found my feelings about Sarah comparable to the typical “self-starter power coworker/boss.” The kind of person who understands “office politics” and manipulates that knowledge for personal advantage. Before you know it, this kind of person’s playing golf with the CEOs even if their work ethics and productivity don’t measure up while other employees take up the slack.

The novel revolves around the two serious relationships of Sarah’s life, her friendship with Anne and her marriage to the dashing war hero, John Churchill.

Anne and Sarah meet as young girls in the York household. Sarah, a few years older, enchants Anne (a lonely, unhealthy child) with her brutal honesty. Anne recognizes Sarah doesn’t resort to white lies and sycophantic flattery typical of courtiers wishing to suck up to the Royals. Since Anne trusts Sarah, the normally stand-offish princess welcomes Sarah into her intimate circle.

Sarah, recognizing potential value in intimacy with Anne (third in line for the crown) does not hesitate to cultivate the friendship. Before long, the two are spying on courtiers’ indiscretions and enjoying regular card games. In between, Sarah fends off sexual harassment from various big players in the palace, including the Duke of York (the future James II) and the Duke of Monmouth (King Charles’ ill-fated illegitimate son, doomed to suffer brutal execution after Culloden.)

It was difficult for me to evaluate whether or not Sarah sincerely loved Anne in any capacity. The entire story is told in Sarah’s POV and so much of Sarah’s time is spent criticizing and faulting Anne. Again, this is very in character with the real Sarah Churchill (by the end of her life her critical disposition had alienated her from her adult children.) I suspect, however, that Sarah’s contempt for Anne as a defense mechanism to soothe her own inferiority complex related to her lack of rank.

At times, though, I had a good sense of internal conflict in Sarah. Too often, she is quick to minimize her own feelings for her girlfriend and emphasize Anne’s love for her. Sarah really is the girlfriend from hell, ruthlessly competitive, eager to compare herself to Anne and find Anne lacking. When Anne exhibits undesirable characteristics, Sarah is quick to label her in the wrong, conveniently overlooking her own comparable failings. Sarah tries too hard to convince the reader – and herself? – that Anne really needs her and loves her more than Sarah returns those feelings. Never mind the incredible benefits Sarah and her whole family enjoy as a direct benefit of Anne’s generosity. Sarah begins her illustrious Court career as a maid of honor with neither rank nor dowry. By the time Anne dismisses the Churchills from service, Sarah and John have been ennobled (the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough), awarded numerous court positions, pensions, and salaries, and Sarah is widely known as a key player and “power behind the throne.”

I suspect Sarah needed Anne to love her a good deal more than she needed to love Anne.

Throughout the decades of their closeness, Anne is pitifully frank, heart on her lace-edged sleeves. A steely inner core strengthens Anne. Sarah recognizes it, to some degree admires it, but assumes to the bitter end she is somehow exempt from Anne’s “dark side.” Anne lives the life of a Stuart princess, not half so glamorous and romantic as a storybook alternative. By order of the British government, Anne is raised in the Anglican faith. Due to the significance society placed upon religion at the time, she is estranged from her father and her stepmother (both Roman Catholic.) Her main value to her family is her value in a political marriage, and her elder sister, Mary (later Queen Mary II) is more attractive and promising. Conservative, quiet, distrustful, and lacking conventional attractiveness, Anne is an overlooked, undervalued appendage in the “Merrie Monarch’s” licentious court despite her popularity with the English public.

Sarah perceives Anne as dull and stupid, but later discovers she’s quite intelligent and politically adept despite her awkward shyness and plain looks.

Enter John Churchill during a theatrical presentation the two young women perform to entertain the Court. Sarah’s thoughts linger on the differences in her feelings for her bosom friend and a handsome young man:

(SPOILER) (To read spoiler highlight text) Just as I was Mercury, Lady Anne played the nymph whom Mercury desired, and while this might seem a pretty conceit between friends, it also taxed me mightily. Anne had accused me of preferring John Churchill to her, and as I declared Mercury's undying passion, I did indeed think of him, even as I smiled into her adoring face. As I took her plump little hand to lead her through our dance, I couldn't swear which partner's hand I imagined in my own: Mercury's nymph, or Lady Anne, or the handsome young colonel... (END SPOILER)

Chemistry between Sarah and John ignites at once. They’re two of a kind, poor and proud, of common birth and possessing sufficient brains and ambition to lead an insurrection against a country. Except they’d rather not, because both covet rank and recognition for themselves too much to eliminate them. Both are anti-Catholic and permit it to affect their politics (although their bigotry doesn’t extend to them refusing to serve their Catholic employers until the rest of the country rebels against them.) While Sarah is cultivating intimate friendship and favor from Anne, John has been the tirelessly devoted on-again off-again paramour to the Duchess of Cleveland who has compensated him most generously for his devotion.

After a whirlwind courtship, they marry secretly, with York’s approval, so that Sarah may continue to attend the Duchess and Anne at court (an unmarried woman’s “job.”) Their marriage is presented as idyllic throughout the book, rife with passion and mutual affection whenever the two are able to meet. I think the simplicity of the marriage description extends from the historical reality that, while married a long time, the couple rarely spent time together. Sarah was often attending the Royals and John’s military obligations meant he frequently left the country for several months or years at a time.

Sarah and Anne’s relationship is more complex due to its growth and evolution. Their childhood friendship evolves into their adulthood where they share each other’s triumphs and sorrows. They become lovers shortly after Anne’s wedding and the transition, is tender, slightly awkward, and true to both characters. Each woman enjoys a happy married life. Each revels in the joy of motherhood and bears the pain of loss common to a period of high infant mortality (tragically, Anne would endure eighteen pregnancies and not see a single child survive childhood.)

The two women watch each other’s backs, too. When King James attempts to arrest Anne and hold her hostage to prevent an Anglican uprising, Sarah and Anne flee together. When Queen Mary orders Anne to dismiss Sarah due to Sarah’s “scandalous undue influence,” Anne steadfastly refuses. The queen orders Anne out of the palace and deprives her of her palace guard. Anne shrugs off the incident, borrows a London town house from a loyal courtier…and welcomes Frances Aspley into her service. When King William attempts to restrict Anne’s allowance to force her to heel, Anne addresses the matter with Parliament who promptly rules in her favor. Anne collects her income…and raises Sarah’s salary.

(To non-history buffs: Frances Aspley was Princess Mary’s long-term attendant and, if not her lover, a deeply romantic confidante. Mary wasn’t permitted to bring Frances with her to the Netherlands when she married. The unhappy queen wrote lengthy love letters to Frances addressing Frances as “my husband” and even went so far as to refer to her unborn child as a “bastard.”)
Through it all, Anne is deadly calm and dry. Sarah criticizes her as a “true Stuart” for coldly turning her back on her closest kin, but again, has no problem benefitting from Anne’s stubbornness. When Anne ascends to the throne, the Churchills are close at hand to bathe in reflected glory.

Ironically, bisexuality isn’t presented as a major obstacle in the narrative as far as the public eye is concerned. The novel implies bisexuality within discreet limits was tolerated, if not lauded, among women. Major objections to Anne’s attachment to Sarah appeared to be Sarah’s “commoner” background , her Whig politics, and simple jealousy of the various honors and benefits Anne heaped upon her favorite. I found it refreshing.

This is not an erotic novel, but one love scene captures beautiful imagery of the two women making love:

(SPOILER) (Anne) liked to be teased, perhaps because as a princess she'd always been granted every wish...I'd learned many, many things about her.
Frantically she pulled at my own clothes, our hair coming unpinned around our shoulders and the pearls swinging from our ears. Her flesh was pale and soft as doeskin, revealed to me as our skirts tangled around our limbs. Our actions made the warm afternoon even warmer, until at last I gave her what she sought,..We lay together afterwards, pressed thigh to thigh in drowsy contentment as she combed fingers through my tangled hair.

"Oh love," she murmured happily... (END SPOILER)

I should warn you that Anne and Sarah do not enjoy a HEA. Sarah’s fall from Anne’s good graces is abrupt, brutal, but wholly deserved. If you’re unfamiliar with history, suffice it to say Sarah did not learn from the past, and she forgot why Anne loved her in the first place.

“Duchess” is an excellent story of a volatile time, lovingly written. It would satisfy the “sweet tooth” of any reader interested in or curious about the Restoration.

I can only think of two peeves I had with the book. The book is written from Sarah’s POV in first person. First person POV is always more restrictive than third person and it seriously handicaps this tale because Sarah must tell us about many of the more noteworthy historical events instead of Scott being able to show them to us. Or someone else tells Sarah about them. Sarah is a female courtier. Many of the relevant events discussed in the story are not directly witnessed by her. This caused the book to “drag” a bit in places.

My other peeve was I got very tired of reading and re-reading Sarah’s rationalization of her love affair with Anne. She claims to enjoy it, but keeps reminding us she’s not participating for enjoyment, that she is not in love with Anne and could never love her as much as John, and that her main motive is personal advancement and reward. In the course of the novel, Sarah does many things suggesting to me she does care about Anne, and it starts to feel confusing. I was left with the impression that Sarah did love Anne, but did not want to admit it, and so trotted out a litany of excuses to “explain” her affair.

Beyond that, “Duchess” is a solid read.

Heat Level: Damp panties. This probably qualifies as a sensuous. Sex/lovemaking, both M/F and F/F, is described in non-explicit terms with some detail.

Grade: B


LVLM said...

Nice review Mia. This looks like a really good book. I rather like that the relationship between Anne and Sarah seems to come across as realistic and complex.

I'd definitely read this one.

M. A. said...

It's a great story. Scott did a fantastic job with research and with capturing the era.

Even though I did not like Sarah personally, I liked this novel. I guess it helped that, at the end, she sort of got her "comeuppance" for taking advantage of Anne's affection, although Sarah herself is too egomaniac to recognize the fact.

The main issue I have with "Duchess" and with some other F/F books is it contained a lot of what I call "protest too much syndrome." When portraying a female bisexual, some female authors seem to need to state things like, "Although (the character) preferred men, she was not averse to a woman's touch."

I recognize this kind of ambivalence because I wrote like that myself in my earliest fem slash manuscripts. I think it reflects the author's fear of being mistaken for GBLT.

After reading my own manuscripts I realized how irksome it is to read that kind of thing. I mean, imagine falling in love with and having sex with someone who "normally you wouldn't like as much as being with a different gender." It's the equivalent of Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth Bennett, "I love you...even though your family is impoverished and inferior in rank and behavior to my expectations."

LVLM said...

Crap, I don't know what's up with blogger, or maybe Google, but I can't copy and paste a quote now. I get this weird page that comes up. Ugh.

Anyway, I wanted to comment on the treating of f/f with regard to bisexuals in that "Protest too much syndrome" you mentioned.

I think you are probably right in that when it comes to authors who want to portray a bisexual outside of having to talk about the specifics of love and sex with a same-sex partner, they do try to downplay it or act as if it's just a blip in the person's character.

But I think it depends on the author and how they do it. I can imagine that for some women who do discover at some point in their life that they are bisexual or bi-curious that it is a shock and that they would react in such a way as to subtly deny it by downplaying it or acting like it is a freak thing. "I'm really attracted to you but I've never been into women" kind of thing.

This would be a normal reaction until the character could warm up to or come to terms with something that they feel shocked about.

I'm not saying that in this case because you prefaced or explained that during these times, bisexuality was not considered something weird or scandalous. So in this case, yeah, the author, to keep this book from being a GLBT story might have written Sarah in that light.

I'll try to read this book one day. You've made me very curious. While I do enjoy historicals, I have absolutely no knowledge of these time periods so I wouldn't know if the author is off or not. But on your recommend, I'd read it as authentic.

M. A. said...

I agree with your points. I could see a character (or a RL person) being surprised to experience same sex attraction if it's something new to them. And I think writers can and should handle the concept with sensitivity. There's a first time for everything.

To me, the "litmus test" of a potential scenario in a nontraditional relationship is to compare it to a traditional relationship.

To elaborate: Mary experiences attraction for Joe. Mary has never experienced attraction for another boy, before.

Should the writer make a point of chronically mentionning, "And Mary normally did not feel this way for boys." How many times should it be addressed before it sounds a bit silly?

It's easy for me to say this -- talk is cheap -- but I truly believe that, were I ever to experience romantic attraction for a female, the "novelty factor" would probably be very brief. More like, "OK, I'm really into her. She's a she. That's different. All right. Moving right along."

I found it particularly odd in "Duchess" because, truly, Sarah and Anne's relationship was so intimate even without sexual involvement. From the time they were very young (tweens and teens) they ate together, played together, lived together. It just seemed odd to me that Sarah could separate the sexual intimacy as something "other" from the rest of it.

And yes, bisexuality was tolerated among the upper class in this particular era. Charles II had a mistress, Maria Mancini, who cross-dressed in court. They were on-again off-again, and at one point, when they were Off-again, she seduced his daughter. Truth really is stranger than fiction. LOL

LVLM said...

Should the writer make a point of chronically mentionning, "And Mary normally did not feel this way for boys." How many times should it be addressed before it sounds a bit silly?

Yeah, I would agree that pronouncing it over and over is over kill. Heh. But I guess it would all depend on how deep in the closet the formerly completely straight person was and what their feelings about homosexuality are.

It would get tiring to me if a straight character had an intense same-sex attraction and kept going on about the oddity of the attraction over and above what they feel. I can deal with that for a while, but if the suddenly bi or lesbian character doesn't come to terms pretty quickly, then yeah, I get annoyed.

It's a tricky situation because I can imagine all sorts of scenarios when or if a totally up until now straight person suddenly finds themselves attracted to the same sex. So many things taken for granted would suddenly be an issue, like family and social acceptance. These are things that a person who has been bi or gay since they were teens has come to deal with and so while it's still an issue, they are somewhat used to it. Whereas, a person just waking up to being gay or bi could have all kinds of conflicts about what that means to them outside of the actual love story.

M. A. said...

It's a tricky situation because I can imagine all sorts of scenarios when or if a totally up until now straight person suddenly finds themselves attracted to the same sex. So many things taken for granted would suddenly be an issue, like family and social acceptance. These are things that a person who has been bi or gay since they were teens has come to deal with and so while it's still an issue, they are somewhat used to it. Whereas, a person just waking up to being gay or bi could have all kinds of conflicts about what that means to them outside of the actual love story.

*shrugs* Again, this is just my opinion, but I truly believe this depends on the individual.

While I myself am not GBLT, I have close GBLT friends and family members, I've expressed support for the community through popular events in my area. I think, were I to experience a positive, mutual attraction to a woman...I just don't think it would be a big deal to me. I would not entertain concerns about what my family thought or what society thought.

Maybe that's why I get put off by stories that do angst about those aspects of GBLT self-discovery. They just don't "ring true" to me.

It would seem to me if one was experiencing real fear and concern about a change in sexual identity, that might be a sign the change isn't "right" for them. Again, just my opinion.