If there is a succinct moral to be found in The Favourite, it might be this: Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer, and—while you’re at it—why not make sure they’re actually one and the same?
Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film The Favourite hones in on the unlikely reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century. Played by Olivia Colman, Anne is a petulant, incapable wreck of a ruler, constantly crying out at all times for the company of her longtime friend and acknowledged “favourite” companion, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. But while Anne adores Sarah, who is played with chilling villainy by Rachel Weisz, the affection doesn’t quite go in the other direction. Sarah is a power-hungry member of the queen’s palace, outright threatening Anne in private to bend her to Sarah’s political allegiance with the Whig party.
But according to film’s account, there’s much more than just passionate friendship and dutiful servitude at work behind closed doors when it comes to Anne and Sarah’s closeness. (Spoilers ahead.) The Favourite depicts the two as lovers and their closeted sexual relationship as the unspoken key to Sarah maintaining her power, which begins to slip away from her when her destitute cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) rolls up one day, caked in mud and asking for a job. Ultimately, Abigail turns out to be just as conniving as Sarah and seemingly just as comfortable wielding her sexuality to appease the queen. She slowly but surely elbows her way into the position of favourite, but not without enraging Sarah in the process.
Walking out of the theater, I wanted to know more about these women and the heated, sensual drama between them. We know that, historically, Abigail did indeed take Sarah’s spot, and it was their intense relationship that prompted Sarah to accuse them, in a letter to the queen, of being far more than just friends. “I am sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange and unaccountable,” Sarah wrote of the pair’s friendship in the letter that would be the final nail in the coffin. “Nor can I think the having no inclination for any but of one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.” And later Sarah, in a move to ensure she maintained her power, would threaten to blackmail the queen by publishing the “great bundles” of adoring letters she was sent over the years. “I beg your Majesty would please to weigh these things attentively, not only with reference to friendship, but also to morality and religion,” Sarah wrote.
But what specific evidence caused Sarah to accuse the queen of having such a relationship with Abigail, and whether it was a reflection of her own relationship with the queen, is still somewhat of a mystery. So I reached out to Anne Somerset, who wrote the biography Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, to get the historically accurate but no less juicy account of what really went on between these three women.
JEZEBEL: Something that seems divisive in studies of Queen Anne, at least from my understanding, is the question of whether or not she was smart and capable of making her own decisions, especially in politics. Obviously Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne’s former favorite with whom she had an incredible falling out, cultivated this image to the public of the queen as being easily influenced and sort of stupid. What do you think most people do not understand about Anne’s ability to rule?
ANNE SOMERSET: It certainly arises very much from the distortions and the way Sarah presents her memories of Queen Anne. She makes her out to be this incredibly boring but also stupid woman. I think she says something sort of like, “she could be made to stand on her head by a favourite.” And yet the odd thing is that when Anne comes to the throne—and, admittedly, she has been pretty poorly educated, she hadn’t got the experience you’d think would fit her to be queen—but she adapts extraordinarily well. She may not be a huge intellectual, but she’s got plenty of common sense. But Sarah just doesn’t want to see this, and she really tries to boss Anne around and give her political advice and is furious if she doesn’t follow it. But instead of [Sarah] thinking, oh well, the reason is that we actually do have divergent political views and I can’t force my views on the queen, she sort of decides that the reason why Anne is putting up any resistance is that she has fallen under the influence of other people and that they’re controlling her.
It seems that Sarah had a lot of influence in her position, but then it also seems like she often thought she had more power over Anne than she did, that she sort of overestimated her influence.
Before Anne comes to the throne, she is much more under Sarah’s thumb and does pretty much follow her advice in all sorts of matters. And when Anne becomes queen, Sarah just assumes that she’s going to hold tremendous sway. But to her immense disappointment, it’s her husband [the Duke of Marlborough] and their friend [Earl of Godolphin] who has tremendous power. Sarah said, anything I say to the queen is ignored unless they also support me. She’s very disappointed by that, but I think it was very unrealistic of her to expect more than that. And part of the appalling falling out that takes place has all to do with Sarah feeling that she’s been denied the power that she deserved.
So before Anne becomes queen, you say that Sarah did have a lot of power over her. How would you describe their relationship before Anne becomes queen?
To a certain extent, you can say that Anne was in love with Sarah. She makes these passionate declarations, but at the same time, her letters are also full of affectionate references to her husband and indeed very much assumed Sarah’s husband has the first place in her affections, and they also refer constantly to their efforts to get pregnant. So if it was a lesbian relationship, I can’t help feeling that that’s a little strange. But Sarah can really reduce Anne to panic if she says, oh, I’m not going to see you for a few days. Anne gets very, oh no, please, please come and see me, and she gets very upset when Sarah doesn’t return her letters promptly as she does. There’s definitely an element of obsession on Anne’s part.
Did it ever go the other way? Obviously Anne had these obsessive feelings for Sarah, and Sarah was very cruel to Anne towards their falling out, but in the earlier stages of their friendship how did Sarah relate to Anne?
It’s a little difficult to be certain about that, because Sarah insisted that Anne destroy all the letters that she wrote to her. Possibly, if we had those letters, one might have been able to see a much more attractive side of Sarah’s character and see quite why Anne loved her so much. I think it’s very unfortunate that they were destroyed. But years later, when they had fallen out and Sarah was threatening to publish Anne’s letters to her, sort of on the implication that everyone will be very shocked that Anne had made these incredible professions of devotion, Anne said at that point, well, Sarah used to write to me in the same way that I wrote to her. So, that’s suggestive.
But Sarah herself, looking back on their early friendship, makes out that she was incredibly bored by Anne, that she sort of forced herself to be with her and keep her company. I think she said, “it was like I was locked in a dungeon.” So she tries to make out that the friendship was very one-sided. But you could say in that case, why did she become quite so furious when Anne starts to distance herself from her? Is that because actually Anne did mean more to Sarah than Sarah cared to admit?
You note in your book that at the time in the 17th century it was common for women to cultivate these very romantically charged friendships, but they were believed to be platonic. So what was happening between Anne and Sarah, that obsessive closeness from Anne, did it go beyond what was expected of close female friendships at the time?
I think you can certainly cite other examples of women writing letters to each other nowadays one would think that were extraordinary. It’s difficult to know and to a certain extent it’s difficult to know how much naïvety there was about lesbianism at the time. So men would say, these women, they’re writing to each other, but of course that’s just the silly thing women do! And it’s possible that in fact lesbian relationships were going on under the noses of men and they just failed to realize because they thought, well, women can’t do without us. But alternatively it just was a completely accepted convention that women, without any embarrassment or compromising themselves, could write things that nowadays we wouldn’t really expect people to do. And that one shouldn’t look more deeply into the whole thing and draw inferences that aren’t really warranted.
It is funny to think that lesbianism, even if it was happening, wasn’t even registering in the culture at the time because men had no conception of it.
No, it was sort of extraordinary. Homosexuality, there is an awareness of that, but on the whole [people] don’t seem to realize or been aware of the existence of lesbians. But I think you can say that, insofar as there was any possible awareness of it, people would have disapproved of it very strongly. It was just as an outrageous concept.
When Sarah [accuses] Queen Anne [of] having an affair with Abigail Masham, that they’re having a sexual relationship, Anne is sort of saying, oh, I don’t even understand what you’re saying. The realization [then] comes to her and I think it is the thing she cannot forgive. When Sarah is pressing her [later], asking what she has done wrong, the specific offense that Anne mentions is that she says to Sarah, “you said I had such an intimacy with Masham.” Again, you could perhaps make a case to say that Anne was so outraged because she had a guilty conscience in a sense and was terrified of Sarah making public this relationship, but my own view, which is perhaps naïve, is that [Anne] was just appalled that Sarah could accuse her of such a thing. That Sarah does accuse Anne of lesbianism, some people might say, well, Sarah knew her all her life and surely she would know, but I don’t actually see the force of that argument.
Why do you think it’s been so tempting to read Queen Anne and Abigail’s relationship as gay? Or to perceive her as a gay queen?
I think it’s just the awareness of homosexuality. When homosexuality was illegal still to make that suggestion was a more controversial thing to do, whereas nowadays anyone thinking about Queen Anne would address that question without feeling they were trespassing on dangerous ground.
Sarah makes this accusation about Abigail, and then Sarah is trying to blackmail Anne with Anne’s own devoted letters to her. And I think, if you are accusing Anne of having this sexual relationship with Abigail, wouldn’t the next question be: well, were you, Sarah, ever subjected to the same treatment? She doesn’t ever seem to think that maybe the same question could be asked of her relationship with Anne.
Absolutely, and she says to Queen Anne at one point, “you only have affections for members of your own sex,” to which the obvious interpretation is, well, Sarah obviously knows that from personal experience. But when she makes these accusations against Anne she seems to be saying, oh, but of course it wasn’t surprising you came so close to me because I’m the most wonderful character, I’m so intelligent, I’m so marvelous. [She saw] their relationship as based on a mutual understanding and respect.
I think it’s almost that Sarah cannot accept that Anne could have developed an affection for Abigail. That’s just too humiliating for Sarah to accept. Her interpretation is, well, it must be sex, there can be nothing that drew them together apart from that. But in fact there are a lot of other explanations, most notably that Sarah was being cruelly foul to Anne and then Abigail is very kind, she’s a considerate and helpful nurse, and it’s really not that surprising that Anne becomes closer to her.
Let’s talk a bit about Abigail Masham, because it seems like we don’t know that much about her. You say that Sarah just couldn’t fathom that Anne would have these affections for her. Can you describe what sort of person she was?
In some ways you can say that she was very ungrateful to Sarah, because she was this poor relation, because her father had become bankrupt. Sarah comes to the rescue and takes [her cousins] into her house, admittedly as servants, and one would imagine Sarah didn’t fail to emphasize that they were very much her inferiors and they owed her a lot. Sarah installs Abigail in the household as a sort-of chambermaid and [Sarah] assumes that this is actually going to help her, that she’s going to have this protégé living close to Anne and that Abigail would always be loyal. Sarah and Anne are becoming more distant, and gradually Sarah works out that Anne has become closer to Abigail, which she immediately sees as a huge betrayal.
Although I think Sarah handles the whole thing very badly, at the same time, Abigail does seem to take an unholy glee in having annoyed Sarah. There is a degree of truth that Abigail is engaging in some political intrigue with politicians who are very much opposed to Sarah and her husband. You could say that there is something sort of sly about Abigail Masham.
I loved that anecdote in your book about Abigail acting so casually in Queen Anne’s room without realizing Sarah was already in there.
Yes, the door sort of bursts open and Abigail rushes in, not in a sort of hesitant way like a dutiful servant but sort of very much expecting that she has an automatic welcome and the right of entrance any time she chooses. And then she catches sight of Sarah and screams, oh! and puts on this humble demeanor, sinking into a huge curtsy. You can understand why Sarah would think, oh, something’s up.
Why do you think Abigail was especially motivated in getting close to the queen? Was it because of furthering her political beliefs or was she motivated by upping her status?
The relationship with the queen more or less offers her only chance of betterment in life. If it wasn’t for that, her life would have been obscure. She probably wouldn’t have been able to marry. So, she’s got every motive to serve the queen, and I think she does develop political views that are against Sarah’s, though they’re much more in line with the queen’s thoughts. And I think once she did come quite close to the queen, the realization that she could sort of assist her political friends would have been attractive.
Sarah obviously had outsized influence as Lady of the Bedchamber, a role Abigail eventually assumed. Typically, how much political influence did the Lady of the Bedchamber have?
They weren’t meant to have tremendous influence. In theory, Sarah’s job was very much just looking after the queen’s wardrobe; very high-end domestic duties. But the proximity to the monarch gave one opportunities to intercede for friends and try and get them offices or what have you, but it wasn’t a part of the job, it was just a question of exploiting it. And if Sarah had been more tactful—she could have probably achieved more if she just judged her moments, put in a word, and I think Anne would have been much more susceptible to persuasion. But she always goes for this full-frontal attack like, oh you should do this and if not you’re so stupid.
Did Sarah have a reputation for being as aggressive with other people aside from the queen?
I mean, she practically falls out with more or less everyone in the world. [Laughs] The only person she doesn’t fall out with is her husband, this great general, and his career is destroyed by sticking loyally by Sarah who he clearly loved. But on the whole, she really was impossible and had a very caustic wit—very good at making jokes at people’s expense. She ends up on bad terms with almost all her own children. She constantly disinherited grandchildren. Towards the end of her life I think one of her chaplains says, if everyone was like you society would disintegrate.