There is no denying that Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlbrough was a deeply fascinating personality – but there are times in this biography that focuses too much on the pettiness of her behaviour.

With the release of the Oscar winning film of the same title, it seems to have reawakened interest in this sharp, clever but controversial personality, whose life was certainly filled with plenty of drama to make for an engaging biography.

Predominantly focused on Sarah Churchill’s close relationship with Queen Anne as well as the way in which she would engage herself in politics., Ophelia Field’s biography certainly captures the spirit of the Duchess of Marlborough. But the further you read on, it is a shame that it does become increasingly bogged down with too many details and the many petty squabbles that she engaged in.

Taking the reader from her rise to the most prominent position at court beside the queen, to her fall from grace, Field explores all aspects of Sarah’s life with style that is lively to begin with but then seems to become overly focused on the difficult relationships that she had not only with those at court but also with her own children. It is a shame that more focus isn’t also placed on her rivalry with her cousin Abigail Masham – whose own close relationship with Queen eventually helped to bring about the downfall of the Duchess of Marlborough.

However, despite this the author does manage to get the balance of showing how Sarah was flawed as a character but also how her intelligence and perceptiveness could be used to great effect on several occasions, managing to hold her own against politicians. The result is a biography that is filled with plenty of drama and insight but overly indulgent in length and in need of sharper focus – particularly when it comes to the final chapter and discussing how she was initially remembered after her death.

It is impossible to fault the level of research that Field has applied into creating an as accurate as possible biography that gives a comprehensive insight into the life of this lively (if not completely admirable) personality. The author highlights possible causes for her flaws with strong arguments – particularly the way in which she tried to manipulate and control the ones that she was closest to but led to her being isolated from them as seen through her rocky relationships with her children.

Overall, The Favourite starts off as a lively and engaging read with plenty of drama that draws the reader in. However, it does tend to lose its way towards the end by increasingly focusing on details that feel as though they are pointing out things that the reader has already learnt about her in earlier sections of the book – meaning the biography isn’t quite as sharply focused as it could be. But it is still worth a read for those who are interested in this period of history.

By Emma Clarendon

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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