I recently had the opportunity to see “The Favourtite.” I did so with my normal degree of trepidation in viewing a period drama, and while it is by no means historically accurate, it hardly rises to the giddy levels of delightful parody found in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Most of the ‘errors’ are a simplification for narrative purposes. For example, Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, did not die until 1708, but you would not know it from his complete absence in the film. Other, more putative ‘mistakes’ derive from misconceptions with regard to the historical record. You would not be blamed from assuming from her portrayal that Anne was something of a temperamental dullard, unable to govern effectively on her own. Edward Gregg, however, has established that this view of Anne is not reflected in the sources. Rather, this misconception seems largely the legacy of the highly prejudicial writings of her sometime “favourite,” Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and it has been perpetuated via a certain degree of disinterest in her reign on the part of professional historians, who have been more interested in the start of the innovative Georgian dynasty, than the trailing end of the old Stewart regime.
At the same time, Anne’s undeniably close and tumultuous relationship with Churchill – and the latter’s cousin and rival Abigail Masham – has been the subject of considerable attention (and no small amount of speculation) by history buffs and historians alike. This is typical of the intense interest taken in the sex lives of early modern queens such as Elizabeth I and Christina of Sweden. And yet, the subject of Anne’s sexuality is atypical – and far from settled. I think this is at least in part because while Anne was undoubtedly an early modern ruler in the strictest sense, her reign took place in quite a different time than that of her female predecessors. Valerie Traub argues that the difference was in “public access to the Queen’s body in an era of growing explicitness” – a change in discourse. I think that is true.
However, I would argue that there is another difference that influences our current views as well, one which Traub touches upon but does not fully explicate. Neither Elizabeth nor Christina generated the same degree of contemporary press with regard to their personal lives. The reach and interest of the press – and government relationships to it – simply did not allow for it. We have, as a result of developments in printing and the reading public, regulations and assertions of freedom, far more popular printed material relating to Anne and her ‘private’ life. Thus the modern debate regarding the veracity of the accusations made against her has rather more fuel.
Moreover, I think there has been a change in attitude among historians and the composition of the profession that has in turn resulted in the eager (and deserved) utilization of such sources. As a queer historian – but not a researcher of queer history – I am acutely aware of my own interest in the recovery from the past of the full range of expression of sexuality and gender expression, and I know that I am far from alone in this. As always, historical debate is reflective of contemporary concerns of the people engaging in it. I love the idea of Anne – or any historical female figure for that matter – refusing to give up a relationship for the sexually empowering reason expressed by Olivia Colman in the film: “I like it when she puts her tongue in me.”
That is definitely my bias, and I will readily acknowledge that the portrayal of Anne as a committed but closeted lesbian has little basis outside of the scurrilous publications spread by her detractors. Yet conservative critics of the movie who have decried it – for the nature of the dialogue and the sexual relationships depicted – as ahistorical ‘raunch’ and revisionism have overshot the mark. To begin with, explicit and even filthy (by our standards) language was not an anathema in early modern England. A simple word search on Early English Books Online will rapidly disabuse people of any notion to the contrary. Printed song and ballad sheets – which by their very nature were intended for widespread public consumption – about genitalia and sex abound. “The Female Auction,” a satirical ballad from 1700, contains bawdy lyrics about prostitutes living at the “Sign of the Dildo and Bell.” And if late seventeenth-century of residents of London didn’t know what a dildo was when lauded in song, they always had the opportunity to examine one in person. William Chaloner is remarkable in this regard because his contemporary infamy derived from his career as a counterfeiter, not his career as purveyor of *ahem* items of an intimate nature.
And yet perhaps the problem with the debates on Anne’s sexuality extends further than our ignorance of the past. Maybe they have been further complicated by our ignorance of the present. In our contemporary discourses on identity (both gender and sexual), its expression, and relationships, we continue to use either/or frameworks for analysis and description, even as we recognize that they are not reflective of actual human behavior in general, or the evolution of individuals across their own lifetimes. When applied to the past, these limited constructs may be compounding the problem. Indeed, one of the narrowest critiques of the fictional Anne in “The Favourite” is that the actual Anne had a devoted husband and numerous pregnancies, indicating that she was engaging regularly – if not enthusiastically – in heterosexual (presumably vanilla) sex. However, monogamy has never had the corner market on fulfilling, let alone physical, relationships, and human sexuality comes in a wide range of expressions. A present-day queer Queen Anne could enjoy having any number of things in her, up to and including a lover’s tongue – as could a historical one.
Anon. “The Female Auction,” in The cracks garland Furnish’d with three excellent new songs. London: Printed for E. Brooksby, 1700.
Ophelia Field, The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 2002.
Edward Gregg, Queen Anne. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009.
Sarah Toulalan, Imagining sex: pornography and bodies in seventeenth-century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.