‘The Favourite’ indulges contemporary attitudes about sex at the expense of history.
The Favourite, a recently-released period film written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, imagines an illicit sexual relationship between Queen Anne of Great Britain and two of her female confidants. But is that accurate, or anachronistic?
Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland (and then Great Britain) from 1702 to 1714. The film takes place during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, the husband of Queen Anne’s close friend, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was commander of Allied forces in that conflict. Marlborough was caught between the two political parties in Britain: the Tories and Whigs. Queen Anne favored the Tories, who wanted peace, but the Whigs had gained considerable power alongside Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz), who had the Queen’s ear and advocated on their behalf.
Sarah Churchill was notoriously headstrong and spoke her mind freely and openly, which began to get on the Queen’s nerves. In 1711, Queen Anne dismissed the Duke of Marlborough from service over charges of embezzlement. John and Sarah Churchill went into exile a year later. Sarah’s break with the Queen was exacerbated by her rivalry with her cousin, Abigail (Hill) Masham (played by Emma Stone). Sarah tried to have Abigail removed from the Queen’s household, and when she could not, accused Abigail and the religiously conservative Queen of having a sexual relationship.
That’s where The Favourite comes in. The Favourite depicts Sarah as a jealous lover carrying on an illicit sexual affair with the Queen. It conspicuously omits Queen Anne’s great religious devotion and the fact she was married to Prince George of Denmark, though he died in 1708. The only evidence of a love affair comes from romantic letters written between the two and rumors spread by political rivals.
However strange it might seem today, such intimate expressions between friends were not uncommon in the past. Members of the same sex often slept in close proximity and used language to describe their affection for one another we would consider odd or inappropriate. At one point in the film, Sarah threatens to make these letters public if the Queen doesn’t give in to her demands. Later, she burns them as a show of loyalty. In reality, it was the other way around: Sarah kept the Queen’s letters and the Queen destroyed Sarah’s.
According to Valerie Traub, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, “Although this scandal features prominently in biographies of the Queen, the charges generally are dismissed as the hysterical vindictiveness of a power-hungry Duchess.”
The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos admitted in an interview that he didn’t care about whether a real love triangle took place between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill, and Abigail Masham. “We never really discussed it [the historical accuracy],” he said.
However, the filmmakers may have inadvertently gotten one thing more or less right. In one scene, Abigail, having learned of Sarah and the Queen’s relationship, decides to win her over by offering her own “services.” Queen Anne suffered from painful gout, which caused swelling in her legs. In the film, Abigail rubbed Anne’s leg to relieve her pain, and quickly turned the situation sexual. Interestingly enough, some medical texts at the time actually proscribed masturbation as a relief from illness.
In the Early Modern Period, writings of the Greco-Roman physician Galen of Pergamon gained prominence, as his texts were translated into Latin and made widely available. Galen held that human health could be maintained by balancing the four humors, or bodily fluids. Blood letting was one remedy, but so was masturbation (though it was frowned on by the Catholic Church). It was considered unhealthy for men and women to retain certain “fluids” for too long.
According to 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden, if a woman suffers from a fainting fit, “the midwife should insert a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb, and move it vigorously about.” Thirteenth-century Dominican friar Albertus Magnus proscribed in certain instances that women “use their fingers or other instruments until their channels are opened and by the heat of the friction and coition the humour comes out, and with it the heat.”
Did you catch the part where Gaddesden recommends the woman’s midwife should do the deed? Though undoubtedly pleasurable, this was considered a medical practice and not explicitly sexual, nor something that would necessarily be considered shameful.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos claimed their intention with The Favourite was not to make an issue of the lesbian love triangle. “My instinct from the beginning was that I didn’t want this to become an issue in the film, for us, like we’re trying to make a point out of it,” he said. This is a ridiculous statement. Of course they were trying to make a point out of it; why include it in the film at all?
There is no evidence Queen Anne had any type of sexual relationship with Abigail Masham, let alone with the Duchess of Marlborough. Nor should rumors and slander be taken as fact. If The Favourite’s creators wanted to avoid controversy, they should have played a little more coy with their subject matter and not indulge in blatant historic revisionism.