The Favourite True Story

The Favourite is, predictably, a somewhat fictionalized telling of the story of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the rivalry between two of the most important women in her life: Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone). But you might be surprised to learn that the latest work of darkly comedic idiosyncrasy from Yorgos Lanthimos is actually more faithful to history than most period dramas. When it comes to monarchy, truth is often stranger (and more absurd) than fiction, and the embellished bits of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay only serve to enrich the true story on which The Favourite is based.

So exactly how much of The Favourite is fact, and how much is fiction? In this companion piece, we’ll explore the life of the real Queen Anne (including her ill health), the party politics at play in her court, her relationships with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill, the alleged love triangle between the three women, and the ultimate outcome.

Queen Anne

The Favourite opens on Queen Anne later in life, and depicts her as someone who is not entirely secure in her position as England’s ruler. This Anne is insecure in her appearance and the way the court perceives her. Throughout the film, Sarah preys on these vulnerabilities to the benefit of her own political ambitions; in one scene, she remarks that Anne’s “dramatic” makeup makes her look like a badger. Although much of this is true, Lanthimos’ film portrays Anne as a bit more meek in matters pertaining to politics and the court than she was in real life: According to Susan Kingsley Kent’s Gender and Power in Britain, Anne “acted decisively and relied on her own judgment in making policy.” That said, she wasn’t exactly the most scholarly of rulers. Lanthimos depicts Anne as being childlike in temperament and rather aloof – if not somewhat daft – which isn’t far off from the real Anne, whose formal education was largely centered around the Anglican church, per her uncle’s wishes.

Anne’s reign as Queen began in 1702 and ended in 1707, just one year prior to the death of her husband, Prince George of Denmark. Unlike many of her predecessors, Anne sort of fell into the role of Queen by circumstance; her uncle, the previous ruler Charles II, had no legitimate heirs, and after her father was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Anne’s sister Mary and her husband William of Orange inherited the crown. When Mary died in 1694, William ruled alone until 1702 – though his reign was tenuous at best. Anne and Mary were once very close, but became estranged after the latter ascended to the throne; Mary disapproved of many of her sister’s choices, in particular her relationship with Sarah Churchill, who had become Anne’s mistress of bedchamber upon her marriage to George.

George has been entirely excised from the narrative of the film, likely because he wasn’t particularly interesting in the first place. Although arranged, the marriage between Anne and George was mostly pleasant and unremarkable, but throwing her husband into the mix would only complicate The Favourite’s focus on the relationships between Anne, Sarah Churchill, and Abigail Hill.

When Mary suspected Sarah and her husband, the Duke of Marlborough, of conspiring against the crown, Anne rebelled against her sister by bringing Sarah to a public event at the palace. Anne refused Mary’s request to discharge Sarah from her household, leading to an irreparable rift between the sisters.

It is true that Anne had lost “some 17 children.” As she notes in the film, several were “born as blood” (miscarried), others were stillborn, and the few that survived childbirth did not live for long. In 1684, Anne suffered her first loss when she gave birth to a stillborn child. This was followed over the next couple of years by the birth of two daughters, Mary and Anne Sophia. Over the course of a particularly horrific week in 1687, Anne miscarried and her husband and daughters contracted smallpox. George survived, but their two daughters did not. Then, in April of 1692, Anne gave birth to a son who died a few minutes later. Her sister Mary came to visit – but not for emotional support. In what would become the final meeting between the sisters, Mary spent the visit scolding Anne and criticizing her relationship with Sarah.

Although there is not a single mention of Mary in The Favourite, the solemn echo of that heartbreak is felt in the film’s depiction of Anne’s female relationships – which are at once both romantic and reminiscent of the intimacy shared between sisters. It’s clear that the fictional version of Anne, much like her real-life counterpart, is looking to fill very specific voids in her life, as she does with the 17 rabbits – one for each child she lost. Unfortunately, the real Anne did not keep pet rabbits, which were perceived entirely as food – not pets – at the time.

As for Anne’s health, it’s true that she suffered from an eye condition, as well as an autoimmune disorder of some kind, diagnosed as gout. At the time, gout was perceived to be a disease of nobility, also known as morbus dominorum et dominus morborum, or lord of disease and disease of lords. According to David Green in his biography, Queen Anne, she began suffering from the painful disorder around 1698. The gout spread from her limbs to her stomach and head, and it became increasingly difficult for Anne to get around on her own. As depicted in the film, she often used a wheelchair or was carried in a sedan chair. What the film omits, however, is that she would often drive herself around her estates in a one-horse chaise. Green’s biography quotes the essayist and satirist Jonathan Swift, who described Anne driving herself around “furiously like Jehu.” Her affliction led to a more sedentary lifestyle, which in turn led to weight gain, of which Sarah cruelly remarked that “she grew exceeding gross and corpulent,” according to Green. In the same book, the author quotes Sir John Clerk’s description of Anne in 1706:

“…under a fit of the gout and in extreme pain and agony, and on this occasion everything about her was much in the same disorder as about the meanest of her subjects. Her face, which was red and spotted, was rendered something frightful by her negligent dress, and the foot affected was tied up with a poultice and some nasty bandages. I was much affected by this sight.”

Spa treatments, such as the mud bath seen in the film, were a common relief for gout in the 1700s. This was much preferable to an earlier European style of treatment detailed by 16th century historian Lorenz Fries: “Roast a fat old goose and stuff with chopped kittens, lard, incense, wax and flour of rye. This must all be eaten, and the dripping applied to the painful joints.” (As for the stroke, Anne did not suffer this misfortune of health until 1714.)

There is, as you can see, a fair amount of Anne’s life prior to the events of The Favourite that has been excised from the narrative – though it’s largely the sort of banal familial history that is both irrelevant to the story at hand and also, frankly, tedious as hell. (I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset before bedtime. The pleasant British voice of the female narrator is better than Valium.)

Continue Reading Exploring the Strange and Absurd True History of ‘The Favourite’ >>

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