History, in its many types of women, has preserved for us one or two scolds, wasps, as it were, among the flies in amber. Of these Xanthippe is, perhaps, the most famous, although she did not, as I once heard it stated in conversation, drive Socrates to drink hemlock. It was a fatherly government which did that for its great son.
Some injustice has also been done Sarah Jennings, the wife of the great Duke of Marlborough, on the score of her tongue. She was shrill, voluble, terrible when anything annoyed her, extremely rude when the fit was on her, to everybody, from the Queen downwards. Yet, for all this, she was a thoroughly capable woman, hard-headed and longsighted, with a perfect gift for managing money; and on yet another side of her character she was the tenderly loved, the much adored wife of her great husband.
She was born in May, 1660, the daughter of Richard Jennings, of Sandridge, and when a girl, was placed in the household of Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York, as an attendant on Princess Anne. Thus early began a friendship which stands out in the lives of both women as the determinate factor of their actions. Sarah's father was a country gentleman in good circumstances; her mother also came of a good family. Sarah was one of five children, and in her capacity as attendant on Princess Anne, she met all the gay and the great of the period. She respected the Duchess of York, and despised the Duke. The Duchess was afterwards deserted, but to Princess Anne she remained loyal until the final quarrel between them.
In 1673, Colonel John Churchill was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the Duke of York. Although only twenty-four, he already had a reputation for being an enterprising officer, with many gifts of character, grace and charm of manner, dignity of person, and striking good looks. He was tall and active, and had that nameless quality which we call a presence. No one ever said a pert thing to him, with the notable and frequent exception of Sarah.
On her side she was gifted with good looks of an irregular but very vivacious kind, a quick wit, and intense vitality. Colonel Churchill soon showed that she had made an impression on him, and she was first attracted by the grace of her valiant lover in the dance. Indeed, his excellence in dancing had such a charm that a contemporary said that every step he took carried death with it. The applause and admiration he obtained made a deep impression on ambitious, youthful Sarah.
The Story of Her Courtship
As about this time she rejected the Earl of Lindsay, Churchill's influence was not altogether superficial, but he had very little money, and she was no better situated. In these circumstances she was undecided; ambition and love swayed her in turn, and Churchill had anything but an easy courtship. Frequently the lady only ceased being coy in order to be cross, and when Churchill's parents desired him to make a richer marriage, he was rather disconcerted to find how heartily Miss Jennings advocated the same thing. She entreated him, more in the words of a careful parent than of a loving girl, to renounce an attachment which militated against his worldly prospects. The" only response she received was an earnest appeal to her affection, and so, finding that his courtship was not to be avoided, Sarah Jennings threatened to join her sister, the Countess Hamilton, in Paris.
One way and another the couple were engaged for three years. He was tender, full of sensibility, completely captive to his somewhat vituperative lady-love. Certainly, everyone who knew them must have been convinced of his real affection, for not her sharpest scolding, her greatest haughtiness, nor her caprice and indecision could for a moment shake his devotion. Finally, her threat to go away produced such an effective remonstrance that the two were married secretly, in the presence of Mary, Duchess of York, in 1678, and his parents did not long withhold their forgiveness.
Husband and wife were not allowed to remain long together. Churchill was sent to Brussels and The Hague, whence he wrote his wife some of the most ardent love-letters which have been handed down to us. "I do, with all my heart and soul," he writes, " long to be with you, you being dearer to me than my own life. . . . On Monday night I shall be at Breda, and from hence you shall be sure to hear from me again; till then, my soul's soul, farewell."
A little daughter was born to them in 1681, and the devoted father and husband is found writing: "I hope all the red spots of our child will be gone against I see her, and her nose straight, so that I may fancy it to be like the mother, for she has your coloured hair. I would have her to be like you in all things else."
Meanwhile, Lady Churchill was gradually acquiring a great influence over Princess Anne. The rather dull little Princess was amused and interested by the handsome, lively woman, who, since their childhood, had always been able to invent new games and exciting occupations. When Anne married the Prince of Denmark, Sarah was made one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber, and the friendship remained unbroken.
The two women differed widely in temperament. Swift has described Sarah as being the " victim of three furies which reigned in her breast, the most mortal of all softer passions-sordid avarice, disdainful pride, ungovernable rage." The Princess, on her side, was placid and phlegmatic, a lover of propriety, etiquette, and decorum, as pious as Sarah was contemptuous of religion.
As a matter of fact, the Duchess seems to have been either loved or hated. One cannot accept without reserve any of the violently contrasted accounts of her which have come down to us. In later life, her leaning towards politics helped to make men dislike her, but until then her shrewd insight, sarcastic wit, and personal beauty secured her the approval of men; and her high favour with the Queen effectually prevented any open disapproval from women. An interesting statement by the Duchess herself gives us a glimpse into her character: " Young as I was when I first became this high favourite, I laid it down as a maxim that flattery was falsehood to my trust and ingratitude to my dearest friend. From this rule I never swerved, and though my temper and my notions in most things were widely different from those of the Princess, yet during a long course of years she was so far from being displeased with me for openly speaking my sentiments that she sometimes professed a desire, and even added her command, that it should always be continued, promising never to be offended at it, but to love me the better for my frankness." She and the Princess corresponded under the names of Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman.
The Secret of Her Influence
It was not to her beauty, nor her ability, nor her wit, that Lady Marlborough owed her lasting influence over her husband. What especially attracted him was her love of truth, her hatred of flattery, her contempt of manners, and her constancy to her friends. It has been said of her that no one ever accused her of smiling to betray; she could have torn her foes to pieces sooner than accord them a reverence which she did not feel. But her contempt of the Queen, and the insolence and arrogance of her behaviour towards her cannot be defended. To be continued.