Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill

Readers Guide/Questions for Discussion

  1. Duchess is told exclusively from Sarah Churchill’s point of view, and both events and other characters are colored by her strong opinions of them. How would this story differ if it were told by Anne of York instead?
  2. Although Sarah was regarded as a beautiful and much-desired woman at Court, she often lamented that she hadn’t been born a man. What do you think she meant by this? What would she have achieved as a man that she couldn’t as a woman?
  3. From their penniless roots, John and Sarah managed to amass an enormous family fortune. They were undeniably lucky, and gifted in Court politics. Do you believe they were avaricious, as many of their peers accused them of being, or simply ambitious?
  4. Many readers will be familiar with how Henry VIII’s difficulties siring a legitimate male heir to his throne changed English history. His daughter Elizabeth I chose not to marry at all. Charles II, William and Mary, and Anne were likewise “cursed” by having no surviving sons. How differently did the Stuart and Tudor monarchs deal with their childlessness? How did each choose to secure their successors?
  5. As an impoverished but beautiful Maid-of-Honor, Sarah was unusual for not marrying a rich, titled gentleman, or becoming such a man’s mistress, but instead wedding John Churchill for love. Even after his death, she refused all suitors, saying that no other man “could ever come close to John Churchill.” Considering how calculating her personality is, does marrying for love seem in character, or out of it? Why do you think she chose John?
  6. Sarah’s relationship with Anne and her role as the royal “favorite” was openly acknowledged at Court. How would Sarah’s position have varied from that of a king’s mistress? Would she have had more or less power with a man than she did with Anne?
  7. Many of the Churchills’ more cynical contemporaries believed that the secret of their long and famously happy marriage was easy to identify: because of their separate careers, John and Sarah were often apart for months at a time. Do you agree or disagree?
  8. While both Anne and Sarah loved their children, they were also traditional upper-class mothers of their time who gave their children to nursemaids, governesses, and tutors to raise. They regarded these children not only as cherished sons and daughters, but valuable possessions and symbols of power and prestige, and pawns to be used to cement important relationships with other noble families. How do their attitudes towards children and child-rearing differ from those of modern mothers? In what ways are they the same?
  9. While the Great Plague of 1666 is the most famous 17 th-century epidemic, smallpox claimed far more victims, cutting across all classes and ages. How did smallpox affect the characters in this book? How are their views of death and disease different from our own?
  10. Sarah’s generation was the first to understand and use the press to manipulate public opinion. Both she and her enemies hired journalists and other writers to attack one another, often with blatant disregard for the truth. Compare Sarah’s methods with how modern politicians use contemporary media.
  11. Seventeenth century childbirth was perilous to both mother and child, with nearly a third of all babies failing to survive their first month. Anne suffered through nearly twenty pregnancies in her lifetime, with no children surviving to adulthood. The rate for women was not much better. Both Sarah and Anne routinely updated their wills during the last stages of pregnancy, and John often said he feared more for Sarah’s life in childbirth then his own in battle. How would such a high mortality rate affect views of motherhood? How would families cope with the constant threat of losing new babies and their mothers? In a time when birth control was largely unknown and unpredictable, do you think the high risks that came with pregnancy would have served as a deterent to sexual activity?
  12. When at last Blenheim Palace was completed, the chapel included an elaborate family tomb that, at Sarah’s request, featured statues of John, Sarah, and their two sons. Their daughters are pointedly not included, continuing a pattern of disregard that had begun at their births. By the Sarah died, only one of her daughters was still speaking to her. Why would she have so blatantly favored her sons? Why do you think she held her daughters in such low opinion?