It’s not often that an historical film – indeed, any film – focused almost exclusively on women at the centre of political power sweeps the floor at award ceremonies. But The Favourite (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018) is doing just that. The film is set during the reign of Queen Anne, which lasted from 1702 to her death in 1714. The narrative drama turns on the relationships between three women: at the centre is Queen Anne (1665-1714), jostled by two women vying for her favour: the outgoing Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and the incoming Abigail Masham (née Hill). Historians have demonstrated how politics operated informally and through personal networks, allowing women considerable political power even before modern democracy. The Favourite quite rightly presents these women – especially Anne and Sarah – as canny politicians in their own right. In the depiction of Anne as a bereaved mother comforted by the presence of several rabbits, rather than a commanding monarch, the film taps into other images that would have been very familiar to an eighteenth-century audience.
Queen Anne did not keep pet rabbits. But this is a touching marker of a life marked by considerable tragedy. For me, the pivot point in the characterization of Anne comes when she explains the seventeen pet rabbits she keeps in her chambers. The rabbits represent the many children she has lost. Unadulterated anguish is palpable on the face of the actress playing Anne, Olivia Colman. By 1700, Queen Anne had indeed undergone seventeen pregnancies in seventeen years, losing seventeen children (including twins). In July 1700, she lost her only remaining and longest-living child – William – aged 11. This was in addition to the debilitating ill-health she had suffered throughout her life. Set in 1708, the film presents Anne at what was perhaps her lowest ebb following the death of her husband, Prince George. The film can be criticized in its depiction of Anne as sometimes ineffectual and often distracted: this impression of the Queen as essentially impotent has been roundly revised by recent historians of the last Stuart monarch. Conveying the painful physical and emotional experiences of this woman, though, is brave and original.
The link to the case of Mary Toft, a young mother and agricultural day-labourer from Godalming in Surrey, who supposedly gave birth to rabbits in 1726, is tantalizing. Toft’s case began in September 1726 and rumours quickly spread that she had given birth to seventeen rabbits. In the Quarter Sessions case against her and her alleged accomplice, the doctor John Howard, the charge was pretending to have been ‘delivered of Seventeen Rabbets at Seventeen Severall times’. Did Toft or those around her intend to refer to Anne’s pregnancies? Were Toft’s monstrous births deployed as an analogy for the dire state of British politics since the end of the Stuart line marked by Anne’s death and the subsequent Hanoverian succession? In my research into the Toft case, I looked but could not find conclusive evidence of a connection.
Yet the film raises other connections between Queen Anne and Mary Toft, not least the publicity of women’s reproductive experiences in the past and how we talk about those in the present. In familiar letters exchanged across the eighteenth century, information about women’s bodies and their reproductive experiences are common currency. People exchanged stories of happy deliveries, sad still births and the tragic loss of infants, all within their own family, the neighbourhood and the wider community. The tone is not tawdry gossip but genuine sympathy. The publicity of these ordeals is historical fact.
Like Anne, Mary Toft had experienced miscarriage. Recovering women’s intimate experiences of these events in the past is not easy. In my History Workshop Journal article on Toft, I drew on her three remarkable surviving confessions. These are flawed and mediated documents but they convey a powerful sense of this one woman’s pain and anguish on losing a pregnancy. Toft’s descriptions of the ongoing ‘flooding’ (or bleeding) and pain of her prolonged miscarriage are rare indeed.
The confessions also reveal Toft’s discomfort at the hands of the other women who gathered around her during the rabbit-birth hoax. The leitmotifs of her descriptions are pain and fear. She accuses these women of forcing her to go through the agonizing process of secretly inserting animal parts into her body, only to have them removed by doctors. Toft’s frightening experiences were extraordinary but they chime with the menace that some women exerted over other women during childbirth.
The Favourite is a close-up portrait of the intense power dynamics of such female-only networks. In the case of Anne, Sarah and Abigail the jostling is about politics. But this plays out in their intimate physical encounters, through healing touch, tender care and sensual pleasure. Alongside the film’s terrific black humour and inspired version of the historical film genre, The Favourite has also created a space where we can reflect on the intimate experiences of women’s bodies, past and present.
Karen Harvey is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. She works on gender and the body in eighteenth-century Britain, and is soon to publish a book on Mary Toft with Oxford University Press. She tweets as @KHarveyHistory.