Because I have to turn in a manuscript TODAY, I will freely admit that, alas, my weekly blog duties here in Wench-Land have gone MIA. I could have pasted a big red sign –– “YOUR MESSAGE HERE”, but that seemed a little crass, and so I’m recycling another piece I wrote about the cover for DUCHESS. Earlier on this blog, I shared my least-favorite cover with you (remember the hero standing knee-deep in water that Jo oh-so-rightly described as the “constipated Muppet”?) Seems only fair to share the other side of the cover-coin too, so here it is:
I love the cover for DUCHESS. I’ll say that up front, and with no hesitation or qualification. Like most novelists, I’ve had my share of good, bad, and horrific covers, but this one is my favorite. There isn’t another that’s even close, and my everlasting thanks go to Emily Mahon and the rest of the NAL art staff.
Of course, it’s the portrait of Sarah Churchill that makes this cover such a winner. Like most wealthy, noble people of her time, Sarah had her portrait painted a number of times during her life, from a flower-decked teenager to a middle-aged grieving mother in somber mourning for her elder son.
The painting used on the cover of DUCHESS is far from the most artistically accomplished of her portraits –– the artist, Charles Jervais, is little more than an art history footnote today, nearly forgotten behind his more accomplished peers such as Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir Peter Lely –– and it’s probably a flattering but not terribly accurate likeness, considering how Sarah was well into her forties when it was painted. But as a pure symbol of Sarah as Her Grace the Duchess of Marlborough –– ah, this painting can’t be beat.
To begin with, there’s that fantastic red costume, visible clear across any bookshop. It’s not a dress; it’s a dressing gown, a loose-fitting, wrapped garment worn casually at home. Many aristocrats chose such informal attire for portraits to reinforce their elevated rank. While you, the viewer of the painting, would have had to be fully, formally dressed before you called upon a grand lady like Sarah, she, being your superior in rank and wealth, doesn’t have to bother for the inferior likes of you. She’s still wearing her undergarments, of course –– even hierarchical undress has its limits –– and her whalebone-stiffened stays mold her body into the fashionable, conical shape visible beneath her loosely wrapped dressing gown.
Yet though this is a casual garment, it’s still a very costly one –– and one that Sarah, the wealthiest woman in England, wants you to know she can afford with ease. The fabric is silk velvet, likely imported from France or Genoa. The brilliant scarlet is a “power” color, favored by kings, cardinals, generals, and other persons of high rank. The primary ingredient of red dyes at this time was cochineal, made from crushed Mexican beetles that the Spaniards imported at great expense. Sarah’s choice of a red dressing gown is unusual for a lady, demonstrating as it does not only her wealth, but her power at Court –– equal to that of a powerful man.
Even her pose reinforces her status. True, she’s sitting on some peculiar mossy hummock that was probably a chair in the artist’s studio. But she’s been painted from slightly below, forcing the painter (and the viewer) to gaze up at her. Considering how the finished portrait would also be hung above eye level would only increase the feeling that yes, you are beneath Sarah in every possible way –– exactly where she’d wish you to be.
There’s even more to this picture to show that Sarah’s no ordinary English lady. The portraits of other seventeenth-century noblewomen emphasize their roles within the domestic sphere. They’re posed with needlework, letters, flowers, pets, and children, their hands are often clasped, with their houses often shown in the distance behind them.
But Sarah sits alone in a vague green landscape that doesn’t represent a specific house, but stands in for all the acres and acres of land –– whether at Windsor, St. Albans, or Woodstock –– that she and her husband John have acquired through hard work and royal favor. She stares out boldly over her shoulder, with an expression that’s so confident as to be almost arrogant. Instead of having her hands modestly folded in her lap, she has one hand touching her temple, signifying her unusual intellect, while the other is extended, palm open, with a consummate courtier’s grace, towards the greater world beyond –– and, I hope, to readers today.