(I keep having to remember to add that "u." Though this was an US edition I read, it must have been before publishers went wild with Americanizing British spellings.)
I stayed up last night to finish this book, originally published in 1966, and like its predecessors, I enjoyed it thoroughly. As the title proclaims, it's about Queen Anne's rival favorites, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. The novel opens with the first meeting between Sarah Churchill and her impoverished relations, the Hills, and ends with the death of the elderly Sarah decades later.
This book proceeds at a leisurely pace, allowing Plaidy to examine the characters of Sarah and Abigail in depth. Arrogant and insensitive, Sarah is largely unsympathetic, but Plaidy avoids turning her into a caricature, chiefly because of the genuine love depicted between her and her much more likable husband, John ("Marl" as she calls him). The scene where Sarah finds that her late husband has stored up her tresses of hair, famously cut off by Sarah during a fit of temper, is touching, as are the other scenes where Sarah must bear the losses that come to her just as they come to lesser mortals.
Abigail, deceptively meek and mild, is also well portrayed, especially in the latter part of the book, where she must deal with unfulfilled yearnings despite having achieved her ambition.
Queen Anne herself is an interesting character, her placid, almost insipid manner hiding a stubborn nature and a willingness to be pushed only so far.
With a few exceptions, the men in this novel are relegated to the background, though John Churchill and Robert Harley, Abigail's dissolute ally turned enemy, play prominent roles. The focus, though, is definitely on the "petticoat politics" of Queen Anne's reign.
Ophelia Field in her 2002 biography of Sarah Churchill, The Favourite, speaks dismissively of this novel, writing, "Facts taken from schoolbook history lie like uncrushed pills in the jam of this romantic fiction, heavy with forebodings of disaster and clunking dialogue." (Field also describes the television drama "The First Churchills" as "drily educational and theatrical.") Field's biography (as far as I can tell from skimming it) is readable and intelligent, but I can't agree with her assessment of Plaidy's novel. The dialogue here doesn't sparkle, but I wouldn't call it "clunking" either; in fact, Plaidy catches Anne's maddeningly repetitive speech, Sarah's fulminations, and Abigail's subtle way of suggesting ideas to Anne quite well. And romantic? I'd hardly call the characters here, who suffer disillusionment and disappointment, and who often make mistakes and suffer for them, romantic.
Besides, if this was a romance, it'd have Sarah Churchill with a bare-chested John Churchill on the cover, and it doesn't. So there.