Julian Burnside on ‘The Favourite’, historical accuracy and the ‘C’ word

By the time you read this, many people will have seen The Favourite, which is showing in cinemas now.  It is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.  It premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on August 30, 2018, and opened in UK cinemas on January 1, 2019.

The Favourite tells the story of Queen Anne of England, and the rivalry between two of her closest personal maids: Sarah Churchill (the Duchess of Marlborough) and Abigail Hill (later Baroness Masham).

Queen Anne presents as a tragic figure: crippled by gout, apparently delusional, and head of the most powerful country in the world, at a time of tremendous historical upheaval. Anne was born in 1665, while Charles II was king of England. He was her uncle. Her father was James, who became James II when Charles died without issue.James II was immensely unpopular, in part because he was Roman Catholic.

The split between Roman Catholics and Anglicans had emerged when Henry VIII left the Catholic church in1527 in order to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. It intensified under Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I. The Tudor line ended on the death of Elizabeth. The throne was taken by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England (the first of the Stuart kings). He was the target of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 (a plot by a group of pious Catholics who objected to his continued persecution of Catholics) and he was followed by Charles I.  Charles I triggered the English Civil War by trying to sideline the Parliament. He lost the war and his head, but Oliver Cromwell’s reign did not work out, and the monarchy was genuinely restored in 1658 with Charles II as king. Charles II died in 1685.As he had no children, the throne was taken by his brother James, who became king as James II.

As noted above, James II was immensely unpopular. The English Parliament in effect offered the throne to William of Orange, a Protestant. He accepted, and he and his wife Mary arrived in England in November 1688.

William and Mary reigned until William died in 1702. Anne was sister to Queen Mary. William and Mary had no children, so on William’s death Anne was heir presumptive. She reigned as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1702 to 1707. In 1707, the Act of Union created Great Britain, and Anne ruled as Queen of Great Britain until she died in 1714.

It is also surprising to hear some of the characters (especially the women) use the last surviving taboo word “cunt”. Surprising precisely because of its taboo status these days.

Anne was second cousin to George of Hanover. When he visited England in 1680, there was a rumour that they would marry. They didn’t. Instead, she married George of Denmark on 28 July 1683. Sarah Churchill was appointed one of Anne’s ladies of the bedchamber.

During the early years of Anne’s marriage, James II became king and (as noted above) he was removed and replaced by William of Orange and his wife, Anne’s sister Mary.

Anne had 17 pregnancies, but none of her children survived. When she died in 1712, the throne was taken by her cousin George of Hanover, because of the Act of Settlement (1701). As George I he was he first Hanoverian king of Great Britain.

The accession of George as king of Great Britain must have been a shock to Georg Frideric Handel. Handel had been appointed Kapellmeister to Georg e of Hanover and asked for leave of absence to visit England. He was successful very quickly and received a grant of 200 pounds a year from Queen Anne. He didn’t return to Hanover. But in 1712 his former boss became George I of Great Britain. In 1717, Handel wrote the Water Music which was performed several times for the entertainment of George I and his friends. It is said that The Water Music helped heal the rift which had developed between Handel and George as a result of him abandoning his role as Kapellmeister in favour of the lure of Queen Anne’s England.

The Favourite has a dazzling sound track and includes (not surprisingly) a number of pieces by Handel. It also includes work by Purcell, Vivaldi and JS Bach (who was born in the same year as Handel). A little more surprising is music written by Franz Schubert, who was born in 1797. Similarly surprising historical misfits include characters saying “Okay”, which is first recorded in use in 1919.

It is also surprising to hear some of the characters (especially the women) use the last surviving taboo word “cunt”. Surprising precisely because of its taboo status these days. Although it is rare to hear “cunt” in film or TV these days, it is worth remembering that it is a very ancient word: it dates to about 1230, and was used (without apparently giving offence) by Horace Walpole in 1743. It became a term of abuse and fell into taboo status in the 1920s. In America at least it may have been eclipsed as the worst possible word: a few years ago punk poet John Cooper Clarke wrote and performed “Some cunt used the N word”.

These things aside, The Favourite is a terrific film. It is visually dazzling: The sets are as sumptuous as could be expected. External scenes were filmed at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, and many of the internal scenes are also set there: in the Marble Hall, the Long Gallery and the King James Drawing Room. Some scenes were also shot at Hampton Court Palace. The costumes are dazzling, and the wigs of the Parliamentarians are astonishing, but familiar from paintings of the time. The competition between Whigs and Tories show Parliament as it was during one of the most interesting stages of its development.

I have no idea whether the complicated (and enthusiastic) lesbian sex is historically accurate. When male homosexuality was criminalised in Queen Victoria’s reign, female homosexuality was not, because (apparently) she did not recognise its existence as a form of behaviour. At the time of Queen Anne, homosexuality was not a criminal act. Whether that made it more common or less restrained is not known. According to a biography by Anne Somerset Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, Anne was a reserved figure as she entered her physically frail old age. So, The Favourite may have taken liberties with the facts.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that her friendship with Sarah Churchill was very close, and finally cooled because of political differences.

Without regard to historical accuracy and the occasional neologism, The Favourite is a really great film. Hugely entertaining and not to be missed.

16 responses to “Julian Burnside on ‘The Favourite’, historical accuracy and the ‘C’ word

  1. I hear ‘cunt’ coming from women more often these days, mostly used in the same disparaging way that men use it about other men. It may have been a taboo word, but like all taboos, its day has gone.

  2. Fascinating to watch the movie, but the last two minutes of the film left a lot to be desired for me (and fellow movies goers I was with – even random fellow viewers came up asking ‘what was that about?’). Costumes and the setting/buildings were beautiful.
    Would have been interesting to read commentary of the ending in the review.

  3. Haven’t seen the film. Have tried reading the (first act of) the shooting script but was not impressed (in places seemed downright amateurish) but perhaps the director has pulled something out of the bag. The ‘c’ word appears quite frequently in Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. Seems it was commonplace way back then.

  4. One of my favourites is ‘quim’. c.f.
    The rot is said to have set in with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 or least when Henry Labouchère successfully moved an amendment to the bill that criminalised gay sex for men. It appears that QV did not veto a same provision for women.
    In any event in late Victorian times same sex activities suffered a legal hammering at least for men and by extension it would seem for women. Not that it stopped the activity but simply drove it underground as Oscar Wilde found to his cost.

  5. It is not so much the hard sound of the word as the violence that often accompanies its use. It current meaning – insulting someone by calling them a woman’s body part offensively – hits women hard in a misogynistic society rife with domestic violence. Kids call their female teachers ‘you f**king c**t’ regularly in many male led schools. It is part of a bigger picture. ‘Outlander’ got away with it in context – Jamie loved his woman.

  6. > At the time of Queen Anne, homosexuality was not a criminal act.

    Actually, being gay was a capital offence under Queen Anne. An Acte for the punishment of the vice of Buggerie (25 Hen. 8 c. 6) was passed in 1533. Queen Victoria’s role was to stop the hangings, in 1861.

  7. Where can I see it? Julian lives in Melbourne. Can we see it in “the regions”? I live in Newcastle NSW (don’t sneer). Please help!

      1. Many thanks for your reply, but The Favourite is not showing in any cinema I can find in the Newcastle/ Lake Macquarie area. We have Event, Hoyts and Reading cinemas – but no go.

  8. I would have thought that a more colloquial word to use in Queen Anne’s reign was ‘cunny, a common word in literature used right up until the 1900s.

    Personally the C word (I’m assuming there’s a nanny on this site) has become so sexist and so violently offensive that I think we should permanently delete this word from our mouths because it uses our most intimate and loving parts for our worst insults. On the other hand I would like to see the reintroduction of the word ‘cunny’ for use in intimate moments or when talking to children about their body parts.

    Here is how it might sound in various circumstances. Note: it lacks the nasty force of the C word. http://tbqfh.com.au/2016/11/20/we-discuss-the-origin-of-cunny/

    1. Our feminists are, as usual, very quick to pick up the latest trends from the other side of the Pacific. One of the reasons the C-word is so repugnant in the US is that it is mostly used as a term of abuse for women since they are the sex that is equipped with that particular feature of the anatomy.

      This is not the case in Australia, where the C-word is a term of general abuse for people (perhaps even more for men than for women), things, and situations and has never been quite so taboo as it is in the US.

      As for whether our swearing should be cleansed of words for ‘intimate and loving parts’, the same might go for ‘cock’, ‘dick’, and ‘prick’, which are used in various terms of abuse (‘prick’, ‘dickhead’ and the like), ‘balls’ (as in ‘balls-up’) and of course the F-word, which is supposed to refer to the act of making love but manages to find itself in some of our vilest imprecations. In fact, the C-word doesn’t seem much more sexist than any of the others.

      As for whether ‘bad language’ or ‘swear words’ in general should be exorcised from the language, well, good luck with that. There are people (I think Stephen Fry is one of them) who take the view that such words and expressions enrich the language, and that some of the greatest practitioners of English have actually been highly adept both at swearing and at using persuasive, respectable, even high-flown language.

  9. I agree that it is beautiful looking film with great performances. However, the historical inaccuracies start to niggle outside the ones mentioned in the article. For example, Anne was actually quite devoted to her husband, George, for the entirety of their marriage and they actually slept in the same bed (unusual for monarchs at the time), which renders the whole ‘lesbian love triangle’ a bit meaningless. Then you discover that the costumes aren’t historical, then that weird dance scene…one leaves the cinema wondering what was the point of it all?

    1. Just because Anne had a devoted and intimately loving relationship throughout their marriage does not preclude her from having dalliances with members of the same sex. Human sexuality is a complex thing. It may be that she never had such dalliances. It may be that she trusted her intimate ‘servant’ so much, above others, that it was the only form of abandonment and delight she could participate in. Who knows? What I do know from reading much about eros in humans, is that any sense of ‘fixed’ sexuality can be dismissed out of hand. Most children start their sexual explorations with a member of the same sex, possibly experiment with both genders, fix upon one gender, change if they have great unhappiness or are lonely through the death of a partner or ill-treatment by a partner, or just because they’re bored. Don’t dismiss what you don’t know or haven’t tried! As forth dances, they were fantastic and memorable scenes, ones that depict a bored and very sad person taking delight in silliness. Anne clearly did have a sense of humour!

      1. “Don’t dismiss what you don’t know or haven’t tried” reminds me of the line in that controversial (at the time) production of “Hair – “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it”!

  10. Human rights lawyer film critic & historian – I think Julian must have a secret double sharing his workload! Great read.

    1. One of my favourites is ‘quim’. c.f.
      The rot is said to have set in with the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 or least when Henry Labouchère successfully moved an amendment to the bill that criminalised gay sex for men. It appears that QV did not veto a same provision for women.
      In any event in late Victorian times same sex activities suffered a legal hammering at least for men and by extension it would seem for women. Not that it stopped the activity but simply drove it underground as Oscar Wilde found to his cost.

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