Grief and intellectual absolutism

I’m reading Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, another consequence of my viewing of the movie The Favourite (my review here). So far, it’s nicely written, detailed but not a grind, and an interesting insight into what happens when a really normal person with some health problems becomes monarch of a significant kingdom. It’s also an insight into the precarious feeling of the political environment after the Glorious Revolution. That James II’s son and Anne’s half brother, James Edward Francis Stewart, the Pretender, might actually become King was a real possibility.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, meditating on how to get back at someone

As The Favourite shows, a lot of Anne’s emotional life was tied up with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. They had been close since Sarah was 13 and Anne eight, when Sarah became a maid of honour to Mary Beatrice of Modena, second wife of James II, Anne’s father (this was in 1673, long before he had his brief run as king).

The formerly close relationship ended in the early 1700s, during Anne’s reign. Though intelligent and witty, Sarah had always been hard to get along with. She became an ardent Whig, while Anne leaned Tory. Sarah would not leave this alone.

The historical significance of the deaths of children

In 1703, Sarah’s only surviving son, John, caught smallpox at Cambridge, and died. Sarah was overcome with grief, and, even though Anne had suffered her own griefs, with a son who had died at 11 and a number of children who had died young or been stillborn, this did not lead Sarah to a common sympathy with her. In fact, according to Somerset, “…Sarah’s grief had acquired a competitive edge. She came to believe that Anne’s suffering when her children died had not been nearly as intense as hers.”

Most of us have known someone like that.

But it seems that the grief had a significant effect on her personality:

Sarah’s bitterness at the loss of her only son stifled her generosity of spirit. Now, intolerance and inflexibility, became her dominant traits. By her own account, she had never derived much emotional satisfaction from her friendship with Anne, but henceforth it was validated in her eyes principally by her belief that she must mould Anne to her will and thus aid not only her husband [the Duke of Marlborough] and Godolphin [First Lord of the Treasury] but also the political party she favored [the Whigs]. Finding in politics an outlet that distracted her from her grief, Sarah devoted herself to it with febrile energy, seeing things in absolute terms that left no room for nuance. It became increasingly hard for her to accommodate any form of disagreement, or to concede that other people’s beliefs had any legitimacy at all.

It made her a familiar tiresome partisan. How often are these inflexible people riven with grief, or some other strong emotion or experience that has eroded parts of their personality? I don’t know that this is a common cause of tiresome political absolutism, and even knowing its very real cause couldn’t have made Sarah anything but a real pain to deal with, but it is an interesting thing to think about.

Sarah never recovered her old personality, though she lived until age 84. I think it is probably vain to think that any of our more pointlessly ardent political absolutists will either.

What effect have personal tragedies and experiences had on the way you relate politically?

And do you really think you are able to tell?