From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Cover Girl

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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. (Here's a link to the original, now in the collection of the UK Government Art Collection.) 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 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 first 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 lowly 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 Marseilles 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 or superior 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 place, 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, intrigue, 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 everywhere.


Blogger Ricki Bonnard said...

Susan! I came back to your table at the NJ conf 3 times to see you but you were not there! I wanted to invite you to speak at our Valley Forge Romance Writers Chapter. We meet in Ardmore. I live in Wynnewood and I wondered if you were nearby as your bio states you live outside Philadelphia. We love your books and would love to see you. My email is Have a lovely week. Ricki Bonnard

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