Courting danger and currying favour: the lives of ...

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Courting danger and currying favour: the lives of ladies-in-waiting

An immensely enjoyable book about English ladies-in-waiting recounts the lives of these long-suffering women

Robert Leigh-Pemberton

“There never was a more absolute favourite in a court,” wrote Bishop Burnet of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. And yet it is telling that the duchess, despite her sway over the sickly, vacillating Queen Anne, was inclined to echo her husband’s view, that “happiness is seldom found in a court”.

Anne Somerset’s lively 500-year history of English ladies-in-waiting, first published in 1984 and now reissued, leaves one agreeing wholeheartedly. Abigail Masham, the Duchess of Marlborough’s great rival for Anne’s affections, might have been “able to make the Queen stand on her head if she chose”, but at court such influence came at the price of a life that could be dull, uncomfortable, poorly rewarded and occasionally dangerous.

Today’s ladies-in-waiting get off relatively lightly. Though no one would suggest that a career spent “chatting with Lady Mayoresses” or “helping tongue-tied civic dignitaries” was pleasure itself, the strictures of court life have relaxed. Elizabeth I, by contrast, behaved like a jealous madam, beating her ladies (and breaking one’s finger) if they asked permission to marry. Under the regime imposed by the priggish Prince Albert, Windsor felt “like a prison”, a situation that worsened after his death when Victoria would plunge her poor ladies-in-waiting (often young, and desperate to appear at their best for the few years available to them) into deep mourning at the slightest pretext. “There is a horrid Queen of Sardinia dead,” wrote one, in keen frustration, “too distressing with all my pretty coloured gowns.”..

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