The Favourite - How power works
I finally got to see The Favourite, at the weekend. It is an excellent movie, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos in 2018. It describes England in the early 18th century, where at the royal court of Queen Anne, two female courtiers, Abigail Hill (later Masham), and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, go through a lengthy period of active rivalry for position and influence with the queen, gradually sliding into violence. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the successful efforts of Abigail, a poor cousin of the Duchess of Marlborough, negotiate her way to married respectability and significant influence. What could be more appropriate on International Women's Day? The way Abigail Hill turned an ‘impossible’ situation into an opportunity for personal advancement, has much to teach us about how to spot and exploit opportunities to influence, and perhaps out-manoeuvre, key players in business - though of course I don't recommend or support the violence that Abigail ultimately resorted to.
When she arrives at court, shortly after 1700, Abigail has no money, no position, is unmarried, in short has no formal power or influence whatsoever. Despite the overwhelming challenge, for Abigail failure is not an option. Her desire to restore her family fortunes becomes central to every step she takes. Knowing what you want and committing to it creates a context for action; and as a result, Abigail begins to see how she can use her power in unexpected ways.
On her own initiative, her first step towards her goal, is using her expert knowledge of herbs to make a salve to soothe the Queen’s long standing gout. This brings Queen Anne, the most powerful person at Court, to start taking a personal interest in her.
Having the Queen’s attention, through empathy, Abigail builds a relationship of trust by showing concern about Queen Anne’s pain, and empathising about her 17 children that had died, in miscarriages or in early life. By getting Anne to like and trust her, she builds a platform from which to operate.
Abigail continues to use their developing relationship to her advantage and is actually helped by The Duchess of Marlborough’s approach of taking advantage of her childhood connection with the Queen. Sarah, the Duchess, had used this relationship to bully the Queen into giving the Duchess more influence. In the end this coercive power, with its tendency to breed insecurity and resentment, is no match for Abigail’s kindness towards the Queen who, regardless of her legitimate power, is lonely, sick and isolated. To show her gratitude, despite the Duchess’s disapproval, Queen Anne makes Abigail her personal servant.
With a platform of trust, Abigail secures her position at Court. Following an angry exchange between the Queen and the Duchess about Abigail’s recent elevation, Abigail poisons the Duchess’s tea, causing a riding accident that takes the Duchess out of play. The Queen interprets her prolonged absence as the Duchess’s refusal to soften her attitude towards Abigail, a misunderstanding Abigail does nothing to resolve.
Another threat to Abigail’s power is a Tory minister who wants to make peace with Spain. On pain of social disgrace, he puts pressure on Abigail to inform him of anything the Queen says that can help his cause. Resisting at first, Abigail comes to recognise the value of this information and makes a counter offer - asking that in exchange, she suggests that the Queen supports a marriage between herself and the rich and respectable Lord Masham. The Queen readily agrees wanting to ensure Abigail's continued support.
Abigail uses her access to information again to get rid of her rival, intercepting and burning the Duchess’s letter to Anne making her peace and later sharing untrue information with the Queen, suggesting the Duchess is falsifying the accounts. As a result, Sarah's husband, Lord Marlborough, is arrested, and the Queen and the Duchess never rekindle their previous connection.
Abigail achieves her desired outcome, in fact she goes further than that, when she realises the need to rid herself of any competition, family or not. In common with business, it is a fascinating demonstration of how complete commitment to your outcome, and an ability to identify ways of using the different forms of power available, can open up opportunities, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
The monarch’s legitimate power and ability to reward compliance, and the Duchess of Marlborough’s coercive power, were unable to withstand Abigail’s expert knowledge of herbs, her emotional intelligence in building trust, and her strategic use of information. Although some of her methods, such as the poisoning, were highly questionable, The Favourite demonstrates what pragmatism and a strategic approach can achieve.
One final consideration: Was all this purely a personal power struggle, affecting the persons involved and no one else? Far from it. In those days of royal power, and with very limited democracy, Abigail supported the Queen to have more personal influence and make her own decisions. It is arguable, perhaps even likely, that she made securing peace between Britan and Spain possible, thus restoring the status quo of the European balance of power. So in the circumstances of those times, largely personal rivalry, infighting and changes of favour, could have major international political consequences.