Wednesday 12 February 2020

Review: The Secret History of Queen Zarah

Oxford Compilation: Second Text

The second novel in the collection is Delarivier Manley’s The Secret History of Queen Zarah, written in 1705 but more interested by events twenty years previously. After the succession of shocks and surprises that was Aphra Behn’s ‘The Nun, this was a far more expected and (if I’m honest) flat experience.

It tells the story of Zarah, an initially na├»ve (if never exactly innocent) young woman who lives around the edges of the court. She falls in love with a man called Hippolito because he’s attractive, well-connected and rich but he’s also the love the King’s mistress. This is pretty simply solved when Zarah finds herself in a compromising position with him and is ‘caught’ by her mother, who nudges him into marriage. The two rise in power, playing different political groups off each other, swapping alliances at the smallest benefit, teasing with sex and power – the general set of activities for the rich and dodgy. 

Finally, after weaving through the reigns of three kings, Zarah finds herself the favourite of childhood friend Atalantia. In this position she can screen her friends, punish her enemies and generally rule. This is no problem for Atalantia, who gets all the cushiness of being Queen without the hard work. The piece ends rather abruptly here.

The main reason the book doesn’t have a proper ending is that the story of Sarah Churchill, the model of Zarah, didn’t have an ending yet. As seen in the recent film, The Favourite, she would find herself and exiled, but this happened in 1711 and the book came out in 1705. It’s interesting to compare the character of Zarah in this book to the depiction of Sarah in the film to see what her enemies were saying about Sarah Churchill at the time and the (also quite slanderous) things said about her now. Zarah is a schemer in the book, she uses politics more than she uses sex and when she does use sex as a weapon, it is against men. Most interestingly, beyond her natural political cunning, Zarah seems something of a dullard, not very interesting or interested beyond the acquisition of power. Sarah Churchill in The Favourite used the with-holding of sex and affection to manipulate Queen Anne and she gains power for its own sake but also because she is good with it. Sarah Churchill in the film is manipulative but she is extremely smart and a far more interesting character in general.

The most interesting thing about this book is not the story itself, it’s the controversy over authorship. Never was it attributed to Delrivier Manley in her lifetime. Apparently it doesn’t have the same flavour of Manley’s New Atalantis, which is far more sexually explicit (and imaginative). Nor was it published by the same bookseller, the racier work being published by our old friend Edmund Curll. The current probable author of the work was a man called Joseph Browne, a man who succeeded Manley in writing for The Examiner (who had in turn taken it over from Swift). This collection was put together in 1996 and the arguments against Manley being the author of this piece were in 2001 and 2004. 

The other most interesting part of the text is the extensive preface, which turns out to be a straight translation of a piece of French criticism. The piece questions why the English are turning away from the multi-volume French Romances and in favour of shorter, more grounded works. It suggests that the English being a mercantile nation are generally more grounded but also suggests being ‘brisk and impetuous’ do not require ‘long-winded performances’ and that ‘they have no sooner begun a book, that they desire to see the end of it’. This example of an author taking a French jibe against the English and re-contextualising it in their favour was probably the funniest part of the text.

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