February 11, 2015

Finest Hour 164, Special Edition, September 2014

Page 21

By Richard M. Langworth

The Profligate Duke: George Spencer-Churchill, Fifth Duke of Marlborough, and His Duchess. HarperCollins, 1987, 256 pages.

“This book is about unimportant people,” our author explains, “but I have found my dramatic personae every bit as interesting in their characters and emotions, in the complexities of their relationships, and in the events of their lives, as those of the…central figures in the history of the Marlborough dynasty.”

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A reader correctly summarizes: This is “an interesting sketch of the author’s ancestors and of the late 18th and early 19th century milieu in which they lived. Aficionados will note characteristics of the Fifth Duke—musical ability, a love of exotic plants, and a tendency to wander beyond marriage—that show up in later generations. Lovers of Blenheim will appreciate descriptions of palace life.”

The Fifth Duke of Marlborough (1766-1840) was known mainly for dissipating the family fortune and dallying outside his marriage, but there was more to him than that, as our author explains. He was “a gifted man and left a legacy of original beauty in the gardens he created….” By his time, the formal garden was passé. George turned with enthusiasm to the new school of landscape gardening, with “arbours and temples, fanciful bowers and rustic bridges,” adding to other accomplishments as a musician and bibliophile. To his ardent, ultimately unfulfilled life Lady Soames brings sympathy, eloquence and understanding, offering quotes by such contemporaries as Horace Walpole and Mary Mitford—creating, in her publisher’s words, a “vivid corner of 18th century English life.” Fittingly, the book sold well over two printings.

Only shreds survive of the Fifth Duke’s activities, she writes: “A few hoary old trees alone bear witness to the wonderful gardens he made; a mere book or two from the amazing collection he amassed—and lost; some printed sheets of music that no one plays or sings; no storied monument—only the tales of his debts, profligacy and fecklessness live on.

And yet, for his Duchess Susan, there was something more….

She was an obscure figure, elusive to historians, but she has one thing none of her predecessors had—and none of her successors, as yet: “In the Chapel at Blenheim—where God Himself must mind His precedence— high up on the wall opposite the towering monument to the Great Duke, is a seemly marble memorial tablet to Susan, placed there by her only surviving child…no other Duchess is so commemorated, not even the tremendous Sarah. It is a monument also to filial piety—and, maybe, remorse.” That is “an element of ironic justice,” our author concludes. It also reminds us of the filial piety she herself consistently expressed through her own grand life.

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