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I got this book at Strand Book Stall, Mumbai a few years back. The author was unknown to me and it was a historical novel. It was a beautifully produced edition and I couldn’t resist it. A few days back, when I was thinking on which book to read next, this book leapt at me.

Exit Lady Masham‘ is a historical novel set in England during the early 1700s. During the time, Queen Anne is the reigning monarch, Britain is at war with France on the succession to the throne in Spain (I need to read on the politics of that time – it was too complicated for me) and the Duke of Marlborough is leading the English army to one victory after another. At one point the Queen orders a halt to the war, which is surprising, because this kind of stuff never happens – the winning side almost never stops the fighting till the other side has conceded. All these events are part of history. This story tells us what might have happened behind the scenes and why Britain pulled out of the war. We hear the story through the voice of Abigail Hill, who is working as a laundress in a lady’s house. Her cousin Sarah visits her one day, and takes her under her wing and employs her to work at her own place. Sarah is a very influential person and is best friends with Queen Anne. After this, Abigail’s fortunes improve and before she knows it, she is working at Queen Anne’s palace, tending to the queen. As time passes, Abigail becomes a close friend and a trusted confidante to the queen and how she becomes a part of and influences the historical events of her time is told in the rest of the story.

It is always nice when we pick a book by an unknown writer and it turns out to be wonderful. This is what happened when I read this book. Louis Auchincloss – who is he? Why haven’t I heard of him? I later went and checked Wikipedia and discovered that he has written many books. I am glad I have read one of them now. The historical facts as presented in the story are quite accurate – I did my research later on Wikipedia and confirmed it. So, the book is a good history lesson too. Of course, some parts of the story are imaginary, but the author says in his introduction that they are consistent with the facts. Auchincloss’ prose is elegant and moves the story along beautifully. There are many interesting, enjoyable dialogues. Jonathan Swift (Yes, the creator of ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘!) makes an appearance two-thirds into the story and his portrayal is very interesting.

I loved most of the main characters in the story – Abigail, our narrator, who rises from humble beginnings to become the queen’s confidante, Queen Anne, who is affectionate, warm, quiet, but also strong when the situation demands it, the Duke of Marlborough, who makes only a brief appearance in a few scenes, but who is dashing and cool and whom we can’t resist falling in love with, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who is kind, fair but tough, and who ends up on the opposite side of Abigail and the queen. I also loved the way the book depicts how a humble woman, who yearns for the simple life of comfort, because of a combination of her humility and sincerity and hardwork, and the strange workings of fortune, ends up in a position of influence and is able to shape the course of great events.

The edition of the book I have is a 1984 first edition hardback and privately printed. It has a beautiful red leather cover with a golden leafy design – the kind of edition which only libraries and rich people could afford. The paper is thick, there is a lot of spacing at the borders, the black-and-white illustrations are beautiful, the endpaper design is exquisite, there is a nice introduction by the writer, and there is a letter from the publisher, typewritten and signed in ink. (Have shared some of the pictures in the comments). As a physical object, the book is exquisite and a collector’s dream. They don’t make books like this anymore. Why someone would give away this book – I have no idea. When I got it, it was still in pristine condition. It still is.

I loved Louis Auchincloss’ ‘Exit Lady Masham‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title – it could have been better. I hope to read more on the British history of this era, especially about Queen Anne, Abigail Hill who later became Lady Masham, Sarah Churchill who later became the Duchess of Marlborough and the Duke of Marlborough. I also want to explore more books by Louis Auchincloss.

I will leave you with two of my favourite dialogues from the book.

Scenario : Masham seduces Abigail and gets her pregnant. He tries to use the situation to get a favour from the queen.

“And has Your Majesty seen fit to consider his petition with any favor?”
“No, Mr. Masham, I have not. Your conduct to Mrs. Hill may be deemed a fault that marriage will rectify. There is no occasion for reward, beyond the happy possession of a worthy spouse.”
Masham’s smile became even brighter. “Perhaps Your Majesty has not been apprised of my circumstances. I am in no position, alas, to afford a wife.”
“You should have considered that before you became so intimate with Mrs. Hill, sir. Future promotion will depend on how you treat her.”
“And if I decline the honor, ma’am?”
“Then I am afraid we shall be deprived of the pleasure of seeing you at court. There are islands, however, in the New World where my officers can usefully serve.”
Could the great Queen Elizabeth have put it better?

Scenario : Jonathan Swift and Abigail Hill discuss card games

“And is this a source of keen pleasure to you?”
“It is a source of pleasure, Mr. Swift. My life has not been so filled with pleasures that I can ignore cards. Besides, whist is like life. You cannot expect to win with a poor hand, but with skill you may reduce defeat to a minimum.”
“In chess there is no element of chance. I should think a person of your intellect would prefer it.”
“Perhaps I should, were I a man. But as a woman, with so many disadvantages, I prefer the cards. They reflect the struggle as I see it around me : so much for luck, so much for skill. The high trumps may come to the undeserving, but there is always the chance that they may misuse them. And then, too, the contest proceeds so smoothly, so intellectually! There is no blood, no squalor. It is a world of form. Or ideals, if you wish.”

Have you read ‘Exit Lady Masham‘? What do you think about it? Have you heard of Louis Auchincloss?

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