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What Can ‘The Favourite’ Tell Us about the Rhetoric of Queer Letters?

With the Academy Awards scheduled for this week, there’s plenty of buzz about “The Favourite.” It tops this year’s nominations (alongside “Roma”) with 10, receiving the most nominations in history for a film that centers a queer story between women. I’ll leave commentary about the film’s campy style and imaginative take on history to queer film critics and historians of Queen Anne’s reign. My interest is in a specific facet of the film.

The letters.

Or, as we rhetorical critics might say, the epistolary rhetoric. Epistles, or letters, are addressed to audiences in order to accomplish purposes within a particular situation. And the letters depicted in the film do make things happen. Not by way of logical argument, but as a good deal of rhetoric functions: through emotional appeals, veiled threats, offers and withdrawals of affection, and seductive plays with (and abuses of) power.

Based on research for my forthcoming book, “Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education,” I see two key takeaways from “The Favourite” and public conversations about its letters:

  1. Same-sex love letters are rhetorically powerful and politically significant.
  2. They are historically indispensable but far from straightforward sources of information.

Power & Politics

Love letters are generally understood as private, spontaneous expressions of heartfelt emotion. While they certainly express feeling, letters are rarely private or spontaneous. On the contrary, they are often rhetorically crafted to exert influence. And that influence can be politically significant, as in “The Favourite.” Two epistolary moments are crucial to understanding the letter’s rhetorical significance to the film (spoilers ahead).

In the film, Queen Anne and Lady Sarah are involved in a long-term sexual relationship that includes the exchange of passionate letters. Upon Lady Abigail’s arrival, she begins a competing relationship with Anne. This triangle of affections sets the stage for much of the film’s plot.

The first important epistolary moment is when Lady Sarah threatens to release Queen Anne’s letters to the press unless she sends Lady Abigail away from the castle. Releasing the letters would reveal the nature of Sarah’s relationship with Anne and provoke public censure. This threat is a turning point in the women’s relationship, after which Anne sends away Sarah instead. Of course, this threat to expose a relationship through letters is not unique in history, literature, or film. Such threats reflect the power of letters as sources of influence and information. The threats make clear that love letters are never securely private.

Second, when Abigail intercepts and burns a desired apology from Sarah to Anne, Anne responds to the continued absence of this letter’s arrival with a series of consequential political decisions. Anne claims that Sarah’s husband, an army officer, has been stealing from her and then sends troops to banish them both from the country. The Queen even orders that war with the French be ended. The letter’s interception did not on its own lead to these decisions. The film shows that conflicts between the Whigs and Tories were at play, as were multiple attempts to manipulate Anne. But the letter, even in its absence, is powerful — with significant implications for the women’s intimate relationships as well as English politics.

Love letters aren’t merely expressions of private emotion; they are also a means of influencing public relationships and politics. The letters in “The Favourite” remind viewers and rhetoric scholars alike that simple splits between political and interpersonal communication, between public and private life, are just that: simplistic.

Queer History

In fact, the letters are not private documents. Accounts of the letters have been published, research for the original screenplay involved consulting “volumes and volumes of letters,” and conversations about the film are animated by questions about them. Did Queen Anne “really” have “lesbian love affairs”? Was she bisexual? What do the letters say?

Whether written to queens or everyday people, same-sex love letters are important historical records. “The letters women wrote to one another,” according to Carol Smith-Rosenberg, “constitute one of women’s principal sources of information about…feelings for one another.” Often preserved thanks to archivists, these letters help us understand relationships from the past. My own work and most histories of sexuality rely on letters as primary sources.

Still, we should be skeptical of claims that letters “prove” the nature of the writer’s relationship and behaviors outside the letters, much less her sexual identity. Such claims rest on shaky interpretive ground. As I argue elsewhere, love letters are not transparent windows into what people “really” felt or did.

At the same time, we should be even more weary of those who are quick to write off the letters, dismissing even the possibility of queer and bisexual intimacies. We routinely hear that passionate language was common and socially acceptable in romantic friendships between women in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Britain (and the United States). That these friendships were entirely platonic. Popular articles about “The Favourite” are no exception. We are urged to “bear in mind that in that era women did have passionate friendships with no erotic undertones.” Or simply instructed that, “no – there is no evidence that she was in a same-sex relationship.”

What kind of evidence do we expect?

While “The Favourite” is relatively explicit in depicting sex between women, few letters offer detailed descriptions of sex acts. This absence of description does not itself amount to evidence that women didn’t have sex with each other, any more than a similar absence would suggest opposite-sex pairings were celibate.

There’s more to say about the sexual politics of “The Favourite” — not to mention the racial politics of the Oscars. As we look ahead to this week’s ceremony, let’s also keep talking about the rhetorical, political, and historical significance of same-sex letters like those in the film.

Pamela VanHaitsma is assistant professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University, where she also serves as associate director of the Center for Humanities & Information. Her book on queer epistolary rhetoric, “Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education,” is forthcoming with the University of South Carolina Press. You can find her on Twitter at @pvanhaitsma.