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This report is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Beyond the Duchess and the Dean Lawrence Sail

To judge from her two entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough, was a woman who liked people to know where she stood - or, perhaps, reclined, since the first and more memorable quotation records that 'The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top-boots.' But the second one, from a letter to the Duchess of Bedford of 21 June 1734, is equally forthright in its way. 'Painters, poets and builders,' writes the duchess, 'have very high flights, but they must be kept down.' No problem of value judgements there - the great thing is to stem the flow, to keep the whole potentially luxuriant and rioting structure within bounds. It is not hard to guess what she would have made of a day-long conference such as the one presented by this year's Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival (directed by Jonathan Davidson) as part of the UK Year of Literature & Writing, on the subject of 'Promoting Literature'. It is really quite stirring to think of her striding to the front with missionary zeal, determined to clear the room and do her bit towards keeping the poets down. But had she or some ghostly proxy done so, it would have been a pity as well as an act of overconfident arrogance: she would have missed, or marred, an interesting occasion.

Not that there were so many poets - or, for that matter, a surfeit of painters or ...


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