A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg

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Word PressThis is sub-titled “A Novel of Queen Anne”, but it’s actually about Anne as a princess.  It ends when she’s about to become queen. That’s rather a shame, because her reign is such a crucial period in British history – the Act of Union, the implementation of the Act of Settlement making it clear that Parliament actually gets to decide the succession, and Britain coming to challenge and replace France in the superpower stakes – but Anne is so neglected by historical novelists generally that it’s great to see any novel about her.  And this really is about her, whereas most people writing about her, whether they’re writing fact or fiction, tend to concentrate on the Marlboroughs, her relationship with the Marlboroughs, the Marlboroughs’ relationships with everyone else and the events of and fallout from the Glorious Revolution, with poor Anne getting shoved into the background.

It’s not the easiest of books to get into, because it’s a pastiche, written in a very 18th century way – short chapters, long chapter-headings.  Also, it’s written in the present tense, which IMHO always makes novels feel rather infantilised.  And the author’s tried hard to stick to the language of the time, but you often get the feeling that she’s based it on the language of Jane Austen, a century later!   Having said all that, it gives a very interesting picture of Anne’s life.  It’s well-known that she had seventeen pregnancies, at least one of which was with twins, but no surviving children.  She had one son who suffered from hydrocephalus but lived to be 11, two daughters who died of smallpox in infancy and two other children who died soon after birth, and numerous miscarriages, and stillbirths.  It’s now thought that she had “sticky blood”, but of course there was nothing that could be done about it at the time.

I don’t think she ever gets the sympathy that Catherine of Aragon, for example, does, but that’s probably because her era is so neglected compared to the Tudor era. It’s strange, because she was popular at the time – almost certainly the most popular of the Stuart monarchs of England in their own time, although historians tend to prefer Charles II because he’s so much more entertaining!  The book, heartbreakingly, shows her repeatedly asking why God is punishing her.  It’s not hard to imagine that happening.   We also see a not particularly intelligent woman, and one who struggled with poor eyesight and other health problems, trying to deal with life at the glittering Restoration court of Charles II, and then cope with all the political intrigue of the Popish Plot, the Monmouth Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Settlement.  A neglected period, and a neglected princess/queen.

The title, “A Want of Kindness”, refers to the falling out between Anne and her sister Mary. Mary is generally treated more kindly by historians than Anne is, and, quite honestly, I think that a lot of that is due to male chauvinism.  Anne is sneered at because her friendships and fallings-out with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham are seen as being schoolgirlish, but male monarchs were always falling in and out with different “favourites” as well, and no-one sneers about that.   And she’s sneered at because she was fat.  George IV is as well, but not to the same extent.

I think everyone struggled with the rights and wrongs of the Glorious Revolution. I struggle with it, and I wasn’t born until nearly 300 years afterwards!   All that social contract stuff that Locke goes on about, and all that de facto and de jure stuff.   We’ll never know how Mary or Anne really felt about it.  Did they feel guilty?  Surely they must have done: the book shows Anne feeling guilt, and sadness at being separated from her father and stepmother.  In the book, she doesn’t really express any doubts that James Edward really is her half-brother, whereas, in public, she seems to’ve been reluctant to admit that he was.  What did Anne really feel about the Hanoverian succession?  Again, we’ll never know.  Anyway, to get back to the “want of kindness”, Mary and Anne fell out, and weren’t reconciled before Mary’s death.  A lot of the bad feeling seems to have been due to Mary’s disapproval of Anne’s closeness to the Marlboroughs.  They do tend to overshadow Anne in most of what’s written about her.  But they don’t in this – this genuinely is about Anne.  I’m not overly keen on the style, but I really do like the content.

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