A WANT OF KINDNESS
By Joanne Limburg
Pegasus Books, $25.95, 435 pages
By Martin Rubin
As a person, Queen Anne (1765-1714) is generally accounted the least impressive of the all the female monarchs who have ruled England. Which is not to say that her reign did not see great victories and many consequential events: it’s just that she was more a presider over them rather than being as much of an activist as her predecessors or Queen Victoria. The image of her enshrined in history is of a heavy, sickly, crowned and magnificently gowned figure, old before her time — she was only 49 when she died — a cipher rather than a ruler.
In “A Want of Kindness,” Joanne Limburg’s first novel, the British author has chosen not only to concentrate on Anne the person, but to end the book before she actually becomes queen. Her method is an odd one: more than 400 pages of short, separate parts, a mixture of descriptive narrative, dialogue and actual historical documents and letters. Surprisingly, this staccato approach works rather well, providing many insights into Anne’s character as well as the situations she found herself in.
Some of these are apparent in the text. Anne’s difficult roles at three different royal courts: the riotous but nominally Anglican one of her uncle King Charles II, the defiantly Roman Catholic one of her father James II, and the resurgent Protestant one of her sister Mary, who ruled jointly with their first cousin William of Orange (William III of England) after overthrowing their father King James. William and Mary’s union was childless, not only making Anne the heir to the throne, but making her fertility of vital political importance for the maintenance of the Protestant succession.
But there is no denying that readers unfamiliar with the actual historical context involving the Glorious Revolution, which deposed King James and sundry other late 17th century political events, might be missing not just background to what is going on in the pages of Ms. Limburg’s novel, but some essential context.
Those who have such knowledge will see many a prefiguring of what people have long known about Queen Anne: not least her intense friendship with Sarah Churchill, whose husband John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, would provide her reign with the great military victories for which it is renowned. Such was their intimacy that they called each other by pet names — Sarah was Mrs. Freeman and Anne Mrs. Morley — and the novel’s final words “How shall I bear my life, Mrs. Freeman? How shall I bear it?” demonstrate the superheated quality of that friendship, which would end so badly after the purview of this book.
Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark, whom many thought dull, was a happy one, although that febrile friendship with Sarah Churchill might indicate that it failed to fulfill an emotional need. It was mainly blighted by the ironic juxtaposition of an extraordinary fecundity combined with rampant infant mortality remarkable even for that time. Anne had multiple miscarriages and her dozen actual pregnancies that went to term resulted in a host of stillbirths and only one child, William, Duke of Gloucester, who survived only to die heartbreakingly just after his 11th birthday. It is this which prompts the queen’s despairing cry to Sarah Churchill that ends the book.
One of the most interesting aspects of Ms. Limburg’s novel is its exploration of the prickly relationship between Queen Mary and her sister. But Anne’s troubled pregnancies and the illnesses possibly caused by them, including the gout and dropsy that would bedevil the rest of her life, are front and center in the pages of this novel. There was of course a dynastic dimension to all this, but the focus is very much on the very real human sufferings of a woman.
Shortly after this novel ends, the Act of Settlement (1701) recognized her failure to provide an heir by maintaining her status as heir to her brother-in-law, whom she would succeed the following year, while devolving the succession upon her cousin Sophia Stuart, Electress of Hanover, and her descendants. Had she lived a few months longer, Sophia would have become another of England’s queens, although since she was well into her 80s, for how long is open to question.
Her son, who makes a brief appearance in these pages, succeeded Anne as King George I in 1714 and his descendants rule the United Kingdom (created during Anne’s rule in 1707) to this day precisely because the Protestant succession was deemed so vital. So if Anne could not herself provide an heir, she was able to hand her realm over to a suitable one.
Despite the novel’s lack of full historical context, such is Ms. Limburg’s preternatural ability to bring Anne to life and make us feel her pain that “A Want of Kindness” succeeds — on its own decidedly distinctive terms. One thing is certain: reading it will prevent readers from seeing only the enigmatic crowned figure of legend or even the pathetic woman behind that well-worn image. They will never look at her quite the same way again after seeing how she came to that sad state.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.
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