Reviewed by Victoria
Finally! A historical novelist whose wit and insight and glorious prose might threaten to topple Hilary Mantel from her throne. If you are a reader who, like me, loves historical novels that take you properly back to the past, not to some pasteboard pastiche with all the values of the 21st century, then hie thee to a bookshop for a copy of A Want of Kindness, the story of the last queen of the Stuart dynasty, Queen Anne. The tale we are offered is a behind-the-throne perspective on 17th-century England in an era of intense religious debate and rapid successions as either the religion or the sickliness of each monarch led to their downfall. When the novel opens, Anne is just a child; by the time it ends she is a 37-year-old wreck, nearly destroyed by endless stillbirths and miscarriages, wounded by bitter arguments with all her family and struggling with her own obesity and ill-health. Yet we’re left knowing that this woman will soon be crowned for a twelve-year rule.
The story begins with young Anne much in the shadow of her pert, pretty older sister, Mary. Anne is the slow and stubborn one, vexed with poor eyesight and uncertain health in a world where doctors often did as much harm as good with their cupping and blistering and bleeding. Anne isn’t much of a one for book learning, and in a Court where dice and cards are all the rage, she has a fatal tendency to lose money. She loves her food, though, and her attractive friend, Mary Cornwallis, to whom she writes endless notes promising devotion. She is utterly ordinary, in a royal culture in which wit and charm are the necessary counterparts to a certain lascivious fun and games. But in Joanne Limburg’s skilful hands we understand the subtleties and nuances of her character, and watch her forming a relationship with the one most important figure in her restricted world: God.
The face of God has many aspects. It shines upon her when she is good. When she feels guilty it darkens; at the worst of times, it is thunderous. When she prays to it, more often than not, it has a deliberate blankness about it, the like face she has sometimes seen on her uncle when someone has approached him with a petition. God has many other expressions which are recognisably the King’s: amusement, enjoyment, indulgence, boredom. Like the King, he is very forgiving, but only up to a point, and there is no predicting, on any given day, where that point might be.
Anne was a devout Protestant, though her father was Catholic, a vital difference that will be the source of much trouble in years to come, and will lead Anne to commit a betrayal that she will regret bitterly. We gain a strong understanding just how essential the ‘right’ religion was to the nation in this era, how ferociously and violently contested was the clash of differing doctrines. Across the narrative we find letters written from Anne to God, as well as to her sister, Mary, and these are for the most part the real thing, transposed whole into the text. They make for fascinating reading as Anne grows older and more eloquent in her sorrows and more afraid of the almighty God who controls her destiny. Anne knows she is weak in ordinary ways, in gluttony and sloth and in her petty resentments, and she struggles to reconcile her everyday sinning with the divine punishments she believes she undergoes.
Like many royal princesses, Anne is married off at eighteen, to Prince George of Denmark. Although this was an arranged marriage, the couple were quite devoted to one another and determined to start a family. Which they did. The most moving and troubling parts of the novel concern Anne’s eighteen pregnancies, most of which resulted in miscarriages or stillborn children. By the time she reached the throne, none of her children had survived. Yet we also see how having children took on shades of a competitive sport at this time, particularly for Anne and her stepmother, both all too well aware of their need to continue the family line.
Mind you, there are all sorts of reasons why Anne and her stepmother do not get on, and even the love and loyalty she shares with sister Mary falls apart when Mary and William of Orange jointly take over the throne, after their father is deposed for his faith. The reasons are the sort of petty, trivial fare that disrupt so many families – money, primarily, as Mary and William, pretty frenetic spenders themselves, disoblige Anne repeatedly over her allowance (which is all too often needed to make good gambling debts), and then take issue with her choice of friends. For Anne has long been a woman to have schoolgirl passions for her female companions, and Lady Sarah Churchill becomes the one thing Anne will not give up, not even for family harmony.
What I loved about this book was the insight we gain into the strange normality of royal life in this era; a life in which you are either exalted or under mortal threat, where excess is the everyday and so the least deprivation hits hard, where no one is to be trusted and where ordinary upsets over things like a dish of peas become the ridiculous yet inevitable grounds for painful estrangement. I loved how real and petty and poignant the characters were, and how far our minds must leap to understand the terrific swings of fortune the monarchy was subject to in the 17th century.
This is a beautifully and brilliantly written novel, with each sentence a pleasure. I’m not at all a sequel person, but in this case I am secretly hoping one might appear.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Read her interview with Joanne Limburg here.
Joanne Limburg, A Want of Kindness (Atlantic Books: London, 2015). 978-1782395850, 464pp., hardback.
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