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Book Review: Queen Anne – Patroness of Arts

By (June 27, 2014) No Comment

Queen Anne: Patroness of Artsqueen anne patroness cover

by James Anderson Winn

Oxford University Press, 2014


James Anderson Winn has a track record of excellent scholarly work. His 1981 book Unsuspected Eloquence, a gamesome study of the relationships between music and poetry, made most earlier interdisciplinary studies look almost embarrassingly parochial, and his 1987 book John Dryden and His World is still the single best book on Dryden. And his latest book, Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, is a masterpiece on every bit as impressive a scale, a better, more comprehensive, and more searching general-audience study of Queen Anne than anything done before on this oft-studied monarch. In fact, it’s easily strong enough to overcome the three-card monte game with which Winn chooses, in his wit, to open proceedings. The game is evident right away, since the title Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts makes exactly as much sense as George W. Bush: Hegelian Philosopher.

Winn’s nothing if not playful. He bravely posits at the beginning of his book (a slightly oversized thing, beautifully produced by Oxford University Press) that Anne was a deeply-involved art-enthusiast throughout her entire life. Here’s his summary of her years as a pudgy, gloomy little princess – see if you can spot scholars refer to as “the ol’ switcheroo”:

During her years as a princess (1665-1702), Ann devoted considerable attention to the arts. By the time she was three, her parents had provided her with a music master and a dancing master; when she was ten, they encouraged her to display her skills in John Crowne’s Calisto, a court masque written to feature her older sister Mary, with a subservient but substantial role for Anne. In her teens, she acted in two productions of Mithridates, a seam tragedy by Nathaniel Lee, playing the male lead in one and the female lead in the other. She took music lessons from Francesco Corbetta … and from Gionvanni Baptista Draghi. Henry Purcell wrote the music for her wedding and for several later occasions at her small court. During the brief rule of her father, James II, she witnessed the flowering of a baroque court culture emulating the French and Italian models …

Spot it? No? Allow me: there’s not only no patronage of the arts in this account, there’s also no interest in the arts in this account. Instead, we have doting parents, opportunistic court artists, and at the center of it all, a moody little lump of a girl trudging through her music lessons with no more enthusiasm (or talent) than any little girl-lump or boy-lump has ever exhibited in the history of spoiling parents. Young Anne isn’t doing anything in this account; she’s having things done to her, being told the whole while that they’re for her own good.

But you didn’t catch it, so we’ll give our puckish author another try. Here’s his account of the subsequent decade – look sharp, now:

After Mary’s death, songs and poems in praise of Princess Anne were a medium for expressing dissatisfaction with King William. Anne’s letters of this period reveal her as a reader of poems and plays and a fan of popular songs; the players marked her visits to the theatre with special prologues and sometimes with special music … During Anne’s reign as queen (1702-14), her devotion to her duties and her limited mobility kept her from attending theatrical and musical performances in the commercial theatres. On important occasions, however, she enjoyed plays and operas at court, New Year’s and birthday odes performed by her own musicians, and special church music sung at services of Thanksgiving for military victories in the War of the Spanish Succession.

It’s mostly just more arrant sleight-of-hand: there’s no evidence that the Princess knew or cared how political poetasters used her popularity, and the correct phrasing would be “on important occasions, however, she attended plays or operas at court” – that she ever even once enjoyed them is a bit of wishful thinking somewhat undercut by how often she conducted state business during such performances (and how much more often she slept through them), or by the fact that a monarch far less conscientious than she was would still have mustered for attendance at Thanksgiving for military victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. Monarchs who don’t show up for such things get their monarch credentials revoked.

In all this persiflage, there’s only one lonely little popcorn kernel – this bit: “Anne’s letters of this period reveal her as a reader of poems and plays and a fan of popular songs.” That’s a far cry from patronage, but it at least hints at interest. The only problem with that kernel is that it won’t pop, and Winn knows it – which is why he not only never quotes from those alleged letters (I’ve read them – he’s wise to refrain) but never mentions them again.

He keeps at it, bless him, constantly giving Anne pre-eminence in the single aspect of queenship at which she didn’t excel, no matter how much he has to stretch the blanket to do it:

Her presence on the throne encouraged women playwrights and poets, some of whom promoted the reformation of manners, but sexual gossip about prominent people, including the queen herself, circulated widely, and women authors participated in that process as well. If we wish to understand the aesthetic and ideological struggle over the royal image, we need to consider these materials as well as more polite artistic productions.

Nobody knows better than Winn himself that there were a good dozen societal factors in England at the dawn of the 18th Century that encouraged women playwrights and poets and that Anne’s presence on the throne was but one of these and perhaps the slightest. Hers was an intensely vigorous age and would have been even if it had been her older brother Charles had come to sit on the throne instead of dying in crying agony after only a few months of life. The unavoidable truth is that Anne inherited from her parents and shared with her sister Queen Mary an almost-complete indifference to the entire world of art. Winn is entirely right to tell us “the arts flourished under her scepter” – this was the era when John Vanbrugh designed Blenheim Palace, Christopher Wren finished St. Paul’s Cathedral, Handel brought his first Italian opera to London, and literature flourished with the energies of Pope, Swift, Defoe, Addison & Steele and many others – but “under her scepter” isn’t the same thing as “with her encouragement.” Such direct patronage as Anne ever bothered to bestow was doled out exclusively for political reasons, never artistic ones. She wouldn’t have recognized an artistic reason if she’d blundered into it in the palace larder at midnight by candlelight.

Winn curtain-opens with his patroness conceit and touches on it from time to time, but he’s not dogmatic about it, and the huge bulk of his splendid book ranges so far and wide from that conceit that readers can comfortably forget about it and instead revel in what amounts to a fantastically detailed account of Anne’s life and reign, with special and utterly delectable emphasis on the arts. Winn knows those arts to the last detail and recounts them with marvelous energy, weaving both the famous and the trivial through the events of Anne’s life and thoughts in ways she herself virtually never thought to do. He tosses off absolutely perfect phrases (like mentioning Anne’s “usual attention to balance,” which is just right), and he brings enormous amounts of insight into every phase of Anne’s largely unhappy life:

At fifteen, Anne was now experiencing the “high Spring Tide” [from Elkanah Settle’s Pope Joan, don’t you know] of youth. The surviving letters to Frances Apsley, with their epistolary cross-dressing, open a small window into her emotions; the lost letters to Mary Cornwallis, with their “violent professions of everlasting kindness,” may have been even more intense. Anne’s exposure to the power of eros, in the theatre and in real life, gave her some appreciation of the way her passions might breach the walls of honor, but she continued to be wary of men. As she “studied the greater Globe,” especially an England now in turmoil, she could see many instances of the dangerous consequences of passion. The king himself, at this very moment, was having to discount rumors of a “black box” containing evidence that he had been married to Lucy Walter, Monmouth’s mother.

The result is a big, colorful biography of Anne and a history of the society and politics of her day. Anne was a focus for a great deal of that societal energy, and she was the primus inter pares of those politics, ruling with a skill (and an actual power) that would never be equaled again by any future British monarch. Readers should pay no attention to the Woody Allen: Soccer Superstar title of the thing and instead gobble up the substance. This is the best royal biography 2014 has so far seen, card tricks or no.