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Book Review: Queen Anne

By (October 18, 2013) No Comment

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passionqueen anne cover
by Anne Somerset
Knopf, 2103

When Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland’s densely-researched twelve-volume series The Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest reached its mid-point in 1844, Queen Victoria had only been on the throne for eight years, having ascended as a dutiful and unspoiled teenage girl and having given her country a much-needed (and often now forgotten) gust of fresh air after the swarthy, pig-faced batch of ‘wicked uncle’ Hanoverians that had preceded her. For the first time in living memory, queenship was back in currency – and, as the Strickland sisters happily discovered, queens were good business. The Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest was a Victorian sales sensation, and if trend-watchers were surprised that the volume devoted to Queen Anne sold even more briskly than the one devoted to Queen Elizabeth I, they shouldn’t have been: the Victorians of the 1840s saw this slip of a girl out riding in Hyde Park; they could not imagine the white-haired and wizened living monument of fifty years hence who would be a fit parallel indeed for the terrifying old termagant Gloriana became before her end. Far more parallel was the temperament (and, to an uncanny degree, the physical appearance) of Anne, the last Stuart queen, who though much older than Victoria (she was 37 when she came to the throne) was likewise known for her goodness, her simplicity, and her plain-spoken devotion to her country and people.

She was born in 1665 in London, the second daughter of James, the Duke of York, who later came briefly and disastrously to the throne as King James II. When James fled the country after the bloodless invasion of William of Orange in 1688, William and Anne’s sister Mary became the king and queen of England. Mary died in 1694 and William in 1702 – and so Anne became by ancient title queen of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. To the long-standing elements of fantasy in that title there was added in 1707 a very concrete fact: the Act of Union united England and Scotland into one political entity, Great Britain, of which Anne was the first queen (just as she was the last queen of the English colonies in America). She ruled England during its protracted participation in the War of the Spanish Succession, during which her great captain, John Churchill, covered himself in glory and became one of the most renowned warriors in English history.

That renown extended to the home front as well, since John’s wife Sarah had been from childhood Anne’s best friend and was now her closest confidant, a sharp-tongued ruler in all but name (Daniel Defoe called her a she-dictator), a fiery and intelligent woman who often clashed wills with the more phlegmatic-seeming Anne and yet for a long time functioned as a kind of second self to the Queen (they invented equalizing code-names for each other; the Queen was Mrs. Morley, and Sarah was Mrs. Freeman). Thirty years ago, in her 1984 book Ladies in Waiting, historian Anne Somerset captured the dynamic quite well:

As Sarah puts it in her memoirs, ‘I laid it down for a maxim that flattery was falsehood to my trust and ingratitude to my greatest friend; and that I did not deserve much favor if I could not venture the loss of it by speaking the truth’, and though she would carry this principle too far when Anne was Queen, at this stage of their acquaintance [in the early 1680s] her forthrightness enabled the two women to have a freedom of intercourse which at the time was almost unthinkable between two persons of widely differing rank.

Now Somerset’s new biography of Anne, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion has been published in the United States (after collecting some stellar reviews in the aforementioned Great Britain), and it’s a sumptuously great read from a master chronicler at the height of her powers. And it fairly well needs to be, since its illustrious subject has tended to get walked all over by her biographers (and those biographers haven’t had it easy either; in 1958 J. P. Kenyon could write with donnish complacency “There is no good biography of Anne,” when by that point there had been six). In 1902 that real-life Phineas Finn, Justin McCarthy, wrote in his The Reign of Queen Anne:

When we speak of Queen Anne we cannot possibly associate the greatness of the era with any genius of inspiration coming from the women whose name it bears. Anne was born to a great era, just as she was born to a crown, and had no more to do personally with the making of its greatness than if she had been born in a garret to a life of commonplace obscurity.

And even seventy years later, David Green in his 1970 work Queen Anne could wearily sigh:

No, she was not a great queen; nor were all her actions noble. But she was so handicapped – so ill, so bullied, at the last so bewildered and desperate – one would need a heart of stone not to feel for her.

(Against such nabobs of negativity we can align the Strickland sisters and one other conspicuous Anne apologist: Winston Churchill, descended through countless drunkards from John Churchill, who wrote of Anne: “If we have called her a great queen, it is not because of her benevolence or her understanding, though both were considerable; certainly not because of her right judgment, but because of her toughness and will-power and the part they played both for good and for ill in this expansive and glorious period.”)

The handicaps Green mentions were certainly prominent. Anne was sickly for most of her adult life and also (in a point Victorian biographers delicately soft-focused) morbidly obese, and to these things was added a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions: in the twenty-five years of her marriage to Prince George of Denmark (whom Kenyon charges, validly, with “impenetrable stupidity”), Anne was pregnant nineteen times – and fourteen of those pregnancies ended in either miscarriages or stillborn births. Four of the remaining five died in infancy. And the one remaining, little Prince William, was an unbearably touching figure who died at age eleven of hydrocephalus, an elfin figure tottering down hallways, or holding his swollen head up with both hands, and yet cheerful and happy as only an innocent can be.

It’s a towering tribute to Anne that she herself remained not only open and giving but hard-working throughout what she had to consider a miserable life; Queen Victoria withdrew entirely from her regal duties after the death of her husband, but Queen Anne led her country and contended with a violently fractious Parliament while child after child was dying in her arms. She attended council meetings (more than any monarch before her, and more than any monarch after her), called and dismissed ministries, and oversaw Great Britain’s first full entrance into the status of a superpower, and if she often lapsed into self pity, to whom could we begrudge it less?

Somerset concentrates as much on Anne’s relationship with Sarah Churchill as she needs to in order to sell books to a reading public who hoard and sleep and feed and know not the patience to endure long stretches of Parliamentary infighting. But that infighting – the raw and squalling beginnings of the systematized partisan mania that would afflict every British government thereafter – is the truly fascinating part of Anne’s reign, especially since although she bemoaned the fanatics among both Whigs and Tories, she could scheme and thunder with the worst of them. Somerset may flirt with questions about the nature of Anne’s passionate attachment to Sarah, but she’s the first biographer since Trevelyan to do proper, intelligent justice to Anne the politician. Every page of Queen Anne is seamlessly good reading, but those pages are the best.

And what is Somerset’s verdict on this so-much-summarized monarch? On some matters, she’s pleasingly blunt. “Compared to other monarchs,” she writes, for instance, “Anne was insignificant as a patron” (on this score the great architect John Vanbrugh would have agreed; whenever he and the Queen conferred about his latest stunning creation, they mostly ended up talking about the antics of his house cats). But our biographer reserves her well-mannered scorn for the rough handling Anne has often received:

Rather than Queen Anne, the Duke of Marlborough is hailed as the towering figure whose brilliance as a general shaped the nation’s fortunes and elevated Britain’s standing in foreign eyes. Anne is not even commended for having given him command of her forces, as his appointment is supposed to have owed more to her fondness for Marlborough’s wife than a dispassionate appraisal of his abilities.

“The idea that Anne was hopelessly weak and ineffectual, and constantly imposed upon by others,” Somerset writes, “does not stand up to scrutiny.” This meticulous, vastly entertaining book provides that scrutiny and ultimately agrees with the most insightful observer of Anne’s day that the Queen was “rather greater than we knew.” That observer was the great Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and there just isn’t any better company for a biographer to keep.