A Want of Kindness | Joanne Limburg | 2015 | Atlantic Books | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1702 Queen Anne ascended to the throne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, an unfortunate and unlucky royal dynasty in so many ways. Before inheriting the throne, Anne occupied a unique position. As niece to Charles II, daughter of James II and sister-in-law and sister of William and Mary, Anne was a witness to forty years of Stuart history. While she may have been regarded as largely insignificant at first, the relentless stillbirths, miscarriages and dead children of these tragic Stuart Queens made Anne’s role as heir increasingly likely. But before that could happen, Anne had years of intrigue, scandal and religious turmoil to observe, the excessive courtliness and bawdiness of Charles II’s immoral court, the rebellion of his illegitimate sons and the desperate state of affairs to which her own father’s reign was reduced. These are fascinating times, a pageant of glorious, larger-than-life individuals, and Joanne Limburg places us in the heart of it.
A Want of Kindness is presented as ‘A novel of Queen Anne’ but it actually draws to a close when Anne succeeds to the throne. Its focus instead is on Anne’s years in waiting, years in which Anne and her ladies finally came to believe that this rather ordinary woman would become Queen.
The novel presents us with two worlds – the exotic, glamorous and mannered world of the court and Anne’s own personal life, as herself and as a daughter, sister and wife. The court is extraordinary, glittering, and the author paints it with the help of original letters and sources. The reigns of Charles II and his brother James II might have been decorous but there is a depression that hangs over them due to the Civil War, the execution of their father Charles I and the continued hatred of Catholicism. Oliver Cromwell’s head impaled on a pole at Whitehall is a constant reminder. The glamour and artifice of the age – its poetry and drama, its extreme fashions and loose morality, its mannered language and whimsical fake love affairs among the ladies of the court – contrasts vividly with the political unrest, the real danger of revolution and the personal misery of Anne who has inherited the Stuart woman’s lot – an endless line of children who don’t live.
This is a beautifully written book that captures perfectly the language and rituals of the age. It makes good use of original sources but it also recreates so well the wit and extravagance of the times. The chapter headings are wonderful and much of the language is amusing and often satirical. It is addictive to read, becoming more and more so as we become fully immersed in Anne’s world. Anne is a really rather unusual heroine. She is increasingly fat, stricken with gout, obsessed by food but it becomes clear that much of this is an escape mechanism because she is surrounded by a chaos that the elaborate rituals of the court cannot hide. Her family is enormously dysfunctional, Anne’s relationship with her parents is unconventional to say the least and William and Mary are hardly ‘normal’.
Anne is surrounded by the bright sparks of the day, notably Sarah Churchill, and Anne’s infatuations play a significant part of the novel. But it is all extremely tragic. Anne’s own marriage exists in the shadows, eclipsed by her pregnancies. It is a marvellous psychological portrait, subtly done and immensely sad. At times the courtly curtain slips and we see Anne as others see her and there is great unkindness. The title of this novel is perfectly chosen.
I knew very little about Queen Anne beyond her pitiful childbirth history and her obsession with Sarah Churchill. Joanne Limburg here fills in the gaps and also makes good use of Anne as a witness, albeit sometimes a confused and misled witness, to the tumultuous events of the late 17th century. These were extraordinary times and Anne, in many ways a very ordinary woman with ordinary needs, was right in the heart of it. I felt extremely warmly towards Anne and I became increasingly cross towards the people around her. My overall feeling for this novel, though, was one of intense enjoyment. A Want of Kindness is a thoroughly immersive and sensitive read, witty and insightful, marrying historical fact and interpretation perfectly. A novel of the year for me, without doubt.