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Interview: Joanne Limburg

Restoring a misused monarch

    Limburg - honouring women who have miscarried or lost children
    Limburg - honouring women who have miscarried or lost children

    Joanne Limburg is primarily a poet. She has an original imagination, perfect economy of expression and a very precise turn of phrase. And she is a writer of parts. Her new fictional study of Queen Anne, A Want of Kindness, is a dazzling tour de force written entirely in the language of the day.

    In her book-crowded Cambridge house, hung with vibrant modernist and realist oil paintings, she speaks with elegant candour about her life and work

    "I grew up with the JC", she begins gratifyingly, "it has been an integral part of my life since I can remember."

    Although she is no longer observant, Jewishness is, she says, "part of my DNA. My mother's family came from Kremenchug in the Ukraine and there is no easy way of finding out who they were. I have wandered around the cemetery there and looked at gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions - but it is all a closed book."

    Limburg's paternal relatives are a better source of information. They came to England earlier, before the great influx of the later 19th century: "They were Dutch Jews, cigar makers. There was a story that they had a large factory in Limburg but frankly I think that's unlikely. What were they doing rolling cigars in London if that was the case? No, they were doubtless 'economic migrants'. Dutch records are good, and I am interested in genealogy so that is a productive route to my past. If I did become famous, the best thing would be to invited on to Who do you think you are?

    I am Jewish, always Jewish. However hard or strained, it can never be disavowed

    "Someone declared that Jews are not so much monotheists but ancestor worshippers, the idea of a connection with a part of yourself from the past".

    So what has drawn her to a Christian princess in an English court riven by splits between its Catholic king, Anne's father James II, and the hardline Parliament? "She is an unusual choice. I could have done Sarah Churchill, her more flamboyant helpmeet, but I think there are enough beautiful, feisty heroines… Anne was a limited person, fat and short-sighted, limited in imagination and trapped by the beliefs of her religion."

    Anne, like all Protestants of the day, felt herself in the presence of God, who judged her by taking her children from her - an incredible seventeen died from illness and diseases - and blamed her own shortcomings for her loss.

    "Her reign," Limburg explains, "was riddled with hysteria about the Catholic menace and xenophobia, still present in national life; in Guy Fawkes's burning, it used widely to be the Pope on the bonfire. Her point of view is paramount. I use the tools she had to understand her world and only language she could have known. For instance, 'family' to 17th-century people meant the household and servants."

    Using historical dictionaries, Limburg has limited herself to a close-up of a much-maligned historical figure. She dislikes the sweeping, 21st-century perspective beloved of many historical writers, studded with contemporary judgments of behaviour, or condemnations of actions they would have thought absolutely normal. Understanding and compassion are at the core of her writing, even for the unpopular and unattractive figure that was Queen Anne.

    All of Joanne Limburg's work conveys a sense of family, right from her early volumes of poetry Feminismo and Paraphernalia. And being Jewish is at its core.

    "My mother, my family and Judaism are nested inside each other. I am Jewish and always Jewish; it's analogous with family, however hard it is, and however strained, it can never be disavowed."

    Does she bring up her son in the faith? "His mother is Jewish so he is Jewish, my husband Chris isn't - well, he's called Chris - but, even so, I didn't have the heart to do it. I was brought up as an observant Reform Jew but my parents told us to make up our own minds, and we did. So they can't complain. "

    Joanne's brother, Julian, a brilliant scientist, committed suicide three years ago. Her mother died within three years.

    "It's possibly why I am drawn to write about the past. To find yourself bereft of close family at 45 years old as I am, would not have been unusual then. But I do live in voluntary exile now. In Stanmore, we knew everyone, every third household had a mezuzah above the door. When I went to school, I was amazed to find everyone wasn't Jewish. It often catches me out. I look in the cutlery draw and think, 'What's going on here? There's only one set of knives and forks?' My parents, Reform Jews, would rearrange the kitchen for feast days; there was Friday-night and Sabbath observance. The memory traces are still there.

    "When my brother killed himself, I went to the United States where he lived and The Oxygen Man is my book of poems about that time. It has a very Jewish attitude to suicide. A rabbi there told me, 'the pen is the instrument of the soul.' Over there, they take a pragmatic attitude to being Jewish; they have a kind of outreach programme and keep the thread of contact. It allows us to find our own way to be Jewish."

    The connection between Limburg's heritage, her Jewishness, and the Queen Anne book emerges through her compassionate nature. She wanted to honour women who have lost children - and who have miscarried: "the harrowing miscarriage described in the book is my own," she reveals, adding that it is important "to respect the babies themselves. It must have been very hard for all of them. Anne was dismissed as a 'leaky woman', mocked for her suffering."

    Limburg did write about her own anguish in The Woman who Thought too Much, a memoir. "I wrote it in good faith but there are times I open it and think: 'Did I really write that?' In today's media world I would be more careful."

    She strives to be careful of causing hurt to others, to understand the perspective of the wounded outsider. In poetry and prose, this is a writer of accomplishment. Perhaps she'll get that slot on Who do you think you are? Though that is a question to which she knows the answer.

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