Review: A Want of Kindness

Tale of a troubled reign


By Joanne Limburg
Atlantic, £14.99

Queen Anne has always been rather a wallflower of a monarch when it comes to historical fiction. We like the architecture of her era (late 17th century), and the lively politics (the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688) but the woman herself was a plain old pudding, and not obvious material for a sizzling bodice-ripper of the Philippa Gregory school.

In A Want of Kindness, which is anything but a bodice-ripper, Joanne Limburg tells Anne's story in a series of short, episodic chapters that slowly build a compelling picture of the last of the Stuarts. Her life was a sad one; not showily tragic, like that of her grandfather King Charles I, nor entertainingly naughty, like that of her uncle Charles II; just sad, and bleakly lacking in ordinary "kindness".

When we first meet Anne, in 1675, she is an awkward little girl of 10, with chronically watery eyes and a habit of comfort eating. Anne and her older sister, Mary, are the only surviving children of the short-lived James II, who was sacked for a) his unpopularity, b) his Roman Catholic sympathies, and c) the lingering, stubborn belief in the "divine right" of kings that those Stuarts could never quite shake off.

By the order of her Uncle Charles, Mary and Anne are brought up as Anglicans, and they know their destiny as royal women - basically, legitimate breeding. Mary is married off to William of Orange and, after 1688, these two become England's first constitutional monarchs. But they fail to produce an heir, and after the death of William in 1702, the retiring Anne must take her place as Queen. This, of course, involves betraying her unsuitable father.

Limburg burrows deep into the mind of her rather uncharismatic heroine, imagining her thoughts, prayers and loves in a way that straightforward history could not; her Anne is blushing, self-effacing, utterly committed to doing the right thing, miserably aware of her position as a political pawn.

She's also a martyr to her health, mainly due to intensive childbearing. This is a part of Anne's life that calls for a sensitive female novelist, because only a woman can fully imagine the nightmare of 17 pregnancies. And only one child survived beyond infancy. This book is awash with dead babies.

Anne's marriage to Prince George of Denmark was a happy one, and thank goodness for that one bright spark in her life. A Want of Kindness is a novel of warmth and intelligence, which left me with a real sense of the human being behind the history. The end, whether or not you know the historical facts, is heartbreaking. Jonathan Swift's epitaph says it all: "I believe sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive