Thursday 7 February 2019

A WANT OF KINDNESS by Joanne Limburg. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

Who comes into  your mind when when you hear the word Queen? The first Elizabeth? Victoria? Our present queen? Cleopatra? Mary, Queen of Scots? Marie Antoinette? Catherine the Great? I am willing to bet that until quite recently, not one person in ten thousand will have thought first of Queen Anne, who reigned between 1702 and 1714.

Today, however, the extraordinary movie, The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,  has ensured that Anne's name will be the one  people think of at once. They will have, probably forever, the image of the wonderful Olivia Colman, whose performance in the film, whatever your opinion of it was, is generally agreed to be superb.

Here is a link to an article on this blog written by Joanne Limburg, the writer of a very good book on Anne, called A Want of Kindness.

 I heartily recommend that readers pause here to read what Joanne had to say about her own novel, before going on to read my opinions. 

Above is an image of Foxes's Book of Martyrs, a book which Anne knew well. One of the things that Limburg's book illustrates and emphasises throughout is the importance of religion to the young woman who would become Queen. She was a staunch Protestant and Foxe's Book of Martyrs was part of the landscape of her childhood. The book begins with the young Anne taking part in a performance, dressed up, and dancing about in the glare of the lights; not being able to see properly, slightly uncomfortable in her costume. We have the sense at once of how shy she is, how much she likes her food, how fond she is of the company of her friends, and how much affection she has. Her sister Mary, her ladies of the bedchamber and the whole court is a world in which she moves with not exactly grace, but the kind of graceful duty which is sincere and uncomplaining.

 Once her beloved sister leaves to marry Prince William of Orange, Anne is much more isolated. She is very sick with smallpox when the time comes for Mary to travel, and misses saying goodbye to her. This, a sadness that she bears with great fortitude, sets a pattern for the series of tragedies that will beset her. Her children die, either in utero or shortly after they are born. In one searing section,  her beloved daughter, Anne, dies from smallpox and that section of the book is hard to read. Fascinating details of medical procedures and of every other aspect of a woman's life are given liberally and this is one of the main things I like about the book. Limburg does not shrink from describing things and we are aware of exactly what places are like. How's  this for a description of the frozen river?

"..there is a street running all the way across the Thames from Temple Steps to Southwark; it is named Temple Street and is considered a great wonder. Along it and around it, a continual fair has risen up; there are shops selling all manner of commodities from wine and roast beef to plate and earthenware; there are coffee houses, where you might sit down by a charcoal fire and have a dish of coffee, chocolate or tea." 

We are mostly in Anne's head, and we know what her opinion is of the people she meets. Throughout the narrative there are glimpses of a sharpness under the mild exterior. When  someone she's not too fond of suggests taking the waters in Bath, for instance, Anne answers that she's perfectly happy with taking the waters in  Tunbridge Wells. 

The letters that appear in the text are mostly real, as the author tells us in her article above. I have to admit that though they look wonderful in their italic font, these sections of the book were quite hard to read, but worth it for the content. I also thought that publishers Atlantic missed a trick with the cover. It's very understated: plain, and beautifully lettered but not the sort of cover to make anyone rush to pick it up. Maybe there will now be a reissue with a more glamorous and striking cover image. It would be wonderful if lots of people were led to this book because I'm sure they'd enjoy it. It is simply and elegantly written and unpicks a  very complicated period in religion and politics with great clarity. 

As ever with my reviews, I send the writer I'm discussing a series of questions. Here they are, together with Joanne's answers. 

AG: Please tell us a little about yourself and how who you are has led to your interest in Anne. Did you, for instance, study the history of this period as a student?

JL: No, I haven't studied history formally since A level. I did a philosophy degree, then an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies, and eventually a PhD in Creative Writing, but no history. I started writing poetry in my twenties, published a couple of collections in my thirties, and then my first prose book, the memoir The Woman  Who Thought Too Much, at the beginning of my forties. I never thought of myself as a novelist, let alone a historical one. I first came across Anne some years ago when I watched a Channel 4 documentary on obstetrics in royal history. They talked about her many maternal losses, and - I think- said that the modern view was that her pattern of  pregnancy loss was consistent with Hughes Syndrome, which is a blood-clotting disorder. A few years on, I had a miscarriage myself and then a successful pregnancy, and I was trying to explore the subject matter through short stories. The women I was writing about were contemporary - thinly-veiled versions of me, really - and then I remembered Anne's sad history. I thought about writing a short story, but I didn't know how to approach a historical subject in such a short form, so I shelved the idea.

AG: What did you feel the story gained from being written as a novel? I ask this because you could have chosen to write a straight history.

JL: Well, I hit 'send' on the manuscript of The Woman Who Thought Too Much and, quite unexpectedly, the first thing that came into my head was Anne's untold story. At first, I was still thinking in terms of pregnancy loss, and I meant to approach the subject through non-fiction, using Anne as a way to explore women's experience, and how pregnancy loss has been viewed and managed. I bought the first of many books about Anne, and then realised two things: that there was a lot more to her story than pregnancy loss, and that in order to explore what really interested me, which was how she experienced and understood her life in the years she was trying to have babies, which were the less documented years, before she was Queen. I wold have to fill in the many gaps - in other words, I would have to write a novel. There were some great biographies of Anne out there, and the world didn't need another at that point - certainly not from a non-historian like me - but I wanted to honour her experience. It's fiction that does that.

AG: Why do you think Anne (until The Favourite) is so little known by the vast majority of the public? Is it because she's not routinely studied in school?

JL: I think that's part of it. While I was writing the book, I used to joke about a history timeline I saw on a primary school wall, where it looked as if the only purpose of the 17th and 18th centuries was to prevent the Tudors and Victorians from colliding. The two better-know queens regnant are part of our national mythology. Anne isn't. I think it's partly a simple matter of her not being sexy or charismatic: she was poorly-educated, sickly, overweight and shy, to the point where in some situations she was virtually mute. There's also the fact that her posthumous image, as unintelligent, small-minded and dependent on others, was constructed by her ex-best friend, Sarah Churchill. Sarah wanted to cement her own reputation and that of her husband the Duke of Marlborough, so in her memoirs she emphasised Anne's dependence on the two of them and squashed any idea  that Anne might have had a thought of her own worth thinking. If you look at the conventional history of the UK (which became the UK during Anne's reign), it moves swiftly from William III to the  next male monarch George I, by way of victories of another man, the Duke of Marlborough. Elizabeth is remembered as half politically strong man (stomach of a King and all that) and half sexually charismatic woman. Anne was neither so history hasn't known what to do with her.

AG: Can you tell us something of your method of working?

JL: For the novel that became A Want of Kindness, I did a lot of research- so much research, probably too much research. I even went to the British Library and read Anne's letters to Sarah. I decided to end the novel after the death of Anne's last child, and before her ascension to the throne, as I realised it had a kind of tragic story arc to it: Anne betrayed her father by siding with her sister Mary and Mary's husband William during the Glorious Revolution, and I had a sense that she saw the loss of her children as some sort of biblical punishment. As a poet, I'm used to writing in short bursts, so I made a timeline, and then hung lots of short pieces of writing along the timeline.  And I varied the form of the short pieces: some had more narrative, some had straight exposition, (although this was always done from Anne's point of view as if she was discovering it herself), some were first person pieces in which Anne addressed God during her private prayers. I tried to reconstruct a version of Anne's voice for these using her many surviving letters; there were a few other short documents pasted straight in  too. It was a fiction-non-fiction collage. I just decided that I would use whatever best moved the story forward and told the reader what they needed to know at that point. 

AG: What are you writing now?

JL: I'm working on a non-fiction book called Letters to my Weird Sisters. I'm writing to women in the past who were different or difficult females, who might now, as I do, have a diagnosis of autism; it's part biography, part autobiography, part essay on what makes a non-conforming woman. I'm a weird writer and I like my weird forms. That said, I may pick up on  Anne's story. The  Favourite is only one possible version.

A short biography: Joanne Limburg is a writer and lecturer in Creative Writing. As well as her novel, A Want of Kindness, she has published two non-fiction books, one book of poetry for children, and three for adults. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and son, and teaches Creative Writing at De  Montfort University, Leicester.

1 comment:

Ruan Peat said...

The current focus on women in the past who may have been sidelined of overlooked seems to be good but while the Favorite is very good others have been less so. The books are always a better bet :-) Thank you.