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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

“Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion”, by Anne Somerset

640 pages, Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0804171601

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset describes how a painfully shy, badly-educated, emotionally sensitive and spiritual woman, already physically disabled in her late 30s by a deadly chronic illness and repeated failed pregnancies, turned herself into a shrewd, competent, dignified and kindly ruler, triumphing over poor health, treacherous courtiers, overseas enemies, the death of her husband, and, most tragically, the personal and political fallout from a failed long-term “emotional affair” with the spoiled, narcissistic Duchess of Marlborough. I somehow knew very little about this era (the late 1600s and early 1700s), but Somerset’s book convincingly presents it as a pivotal epoch. As the last of the Stuart monarchs, Anne’s birth was just after the overthrow of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy. The Stuart line held the throne between the Tudors and the Hanovers, and it was during Anne’s reign that Great Britain came into being and The War of Spanish Succession changed the balance of power in Europe and its colonies. Though these actions had long lasting consequences, other scholars have long dismissed Anne’s role in them as unimportant. Somerset redeems her, detail by detail building the case that Anne’s influence played a major role in the direction of events.

Anne had not originally expected to inherit the throne, as several family members were in line for it ahead of her. Taught dancing, music, acting and French, and raised as a strict Church of England Protestant, Anne thought she had found some emotional security as a young woman in a happy marriage to Prince George of Denmark, her deep Anglican faith, and her intense passion for her domineering, beautiful and witty friend, Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne’s life had darkened considerably by the time she was brought to the throne due to a series of unexpected deaths in her family and the exiles of her father (King James II) and half-brother (James Francis Edward Stuart, “The Old Pretender”). Both she and her husband were now childless invalids, carrying a full-time workload running a country at war with France and threatened with invasion by Anne’s half-brother. But the most crushing blow was the sudden souring of Anne’s decades-old relationship with Sarah Churchill, who seems to have expected to rule England through Anne and became a venomous and dangerous personal and political enemy when Anne gradually set limits to Sarah’s already substantial power and finally ended the relationship. The red-headed Sarah, who was appointed Mistress of the Wardrobe, was flashy, sparkling, beautiful, ambitious and unscrupulous. Although Sarah’s letters to Anne were destroyed at the request of Sarah, she could write just as extravagantly as Anne, the difference being that Sarah really did not care a fig for Anne and often ridiculed her behind her back. Because of Sarah’s treachery, the reader becomes angry that Anne endured her, worshipped her, for so long.

Anne Somerset has written a much-needed reevaluation of Queen Anne. A naturally shy woman, she managed to shepherd through a union between England and Scotland, wage the War of Spanish Succession, and fend off the Jacobites; that she did all this while being very ill and heartsick most of the time makes her achievements that much more impressive. That she was emotionally overwrought at times and dependent on one or two others says more about the level of her pain than anything else could (she was ill-used by everybody but her husband, it would seem). Faced with continual political diatribes from the Churchills, she stuck to her principles, guarding the role of the monarch. Despite using a cane and a sedan chair at times, she rode out hunting on good days; she sat through long hours of debate in Parliament; she did what had to be done. The last half of her reign was beset by Whig/Tory political stalemates and rumors about her successor. Anne had been pregnant 17 times without a surviving child and successfully maintained the Protestant religion and transfer to the Hanovers. There is a great deal of detail on the politics of the time but it shows the complexity of the world she inhabited. Politics was not really her strong suit; she had trouble putting her thoughts into a conversation, a fact that accounts for a lot of her letter writing. She grew in knowledge, if not in the skill to manipulate. To that end, she somehow (mostly) managed to navigate the shoals of Whig and Tory. There’s no question misogyny has played something of a role in the decline of Anne’s reputation, but Somerset makes it clear that it's no coincidence that Anne’s reign was coincident with Britain’s emergence as the major power in Europe.

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