Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion
by Anne Somerset
After finishing Anne Somerset's biography of Queen Anne, I can't think of any historical figure I have more pity for. In fact, I can't think of anyone living that I have more pity for. Somerset presents a definitive life of Queen Anne, who ruled England in her own right from 1702-1714, in a sympathetic and revisionist light. Aptly subtitled The Politics of Passion, the book captures Anne's passionate nature, both in her intense highs and her tragic lows. Despite being somewhat depressing, this biography is very thorough and mostly enjoyable, transmitting a great deal of information on this little-known (to me) monarch.
The book begins with Anne's birth and follows her from her childhood through the end of her life. Apparently her early life was not very eventful, as she was already 18, married and pregnant by the end of the first chapter. But events picked up quickly, and Somerset's discussion of Anne's involvement in her own father's dethronement and her position in the following regime is fascinating and in-depth. Somerset uses a unique approach in her writing, with a huge portion of the narrative in the form of quotes from the abundant surviving letters of the time, essentially letting the characters speak for themselves. Her citation style is also very different, making me suspicious that she wasn't citing all her quotes. But rest assured, she was.
Anne's education left a lot to be desired, but according to an aristocratic lady of the court this was pretty normal: "There is hardly a creature in the world more despicable or more liable to universal ridicule than a learned woman." Well. This would hardly have been the motto for the women's suffrage movement, but apparently it was alright at the time.
The nefarious Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.
Anne actually was very lucky with her husband, Prince George of Denmark, and the two of them were faithful and devoted to each other as long as they lived. King Charles II's kind wedding advice to George was "Walk with me, hunt with my brother and do justice to my niece and you will not be fat." Pearls of wisdom. And disappointingly, though George did do ample justice to Charles' niece Anne (enough justice to impregnate her 17 times), he got fat anyway.
Unfortunately Anne's misfortunes came to dominate her life. She was frequently in ill health and she saw every one of her 17 children die before her, a shocking and horrific tragedy for any parent. But possibly even more destructive for her was her relationship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Somerset documents their tempestuous friendship extensively, most of it in their own words. Anne's passion for Sarah was so intense (and her many letters to her so clingy) that many generations of historians have wondered if there was a sexual component to their relationship, and Somerset discusses the basis for this at length. In the end it's not clear whether Sarah genuinely cared about Anne in the beginning or not, but either way she became a manipulative, grasping, deceitful, poisonous, neurotic, petulant, malicious psychopath who unceasingly harassed, threatened and hurt the poor, gentle Anne for years. The more I read about her, the more I yearned for the days of the absolute monarchy when Anne could have gotten away with arresting and/or beheading her. Seriously, you won't believe how badly you want Sarah to die by the end of the book. I even kind of wanted Anne to die, just to spare her the pain.
The first half of the book is really quite exciting, but the second half was pretty boring for me. It becomes so heavily focused on the politics of Anne's reign: The introduction of the two-party system (Whigs and Tories), the War of Spanish Succession, the Union of England and Scotland, the countless politicians and their scheming, and the debates of Parliament. All these things are described well enough, but that level of political history does not interest me much. But if you love late 17th-early 18th century politics and want to know more about Whig-Tory governmental leanings, you will probably find this enthralling!
Ultimately this biography goes a long way in rehabilitating Anne's reputation, which has been fairly negative over the past several hundred years mainly due to the condemning memoirs of none other than Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (that F*#!$%* $*%). In this book Anne is presented with all her strengths and all her faults. She is not always likable or admirable, but she is always human and always kind. She has become a figure, in my eyes, deserving of pity as well as respect, and one who had a lot more agency and resolve than is often credited to her.