Reviewed by: Daniel Szechi
Author: Anne Somerset
When I was first contemplating doing a doctorate, one of my tutors sternly admonished me not to write a biography. They were the province of hack popular writers, he declared, and even a hint of association with such people would taint a young historian’s reputation.
He was right, but only insofar as there was a widespread contempt (however unjustified) in academic circles for popular historical biographies.
But times have changed. The latest generation of writers of popular history are for the most part head and shoulders above many of their predecessors in terms of their scholarly rigour, which makes them far more respected within the academy, and yet still able to reach out to the general public.
Anne Somerset transparently comes out of this new wave. Her track record has prepared her well to tackle the last queen regnant in the early modern British Isles. Previous works include biographies of Elizabeth I and William IV, and she clearly understands what can and cannot be done with the form.
This, then, is a classic, narrative biography which introduces the reader to the subject before her birth, and carries on through every stage of life to the subject’s death. There are some sharp, reflective pauses at various interstices in the book, and a nice round-up at the end, but it is fundamentally the queen’s life story, rendered in a flowing, readable style.
Certain key features in the queen’s life certainly helped Somerset write this fine, quietly scholarly narrative.
Anne was a plain, shy and uncommunicative woman, who knew how to conduct herself on grand public occasions, but (despite a somewhat surprising fondness for dancing in her younger days) much preferred socialising with a narrow coterie of friends and servants. One of these, Sarah Churchill, in due course Duchess of Marlborough, was Anne’s intimate confidante and the story of the queen is inextricably tied up with the rise and fall of their friendship.
At one time the two were so close that they even played at being ordinary people, ‘Mrs Morley’ and ‘Mrs Freeman’, in letters to each other. Yet it ended in the bitterest possible falling out as the increasingly invalid Anne found herself verbally battered by her former friend, who was determined to bully the queen into total submission to the Whig agenda in which Sarah Marlborough came passionately to believe.
No incident sums up the pair’s deteriorating relationship better than Sarah’s decision, as manager of the queen’s household, to remove a picture of Anne’s beloved and recently deceased husband, Prince George, from her rooms within days of his death – on the grounds that the queen needed to get over it.
Anecdotes such as this make for a human interest core to the story, which has all the horrid, guilty fascination of modern accounts of a celebrity marriage breakup. Yet Somerset does not let such moments consume her narrative – which, given Sarah Marlborough’s monstrous behaviour, and the queen’s eventually ruthless retaliation, could easily have happened – and thus the book becomes a full and detailed account of Anne’s life and reign.
Somerset clearly sympathises with her subject, but she does not shy away from revealing Anne’s nasty side.
The queen was a religious bigot who betrayed her father and the truly kind stepmother who had befriended and protected her, lied without conscience to get her own way, flintily acted as Queen of England and-the-rest-of-the-British-Isles-be-damned and coldly betrayed Britain’s allies in her determination to end the War of Spanish Succession on terms favourable to Britain. All the while she presented herself as the nation’s (for which read: England’s) pious nursing mother. There were many layers to the sad, obese invalid who died in 1714.
Inevitably with such a long and interesting book, there are a few points with which other scholars will disagree or find fault. I myself found Somerset’s anglocentricity grated at times (Ireland is barely mentioned, though Anne was queen there too), and I felt her take on the Jacobites was too orthodox and thus did not do them justice.
A little disappointingly, the bibliography did not include a listing of primary manuscript sources (though this may have been due to the press house style).
None of these detract from the overall merits of the book. If you want a coherent, engrossing account of the reign of Anne, and one that will leave you with a better understanding of the monarch and the woman, this is the book for you.
Daniel Szechi is the author of 1715: The Great Jacobite Rebellion (Yale, 2006)