Sunday, November 3, 2013

Illuminating and well-researched, but ultimately didn't do much for me.

3 out of 5 stars

I'll be honest. I have very little interest in the English monarchs of the Stuart period. I'm more interested in those that came before, the Tudors, and those that came after, the Georgians. The most I knew of Queen Anne was that she was the daughter of James II, and so got caught in the middle of the Catholic/Protestant tug-of-war; she was the sister of Queen Mary, whose husband, William of Orange, invaded the country and bloodlessly took the throne from James; she had multiple (and I do mean multiple) pregnancies, with most of them ending in stillbirths or miscarriages; and she gave her name to a style of furniture and architecture. That's about it. Well, after reading Anne Somerset's biography of Queen Anne, I can say I know more about the woman, but dislike her more and care about her even less than I did before.

According to the book's blurbs, Somerset's work is supposed to have redeemed Anne's name, yet I can't see how. Yes, Somerset definitely presents the most sympathetic view of the woman and, granted, Anne had a difficult life. Caught between a father and political advisers who each wanted to use her to their own ends, not to mention warring religious factions, and Anne's conflicting desires to be a good mother and wife while also being a just and effective queen, hers wasn't the easiest row to hoe. Especially since she lacked any sort of proper education and suffered from multiple health issues her entire life. Yet, to my mind, Anne's biggest handicap was her own personality. She was a possessive, neurotic, jealous, needy, paranoid mess of a woman, with an almost insane desire to control everyone in her life, including her friends, to the point of dictating who they could be friends with. Sadly, those traits dominate and overshadow any of Anne's other accomplishments, even her greatest one of creating a united Britain, making her a thoroughly despicable and unlikeable personage.

This is not a quick or light read, mostly because Somerset also gives in-depth coverage to the political maneuverings of the time, and I do mean in-depth, to the point where it felt like my eyes would cross from all the information flying at me. Lord Something-or-other plotted this, Duke Important-so-and-so objected and introduced such-and-such motion in Parliament, and so on. Don't get me wrong, knowledge of the politics of the time is important, but it just seemed to go on a bit too long. This dryness combined with Anne's petulant and unimaginative personality made for an occasionally dull and lifeless read.

Somerset is an absurdly thorough biographer, making this book probably the most trustworthy and authoritative portrayal of Anne. In the end, however, I also found it to be a rather dull and tedious portrayal as well, never lifting Anne above the historical footnote I always took her for.

Read October 1-November 3, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program November 3, 2013

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