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Family fortunes Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses who Stole their Fathers Crown Maureen Waller Hodder? 20, pp 454 The English crown was seized in 1688 from the Stuart king James II, an act engineered by his conniving daughters Mary and Anne. As he was shunted into exile, Mary and her Dutch husband (also the kings nephew) William, Prince of Orange, made swiftly for the throne. Fed by ample amounts of single-minded ambition and intractable religion, their action was at once a catastrophic family breach and a startling coup d 233; tat. James II had openly practised as a Catholic and attempted to proselytize in an age when effigies of the Pope (containing live cats for sound effects) were habitually burnt by a bigoted, frightened populace, and the Great Fire of London had recently been attributed to the unholy actions of papists, the al-Qaeda of their day.
Of all people, a foreigner was invited to come to restore English liberties and the rule of law those were, of course, Protestant liberties. Incidentally, William might just as well have been called in to overhaul the royal infrastructure on his arrival courtiers routinely relieved themselves in convenient corners of the kings apartments; the Dutch Abortion, as his nationalistic sister-in-law Anne un sportingly called him, swiftly installed the novelty of cleanliness and hot and cold running water. The periwig ged nobles who metaphorically nailed up the Under New Management sign at the white cliffs of Dover were also heralding a revolution in the constitution. No wonder that when some rough seamen intercepted the fleeing King James that December, they found a stricken, rambling figure, grieving not just his own ill-fortune, but the sacrilege of all he believed in. With William and Mary, the monarchy had become elective, the principle of divine ordination trampled.
Not only had the king been ejected by his offspring, but this unnatural woman had also snatched her younger brothers right to succession. For the disheveled James, surrounded by captors at the Arms of England Inn at Faversham, the circumstances additionally bore a ghastly similarity to the overthrow and execution of his father, Charles I. In Ungrateful Daughters, Maureen Waller (the author of 1700: Scenes from London Life) relates her events with vigour. While retaining a third-person narrative, her initial chapters each follow one leading character, elucidating their personalities and circumstances with a view to understanding the role of each in James ousting. This is history deliciously post-Starkey. Thankfully Waller manages to avoid the pit-fall of repetition that Robert Browning did not in his similarly configured epic The Ring and the Book.
Rather, with each swoop she reveals previously hidden aspects, before returning to a linear story-telling to relate what became of these presumptuous females. Maureen Waller also gets a personal round of applause for freeing me from associating royal history with over-authoritative pin-striped men droning on about kings and battles and dates. Hers is much more diverse and appealing than that, influenced by the structure and atmospheric scene-setting of fiction, and by a sociologists eye for life patterns and rituals. She vividly evokes the strange rigmarole of Stuart births and deaths, and draws out the political importance of Queen Annes relationship with her lowly bedchamber woman, Abigail Hill.
But her narration could do with a touch more self-confidence. It doesnt quite sufficiently, and contextually, explore psychology and motivations. Questions form in the readers mind and pass by unanswered. Why did Mary and Anne behave in such a fashion? Was such self-seeking and ruthlessness inherent in the jostling for position required of European royalty of the time? Crucial too, surely, to these ungrateful royal daughters, is the culture and psychology of seventeenth-century women.
What were their lives like? To what extent, as royal examples, did Mary and Anne come to expect power? Were their dreams of monstrous jewels and imperiousness, or simply decent plumbing? Did they resent male succession, or was their desire for supremacy far more personal? To what extent were these events quintessentially formed by our constitutional set-up? How did our royalty come to be the touchstone of British national identity if they were indivisible from a pan-European ruling elite?
Implicitly, this is a work with great insights into royal tradition, and it is a pity that Waller does not make them explicit. The book could have been so topical. The Queens jubilee has brought a rare sustained scrutiny to the institution of the royal family. Even daytime TV has been casting the odd glance at the current Princess Anne being passed over in favour of Charles, although unlike Waller's Prince of Wales, he has so far never been accused of being a changeling, smuggled into his mothers bed in a warming-pan. And of course more serious news programmes discuss the monarchy's religious bias, with members barred from marrying Catholics, and Catholic monarchs outlawed rules which were both brought in as a result of the turbulent events of Waller's book. So too, the Act of Union, so pertinent to the new Scottish Parliament and the proposed English regional assemblies, occurred within her historical span, but goes largely un commented.
At least, Ungrateful Daughters does provide an enthralling account of seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century royal reproduction, and royal reproductive morality. Readers who quibble over Charles marrying a divorcee should perhaps take a glance. This is a story reverberating with some of the perennial great themes. Just beneath the surface, it is Lear and it is Greek Tragedy; a Chaucerian narrator, replete with information on the relevant planetary influences, could have interpreted it to his hearts content. But in the end we are left unsure of what magnitude this tale assumes in the grand scale of things, and what Waller's history might say about our present.
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