Review: Ungrateful Daughters By Maureen Waller Essay, Research Paper
Petticoat successionsUngrateful Daughters by Maureen Waller 469pp, HodderJust how Britain went from being the violently sectarian, king-killing, cash-strapped country it was in the 17th century to the serene, stable and prosperous state of the 18th is a transition that often gets overlooked. One minute, according to popular historiography, the Stuarts were frantically bullying parliament, pretending not to be Catholic and letting their spaniels walk all over the banqueting table. The next minute it was the Hanoverians, with their stodgy good sense, family values and Protestant commitment to hard work, who were busy running the country like a profitable enterprise. In Ungrateful Daughters, Maureen Waller fills in the gap by concentrating on the 25-year period during which James II’s two daughters succeeded him on the throne. First came Mary who, as one half of William-and-Mary of Orange, was invited by a group of Protestant grandees in 1688 to mount a takeover bid for Britain and restore it to unambiguous Anglicanism. After his wife’s death, William ruled alone for eight years before handing on the throne to Mary’s sister, the equally Protestant Anne. The Stuarts were not good at producing male heirs. On Anne’s death in 1714 the crown passed, in its wobbly way, to a second cousin from Hanover who became George I. Constitutional history is not the easiest subject to turn into a fluent and gripping page-turner. It is sensible, then, of Waller to concentrate on the Lear-like drama of James II and the “ungrateful daughters” who usurped him. By turning this cat’s cradle of a dynastic wrangle into superior soap opera, she manages to hold your attention while educating you by stealth. Waller uses the sulks, passions and squabbles of the later Stuarts to illuminate the workings of public life at the beginning of the 18th century. James II never seems to have grasped just how much everyone disliked him. While his brother, Charles II, had combined a belief in his divine right to rule with sufficient charisma to get away with it, James had none of that flair. Stolid, stubborn and without the nous to disguise his devotion to the old religion, James plodded through his disastrous reign, trying to cure scrofula with his magic touch, imprisoning the Archbishop of Canterbury and indulging in constant plot-making with unfriendly foreign powers. Add to this his complete inability to fashion his family into a coherent emotional and political unit – for all his grand Catholicism, he took a Protestant commoner as his first wife and produced two disaffected Anglican daughters – and you have a recipe for rebellion. By the time he managed to obtain a male heir in 1688 by his second (and indubitably Catholic) wife, the king’s grown-up daughters, both securely married to Protestant princes, were determined to take matters into their own hands. Within eight months of the birth of the baby who would see out his sad days as “the Old Pretender”, William and Mary were on the throne and James was in impotent exile in France. Maureen Waller’s first book, 1700: Scenes from London Life, was good on the sweat, smell and grubbiness of late Stuart England. In Ungrateful Daughters she displays that same sure sense of the telling detail. The Stuart court was renowned for its squalor. Not only did the spaniels slobber all over the food, but the attendants thought nothing of shitting in the corner. No one bothered to change their wigs, and medicinal drops containing dried viper and “the skull of a person hanged” were believed to be just the thing to save an ailing baby from colic. To the cold, clean Dutchmen who took over in 1688, it must have seemed as if they had been dropped into an infernal cesspit. Where Waller struggles, however, is in capturing the inner lives of her main players. As the current craze for popular narrative history pushes further into the past in its quest for new stories, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction that human psychology transcends time and place. Ungrateful Daughters depends on our being able to map contemporary values and emotions on to characters who lived 300 years ago. Up to a point, this is possible. Anne’s love-hate relationship with her bullying best friend Sarah Churchill, Mary’s painfully subservientrelationship to her husband, and their joint uneasiness about their stepmother, who was only a few years older than themselves, all ring true and familiar. Other material, however, is not so easily assimilated. For instance, it is hard for the secular mind to grasp just how much was at stake in the late 17th century in the choice between declaring oneself either Protestant or Catholic. To opt for the wrong one was to risk an eternity in hell. When William of Orange invaded England in 1688, it was not simply because he wanted to be king or because he thought it would be a nice idea to restore civil liberties; he genuinely hoped he might be saving souls. Without this understanding of what was really at stake, the whole Stuart affair can start to read like the unresolved Oedipal drama of a particularly dysfunctional Eurotrash family. Waller has not found anything new to say about the birth of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. Still, her deft episodic structure allows her to come at key events from varying points of view. The result is a good lesson in how the pleasures of biography can be used to palliate the more cobwebby branches of history. · Kathryn Hughes is the author of George Eliot: The Last Victorian (Fourth Estate).