Surreysmum's Reviews > Saint James's: Or the Court of Queen Anne

Saint James's by William Harrison Ainsworth
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May 27, 10

bookshelves: 1985, historical-fiction, library
Read in April, 1985

[These notes were made in 1985:]. From a 19th-century collected edition. In its admixture of history and fiction, this novel leans very heavily on the history. All of the higher life characters, with one exception, are to be found in my DNB, and considerable pains are taken to introduce other notables of the age (the last years of Queen Anne) where they don't naturally take part in the action. In his treatment of the Whig/Tory dissensions of that period, Ainsworth lays great - I do not know how correct - stress on the influence of the Queen's rival favourites, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail (Hill) Masham. Curiously, his treatment of the two parties is too even-handed for a novel of this sort - there is a constant dislocation of sympathy. At first, seduced by Masham & Abigail's true love story, we are led to sympathize with the Tories. But then we're over to the Whigs, for a panegyric on the Duke of Marlborough, and the merry doings of his devoted soldier-slave. The truth is that there is no one central fictional narrative with enough drama to hold our sympathies (there are two: country-girl Angelica is debauched by aristocrat St. John, marries adventurer Guiscard, marries again to a valet, and is finally rescued by her honest parsonage parents; soldier Scrapes is attached to two domestic ladies, one with pretensions to gentility, the other with a warm heart; after testing her fidelity by pretending to be a ghost, he marries the latter). And among the 'real' characters, the Masham marriage plot is resolved by half-way through the book, and all that is left is the maneuvrings of St. John (Bolingbroke), Harvey (Oxford), and the Marlboroughs, to gain Queen Anne's ear. Anne herself, no doubt correctly, is depicted as an amiable but vacillating and spineless creature, who exerts her own will only on her deathbed. A missing signature (16 pp) in this copy did not materially impair my enjoyment of the book.
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