Restor­ing a mis­used monarch

Writer Joanne Lim­burg speaks to Anne Gar­vey about Queen Anne, ‘prag­matic’ Ju­daism, and suf­fer­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

JOANNE LIM­BURG is pri­mar­ily a poet. She has an orig­i­nal imag­i­na­tion, per­fect econ­omy of ex­pres­sion and a very pre­cise turn of phrase. And she is a writer of parts. Her new fic­tional study of Queen Anne, A Want of Kind­ness, is a daz­zling tour de force writ­ten en­tirely in the lan­guage of the day. In her book-crowded Cam­bridge house, hung with vi­brant mod­ernist and re­al­ist oil paint­ings, she speaks with el­e­gant can­dour about her life and work

“Igrewup­with­the JC”, she be­gins grat­i­fy­ingly, “it has been an in­te­gral part of my life since I can re­mem­ber.”

Although she is no longer ob­ser­vant, Jewish­ness is, she says, “part of my DNA. My mother’s fam­ily came from Kre­menchug in the Ukraine and there is no easy way of find­ing out who they were. I have wan­dered around the ceme­tery there and looked at grave­stones with He­brew in­scrip­tions — but it is all a closed book.”

Lim­burg’s pa­ter­nal rel­a­tives are a bet­ter source of in­for­ma­tion. They came to Eng­lan­dear­lier,be­fore­the­great­in­fluxof the later 19th cen­tury: “They were Dutch Jews,cigar­mak­ers.There­wasas­to­ry­that they had a large fac­tory in Lim­burg but frankly I think that’s un­likely. What were they do­ing rolling cigars in Lon­don if that was the case? No, they were doubt­less ‘eco­nomic mi­grants’. Dutch records are good, and I am in­ter­ested in ge­neal- ogy so that is a pro­duc­tive route to my past. If I did be­come fa­mous, the best thing would be to in­vited on to Who do you think you are?

“Some­one de­clared that Jews are not so much monothe­ists but an­ces­tor wor­ship­pers, the idea of a con­nec­tion with a part of your­self from the past”.

So what has drawn her to a Chris­tian princess in an English court riven by splits be­tween its Catholic king, Anne’s fa­ther James II, and the hard­line Par­lia­ment? “She is an un­usual choice. I could have done Sarah Churchill, her more flam­boy­ant help­meet, but I think there are enough beau­ti­ful, feisty hero­ines… Anne was a lim­ited per­son, fat and short­sighted, lim­ited in imag­i­na­tion and trapped by the be­liefs of her re­li­gion.”

Anne, like all Protes­tants of the day, felt her­self in the pres­ence of God, who judged her by tak­ing her chil­dren from her — an in­cred­i­ble sev­en­teen died from ill­ness and dis­eases — and blamed her own short­com­ings for her loss.

“Her reign,” Lim­burg ex­plains, “was rid­dled with hys­te­ria about the Catholic men­ace and xeno­pho­bia, still present in na­tional life; in Guy Fawkes’s burn­ing, it used widely to be the Pope on the bon­fire. Her point of view is para­mount. I use the tools she had to un­der­stand her world and only lan­guage she could have known. For in­stance, ‘fam­ily’ to 17th-cen­tury peo­ple meant the house­hold and ser­vants.”

Us­ing his­tor­i­cal dic­tionar­ies, Lim­burg has lim­ited her­self to a close-up of a much-maligned his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. She dis­likes the sweep­ing, 21st-cen­tury per­spec­tive beloved of many his­tor­i­cal writ­ers, stud­ded with con­tem­po­rary judg­ments of be­hav­iour, or con­demna-

Lim­burg — hon­our­ing women who have mis­car­ried or lost chil­dren tion­sof ac­tion­s­they­would­havethought ab­so­lutely nor­mal. Un­der­stand­ing and com­pas­sion are at the core of her writ­ing, even for the un­pop­u­lar and unattrac­tive fig­ure that was Queen Anne.

All of Joanne Lim­burg’s work con­veys a sense of fam­ily, right from her early vol­umes of po­etry Fem­i­nismo and Para­pher­na­lia. And be­ing Jewish is at its core.

“My mother, my fam­ily and Ju­daism are nested in­side each other. I am Jewish and al­ways Jewish; it’s anal­o­gous with fam­ily, how­ever hard it is, and how­ever strained, it can never be dis­avowed.“

Does she bring up her son in the faith? “His mother is Jewish so he is Jewish, my hus­band Chris isn’t — well, he’s called Chris — but, even so, I didn’t have the heart to do it. I was brought up as an ob­ser­vant Re­form Jew but my par­ents told us to make up our own minds, and we did. So they can’t com­plain. “

Joanne’s brother, Ju­lian, a bril­liant sci­en­tist,com­mit­ted­sui­cide­three­yearsago. Her mother died within three years.

“It’s pos­si­bly why I am drawn to write about the past. To find your­self bereft of close­fam­ily­at45year­sol­dasIam,would not have been un­usual then. But I do live in vol­un­tary ex­ile now. In Stan­more, we knew ev­ery­one, ev­ery third house­hold had a mezuzah above the door. When I went to school, I was amazed to find ev­ery­one wasn’t Jewish. It of­ten catches me out. I look in the cut­lery draw and think, ‘What’s go­ing on here? There’s only one set of knives and forks?’ My par­ents, Re­form Jews, would re­ar­range the kitchen for feast days; there was Fri­day-night and Sab­bath ob­ser­vance. The mem­ory traces are still there.

“When my brother killed him­self, I went to the United States where he lived and TheOxy­genMan is­my­bookof po­ems about that time. It has a very Jewish at­ti­tude to sui­cide. A rabbi there told me, ‘the pen is the in­stru­ment of the soul.’ Over there, they take a prag­matic at­ti­tude to be­ing Jewish; they have a kind of out­reach pro­gramme and keep the thread of con­tact. It al­lows us to find our own way to be Jewish.”

The con­nec­tion be­tween Lim­burg’s her­itage, her Jewish­ness, and the Queen Anne book emerges through her com­pas­sion­ate na­ture. She wanted to hon­our women who have lost chil­dren —and­who­havemis­car­ried:“the­har­row­ing mis­car­riage de­scribed in the book is my own,” she re­veals, adding that it is im­por­tant “to re­spect the ba­bies them­selves. It must have been very hard for all of them. Anne was dis­missed as a ‘leaky woman’, mocked for her suf­fer­ing.”

Lim­burg did write about her own an­guish in The Woman who Thought too Much, a memoir. “I wrote it in good faith but there are times I open it and think: ‘Did I re­ally write that?’ In to­day’s media world I would be more care­ful.”

Shestrivesto­be­care­fulof caus­inghurt to oth­ers, to un­der­stand the per­spec­tive of the wounded out­sider. In po­etry and prose,thi­si­sawriterof ac­com­plish­ment. Per­haps she’ll get that slot on Who do you thinky­ouare? Thoughthati­saque­s­tionto which she knows the an­swer.

‘I am Jewish, al­ways Jewish. How­ever hard or strained, it can never be dis­avowed’

‘A Want of Kind­ness’ is pub­lished by At­lantic at £14.99

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