Forgotten story of ‘cursed’ queen who lost 17 children brought to life by John-Paul Flintoff
- Credit: National Portrait Gallery London
As royal tragedies go, the story of Queen Anne is one of the greatest never told. The daughter of the deposed and exiled James II, she eventually succeeded her cousin William III to rule for 12 years at the start of the 18th century.
Her reign is perhaps known for overseeing the union between England and Scotland in 1707, which rendered Anne the first monarch of the Kingdom of Great Britain – a subject as topical as they come with next month’s impending Scottish referendum.
For journalist and author John-Paul Flintoff, however, the personal life of Queen Anne was even more interesting. Having taken the throne against her father’s wishes, she was said to have been cursed by him and went on to sadly experience the loss of 17 children, dying amidst a series of health problems that saw her become overweight and isolated.
But such trauma, says Flintoff, did provide the perfect basis for his debut novel, What If The Queen Should Die?
“I studied Shakespeare and have friends who are into that kind of thing,” explains the 46-year-old Child’s Hill resident. “I was talking to one of them idly and he said, ‘Which King or Queen would Shakespeare have written about if he had lived to see them?’
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“So we had a sort of competition to see which story was most compelling and I realised that betraying your father, being cursed by him and losing 17 children was a pretty good story!”
Despite settling on the subject, Flintoff – who has previously written for The Sunday Times and The Financial Times – struggled for years to complete the novel, which gives a fictional account of Queen Anne’s last days while conveying the fierce debate that surrounded her succession.
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Particularly, he struggled to justify to himself how a man could bring to life the mind of a woman; how he could possibly relate to a queen who lost 17 children. The solution eventually came through a realisation of his experience as a life coach and the empathy it nurtures, and through his time working with improvisation in the theatre – which he employed ingeniously by holding workshops with actors to act out scenarios of his story.
“Mike Leigh improvises his films with people before he films them and that’s considered to be unusual, but in the theatre it’s very common to workshop something and get the genius of all the people in the room rather than one writer.
“I just experimented with that in a novel and I’m absolutely fascinated by what came out of it because it allowed me to get out of my way, it allowed me to collaborate, it allowed other people to be part of the creative process which is really exciting and I just started wondering why it is that novelists always have to be lonely people sitting alone in a room.”
Such improvisation at the very least found the solution to Flintoff’s creative block and he has now set up a crowdfunding website to help get the book out to the public.
While novels such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies have recently expanded the public’s appetite for historical fiction, Flintoff purposely tried to avoid reading them for fear of unconsciously imitating the style.
If anything, he drew more influence from writers of the past: Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were all contemporaries of the Queen, with the former even having worked for her as a spy.
“Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe both kind of invented a type of novel in English literature just after Anne had died. Both of them really hoped to get something from her that would have made them financially secure. Swift wanted to be made a bishop and Defoe wanted to have security from her chief minister working as a spy and writer.
“But it didn’t work out for either of them, so they ended up writing their novels more as a fall back, as a desperate measure. Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe probably wouldn’t have happened if they’d got what they wanted from her. In a way, the whole novel is about people desperately wanting something that they don’t get, but then getting something much better out of it after.”
Pope intrigues Flintoff for a different reason: “He made himself very rich by self-publishing with a subscription model that is basically crowdfunding.
“He would get lots of people to support his poems before he even wrote them and that’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited about crowdfunding this novel because it worked really well for him and, in a way, we’re actually going back to that model.”
Ask anyone what they know about Queen Anne, the author continues, and the response will usually be very short. “Everyone just says chairs,” he laughs, “Queen Anne chairs, Queen Anne windows and Queen Anne furniture.”
If Flintoff’s innovative new project pays off, perhaps the monarch that fate scorned can finally step out from history’s shadows.
To pledge towards John-Paul Flintoff’s What If The Queen Should Die?, visit unbound.co.uk/books/what-if-the-queen-should-die. Pledge rewards include signed first edition copies, life coaching sessions with the author and the chance for Flintoff to arrange a theatrical workshop to help with your novel.