Title: Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father’s Crown
Author: Maureen Waller
Length: 455 pages (includes image plates, notes, bibliography, and index)
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
In the summer of 1688, the queen of England finally bears her husband James II a healthy, legitimate son and heir. The newborn Prince of Wales is named James Francis Edward, but instead of being cause for celebration, his birth arouses suspicion, conspiracy theories–and treason. James II and his wife, Mary Beatrice, are unapologetic Catholics, something that inspires fear and loathing among many of his subjects. While ugly rumors of about the baby prince’s legitimacy and identity swirl, fueled in part by James’ own adult daughter Anne, a small group of noblemen come together to do the unthinkable: offer the already-occupied throne to James’ other daughter Mary and her husband, William Prince of Orange, as a means of chasing Catholicism out of England once and for all.
More a series of biographies in brief than an overview of the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” Ungrateful Daughters is so chock-full of family drama, fear mongering, ridiculous gossip, and backstabbing that it leaves your head spinning a bit. It also makes you wonder why the Tudors get so much press. Sure, having six wives (and executing two of them) is morbidly fascinating, but so is insisting that your baby half-brother is a changeling and encouraging others to think the same just so you can get your shot at being queen.
Seriously, a ton of people including James’ own daughters convinced themselves that James Francis Edward was, somehow, not actually James’ son, even though dozens of trustworthy sources witnessed his birth. I had to remind myself that JFE’s birth was just four years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, a good reminder that the late seventeenth century was hardly the age of reason.
Very few of the central figures of Waller’s book (James II and his wife, James’ daughters, and William of Orange) come off as particularly good or likable people. That’s not to say that they aren’t interesting to read about, just that the author doesn’t seem to care for most of them–for good enough reasons, but it did occasionally make me wonder why she was writing about a family that she paints as mostly loathsome–and as a result, neither did I.
She does make it clear why they were the way they were, at least. For example, James II was stubborn, prideful, and autocratic to the point of losing his throne. The seeds of his maddening personality, though, were sewn during his tumultuous childhood, which was dominated by the English Civil War and culminated traumatically in his father’s execution. Given those circumstances, his actions become much more understandable, though no wiser or more effective.
The most gripping part of the book is the middle section about the events leading up to and directly following the birth of James’ son James Francis Edward, “the Pretender.” Those chapters were almost unbelievably wild, so much so that the rest just came across as a bit melodramatic in comparison. I’m not particularly well-read on this period of English history, so the book read, overall, like a sort of very compelling historical soap opera. I knew what the ultimate outcome would be, but not exactly how things got that way.
Despite being populated by so many unappealing characters, the book also offers readers some genuine and touching love stories. In an age of arranged marriages, James and his two daughters all ended up quite happily married and truly in love with all their respective spouses.
So if you’re interested in the crazy melodramatic side of English history, or in the Glorious Revolution and the last Stuarts in particular, I would say that Ungrateful Daughters is a good choice. I don’t feel like I know a lot more about the finer political points of the “Revolution” (except that Catholics are bad, duh) but I definitely know more about the individuals involved–and while I still feel bad for Queen Anne’s tragic gynecological record, she was a real heartless backstabber more half the time.
It also made me wonder what could’ve been had James passed the throne on to his son. With Protestants still firmly in charge, persecution of Catholics was still a-okay, and after all, possibly the worst-persecuted place in the British Isles–Ireland–suffered all the more for being a majority Catholic country.