Queen Victoria was born in 1819 in the reign of George III, the monarch who lost America. She died in 1901 as the head of the largest empire the world has ever seen. Ascending to the throne in 1837 she was also part of the transformation of British politics from a landed oligarchy to something close to the current constitutional monarchy. Along the way steam power, railways and the internal combustion engine were invented and exploited. A biography of Victoria is, of necessity, also a part history of Britain and that means that it is unlikely to be short. At 576 pages this book effectively allows less than one page per month of her rule.
- A N Wilson
We start with the desperate need for one of George III’s children to produce an heir following the death of Princess Charlotte. Prince Edward (Duke of Kent) duly abandoned his mistress, married Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and produced Victoria. Prince Edward died in 1820, leaving Victoria to be raised alone by her mother, who spoke very limited English. Following scandals and conduct more suited to Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Queen Vitoria’s uncle William IV died shortly after she passed the age of 18 and she ascended to the throne. Having effectively evicted her mother from Court (due to her close relationship with John Conroy, the comptroller of her household). Poorly educated, petulant and with a quick temper and with no one to guide her (other than Lord Melbourne) Victoria was fortunate to be attracted to and married by her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840. His outstanding intellect and education enabled him to steer her though her role as monarch, in spite of his less than perfect English. Victoria started producing children (she was not a natural mother) for the next 20 years with a total brood of 9. Her relationship with Albert could be stormy but they were devoted to each other.
His death in 1861 was devastating, and she descended into grief, seclusion and withdrawal from public life. She was clearly depressed, but as the author points out, although she did not appear in public she did see ministers and correspond dutifully and effectively, if sometime ill-advisedly. Victoria was a great correspondent and there are over two million letters by her in various archives as well as her extensive journals. She was coaxed, (possibly a euphemism), out of depression by John Brown, who died in 1884. She was again inconsolable but this time remained in public life until she died on 22 January 1901.
The tale is remarkable and enriched by the constant thread of the rivalries of the various threads of the ruling houses of Europe all of which is included in this book, which has (apparently) used much original research. The author certainly conveys the petulance of Victoria – in her early years unable to distinguish between the message and messenger and the oversentimentality of much of her writing and many of hers dispatches. He also provides sufficient context to understand the stultifying nature of Court life. To the non-historian (like this reviewer) the book is a fascinating introduction to the era that shaped our own.
However there are problems, some of them inherent in the nature of a book such as this. Genealogy is important, but tracking who is related to whom is hard work. The author exacerbates this by sometimes proving the family histories for some of the non-regal players; some parts of the book are almost like the opening of the bible. It is also sometimes not apparent whom is being quoted. The author also injects the odd piece of irrelevant information – does it really matter whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is the last Wykehamist to have held that position? A sterner editor would have removed it; they might also have prevented the unnecessary use of the passive voice, abolished the Oxford comma and ensured that the chronology was kept to more strictly.
As the current Queen approaches the anniversary of a similarly long reign the book also illustrates the challenges of being a hereditary monarch in a parliamentary democracy. The brilliant flexibility of the English constitution leaves little direct guidance as to what a monarch may or may not do, and less on how to go about it. There is ample evidence of the loneliness of command, (ruling the world’s largest ever empire must surely be the loneliest command). Surely no sane person could want that job? To that extent this book should be read by anyone with an interest in our system of government.
This is not an easy book to read but then it’s not a simple tale. Clearly a huge amount of work has gone into it and certainly it deals with and corrects some misapprehensions about Queen Victoria as well as highlighting the extraordinary circumstances of her entire life. Buy a copy, allocate some time, take a deep breath and read it.