Thursday, February 12, 2015
Review: Victoria: A Life
Penguin Press, October 2014
About the Book
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she had ruled for nearly sixty-four years. She was a mother of nine and grandmother of forty-two and the matriarch of royal Europe through her children’s marriages. To many, Queen Victoria is a ruler shrouded in myth and mystique, an aging, stiff widow paraded as the figurehead to an all-male imperial enterprise. But in truth, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch was one of the most passionate, expressive, humorous, and unconventional women who ever lived, and the story of her life continues to fascinate.
A. N. Wilson’s exhaustively researched and definitive biography includes a wealth of new material from previously unseen sources to show us Queen Victoria as she’s never been seen before. Wilson explores the curious set of circumstances that led to Victoria’s coronation, her strange and isolated childhood, her passionate marriage to Prince Albert and his pivotal influence even after death, and her widowhood and subsequent intimate friendship with her Highland servant John Brown, all set against the backdrop of this momentous epoch in Britain’s history—and the world’s.
Born at the very moment of the expansion of British political and commercial power across the globe, Victoria went on to chart a unique course for her country even as she became the matriarch of nearly every great dynasty of Europe. Her destiny was thus interwoven with those of millions of people—not just in Europe but in the ever-expanding empire that Britain was becoming throughout the nineteenth century. The famed queen’s face adorned postage stamps, banners, statues, and busts all over the known world.
Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about this monarch, Mr. Wilson offers this fresh perspective. This is a story of Victoria that surprised me—an insecure outsider who never felt at home in her native country (she felt more German, like her mother’s family, than English), she relied on an endless parade of favorites for guidance and moral support (first Albert then John Brown and possibly Abdul Karim). Usually shy but with strong opinions, Victoria had a unique way of reshaping her own reality. Once decided about a person, even her oldest son Bertie, they were cast as “good guy” or “bad guy” in a way that was rarely altered by reason or even evidence to the contrary.
Her relationship with Albert was the most fascinating revelation for me. She treated Albert almost as a parent figure. Their relatively short married life (21 years) was overshadowed by fears that Victoria was succumbing to the same madness her grandfather experienced. Their later married life was filled with tension over Victoria’s harsh, outspoken criticism of their eldest daughter Vicki, who was particularly close to her father. When Victoria lost both her mother and Albert within the same year, she did enter an extended mourning period, but unlike what most think, she did emerge from that to participate as an elder statesman for many years. The remainder of her life was dominated, however, by a whitewashed view of Albert that seems at odds with the reality their letters reveal.
Other things I found to be different than what is commonly believed or assumed. Victoria loved her children but very much disliked pregnancy and found extended periods with her children to be trying. She played a secondary role politically to her husband Albert, who had a pro-German vision of the future that their daughter Vicki hoped to carry on after his death. Victoria seemed to be a person of contradictions: Not only did she reverse herself politically many times, she was also against women’s rights and feminism in general. Wilson remains undecided over whether or not Victoria and Brown were lovers, although there were many at the time who believed they were married.
It is a shame to learn about all her letters that have been either censored or destroyed, so we will probably never know the full picture of her inner thoughts and feelings, her closest relationships, her truest personality. Still, Mr. Wilson does a remarkable job covering such a formidable subject who lived for 81 years and reigned for over 60. There is an enormous amount of material to cover (for instance Victoria grew up to see transportation change from horse and buggy to railroad to automobiles) and Wilson meshes all the aspects of her character from daughter to wife, mother, monarch, leader, grandmother, diplomat, and elder statesman.
All the stories of the various politicians can weigh down the story, particularly if you aren’t that familiar with the politics of the time, but Wilson does an excellent job of combining the political with the personal that keeps the story flowing. This is a glimpse of Victoria beyond the legend (sainted widow) and beyond the scandal (did she or didn’t she sleep with her servant John Brown). I think anyone interested in this time period or monarch will find something surprising within these pages.
Rebecca Henderson Palmer