Review: Think you know the Victorians? Take another look in _We Two: Victoria and Albert_
January 20, 2017 4:50pm CST
I freely admit to enjoying reading about the Victorian period of history, that time between 1840 or so to the turn of the twentieth century. Caught as it were, between the start of the Industrial Revolution and the First World War, we look back at it with nostalgia as a time of strong family values, where men and women knew their roles in society, and if in this hothouse atmosphere, there was just a trifle bit of decadence, we assume the more innocent aspects. And what about the woman that the time is named for -- Queen Victoria of Great Britain? Most will dismiss her as a short, dumpy, very round old woman in her widow's weeds, glowering down at the masses with the words _The Queen is Not Amused._ That's the popular iconography that has persevered over the decades. But who was she really, and what of her marriage to the handsomest prince in Europe? It was his death, after all, that plunged her into nearly forty years of mourning. Now historian Gillian Gill gives the mythology of the devoted prince and his queen a fresh dusting off, and reveals that there was a great deal more going on than meets the eye. Divided into three sections of narrative, _We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, Rivals_ takes a very unusual turn at the story. Instead of just looking at their lives in the usual chronological way, cataloging their experiences and their numerous children and then letting Victoria recede into her perpetual widowhood, Gill takes the story on a psychological journey to see just what made these two tick. And she tells the story with quite a bit of daring and insight with a strong splash of humour as well. The first part of the book, _Years Apart_ looks at the years of Victoria and Albert's childhoods, and their family backgrounds. Victoria, despite being the only child of her father, the Duke of Kent, wasn't automatically in line to be Queen of England someday. Her father was George III's fourth son, and there were three brothers ahead of him before he could become king. But despite the fifteen children that George III had, there was only one grandchild who had the legitimacy to become the future ruler of Great Britain. And sadly, in 1817, Princess Charlotte of Wales died in childbirth, leaving a kingdom in mass hysteria over her death, and a husband who was determined to be an influence in England's political future. That was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, a younger son from one of the many tiny realms that made up nineteenth century Germany. If they didn't have much money, these little principalities with long names had been supplying a steady stream of Protestant princes and princesses to northern European kingdoms and empires. And if Leopold saw the possibility of being a king consort in England slip away, then he would settle for being a power behind the throne. He quickly helped arrange his widowed sister Victoire to marry the Duke of Kent, and not long after there was a daughter, Victoria. Unluckily for the new Duchess of Kent, her husband died suddenly when her daughter was eight months old, and not long after she fell under the influence of John Conroy, a man of little scruples and great charm. He quickly persuaded the Duchess that Victoria's notorious uncles would corrupt her child into their scandalous lives of gambling, overspending, unsuitable life partners and making a spectacle of themselves. So born was the 'Kensington System,' where the Duchess and Conroy would keep complete control of Victoria and who she met, what she thought, and how she thought. It was, to be frank, a systemic design of mental and emotional abuse. But Victoria was made of much sterner stuff, and once she became queen at the age of eighteen years and two months, she proceeded to show her mother and her companion the door. Albert's childhood was nearly as wretched. His father was a philandering, rather wastrel sort, and while Albert did have an elder brother, Ernst, that he grew up with, he grew up very lonely. The boys' mother had been divorced and banished, and surrounded by male tutors, and with Uncle Leopold arranging for his education, Albert grew up not quite certain about women. He was, to put it mildly, a stuck-up little prig, full of bookish knowledge, but little social skills. Worse still, he had the idea that moral purity equaled sexual purity, and while he was able to have close friendships with men, he never did let that slip over to sexual contact. Needless to say, when he met Victoria when they were both seventeen, it wasn't exactly love at first sight. Indeed, Victoria took almost no notice of him at all. Uncle Leopold very quickly arranged for Albert to have a bit more polish applied, and soon Albert was the handsomest young prince that Victoria had ever seen, and quite ready to become stud to the young Queen of England. When they met again three years after that disastrous first meeting, Victoria decided quite nearly on the spot that Albert was for her, and asked him to marry her. (She being a queen, and he merely a prince from a little German state, it was her choice) And to all outward appearances it was a very successful marriage -- there were nine children born, Albert knew that in public he would have to play second fiddle to his wife, and in private, Victoria happily turned over what duties she could to him. And that is, in a nutshell, the myth. Using the personal letters that Albert wrote, and tracking his behaviour, Gill shows that Prince Albert wasn't quite the smitten, would-be boy toy of his wife. His writings reveal a man who viewed women -- including his wife -- as inferior and of little intellect compared to men, and he wasn't adverse to manipulating his wife to get what he wanted by constant scolding, put-downs (he always called her his 'dear little wife'), and made his eldest son's life -- the future Edward VII -- a living hell. He also never hid his feelings of German superiority to the English aristocracy, thereby cutting off what would have been valuable support. On the positive side, he was hardworking, had an innate grasp of politics and when he had to, he could put on the charm. Victoria, for her part, was always the needier partner in the marriage, playing the devoted spouse to Albert's sulks, not adverse to a few yelling sprees of her own, and deploring her nearly constant state of pregnancy. She viewed being pregnant as the 'shadow side' of marriage, and when her doctors informed her that it would be wise not to have any more children, it's reported that she exclaimed, "Oh doctor, am I not to have any _fun_ in bed?" When Albert died in 1861, she was emotionally devastated, and went through what was probably a mental breakdown for several years. In the process of reading this book, I found many of my notions about this literal power couple to be shattered. There were quite a few 'aha!' moments for me, and I was left with a better idea of why this marriage worked so well, with two very polar opposites who managed to restore respectability and a sense of duty to the English monarchy. No doubt this quality was passed down onto the generations that followed, and contributed to how the current Queen of the United Kingdom has managed to rule for longer than her great-great-grandmother. In addition to the narrative, there are very extensive footnotes and bibliography as well as an index. Included are a collection of reproductions of paintings and etchings of the various players in the story. But what is interesting are the genealogies of both Victoria and Albert's families as well as charting the tragic legacy of hemophilia that would devastate several of the ruling families of Europe before WWI. Summing up, this was an excellent read, and a book that is going to be finding its way onto my keeper shelves. Five stars overall, and recommended for anyone with an interest in royalty or English politics in the nineteenth century. We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners and Rivals Gillian Gill 2009; Ballantine Books, New York ISBN 978-0-345-48405-5 This was previously published at a now-defunct website. Rebecca Huston asserts her rights as the sole author of this review.
5 people like this
• Worcester, England
20 Jan 17
"No doubt this quality was passed down onto the generations that followed, and contributed to how the current Queen of the United Kingdom has managed to rule for nearly as long as her great-great-grandmother." Actually "Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith" ...is the longest reigning monarch in our history. I'm not a royalist as such...but i'm certainly no republican I'vea lot of respect for our Queen and she is the longest reigning monarch in our history....and that commands some respect
• Worcester, England
20 Jan 17
"and contributed to how the current Queen of the United Kingdom has managed to rule for nearly as long as her great-great-grandmother." maybe edit that and remove my sub comment as our current queen has reigned longer than queen victoria.