The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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August 23, 2010

Becoming Queen Victoria

I'm not sure when I first became interested in reading about Queen Victoria, but it may have been (exactly fifteen years ago!) when I read Jerrold Packard's wonderful book Farewell in splendor:  the passing of Queen Victoria and her age, which was essentially an account of Victoria's final illness and the preparations for her funeral. Since then, I've read another biography (Carolly Erickson's Her Little Majesty) and another book by Jerrold Packard, about Victoria's daughters. Last year, I bought We Two, a new book by Gillian Gill, abut Victoria and Albert as 'rulers, partners, and rivals,' but as often happens when I buy a new book instead of borrowing it, I haven't read it yet. That's just as well, because it will be a perfect follower to this one.

In addition to piquing my interest in Queen Victoria, Farewell in Splendor introduced me to what's become for me a very appealing type of biography or history, one that focuses in on a specific event or time and draws it from many different perspectives (historical, cultural, social, etc.). Becoming Queen Victoria essentially focuses on Victoria's 'unexpected rise' to the monarchy, beginning with the last years in the reign of George III, known mostly for 'going mad and losing America.'  He George is portrayed as a domineering father who allowed his sons to rack up debts and mistresses and virtually imprisoned his daughters in Windsor Castle. He and Queen Charlotte had 13 children, and an 'astonishing' 56 grandchildren, but until Princess Charlotte, was born to the Prince Regent and his hated wife Princess Caroline in 1796, there were no legitimate heirs among them. Without one, the Hanoverian royal family would come to an end.

We're reminded that Jane Austen hated the Prince Regent (and that's good enough for me), and that the British public detested his dissolute brothers. In contrast, Princess Charlotte was young and beautiful, and a sign of hope. When she died in childbirth, Williams tells us, the Dukes were 'galvanized into action,' racing each other to produce a new heir. Prince Leopold, the widower, introduced the Duke of Kent, who had been living in Brussels with his mistress of 30 years, to his sister, Victoire, and they married and became the parents of Princess Victoria.  When no surviving children were born to William IV, and her uncle and father died prematurely, Victoria was recognized as the heir presumptive.

The lives and fates of the two princesses were surrounded by politics, rivalries and power struggles among their relatives and the court, and all of that makes for fascinating reading. The other main theme is the difficult relationship between the young Victoria and her controlling and in turn, controlled, mother, the Duchess of Kent.

This book, which takes us up through Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert and the birth of their first two children, is very readable and engaging.  In addition to a good refresher on the history, Kate Williams paints vivid portraits of the Prince Regent, Princess Charlotte, the Duchess of Kent, and Victoria, their lives at court and their eccentricities. For me, a book like this (and like Jerrold Packard's) only makes me want to read more about these figures and this time...and a very enjoyable way to spend my reading time, in its own right.


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I love these types of story lines...oh, my poor bookshelves...! :)

Elaine said...

I am fascinated by Queen Victoria and here are links to two posts of mine written a little while back about her and Kate's book which you might like to read:

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