I’m not sure whether or not the 99p Kindle offer on this book was to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, but I was very glad of it. For one thing, I wanted a “royal” book to review, to mark the Jubilee long weekend 🙂 . For another thing, it makes some very interesting points. OK, it probably won’t tell you anything major that you haven’t heard before, but the same can be said of most books on history’s best-known figures. It’s about the angle and the interpretation; and this book, apprising Victoria through 24 significant events or factors in her life, really does do a good job of showing us who Victoria was and what she did. Lucy Worsley is rather irritating on TV, but she comes across extremely well in writing.
Having said all that, I’m going to take issue with her argument that people had a problem with the idea of a female monarch, and that the nineteenth century was a time in which women’s lives became extremely restricted. She even finishes the book on a rather miserable note within that theme, saying that her main feeling about Victoria is pity, because ideas about the role of women trapped all Victorian females, and Victoria herself most of all. I know that there’s the “separate spheres” argument, that women became confined to a domestic role in the 19th century, but I don’t buy it. Look at pictures of textile mills in the 19th century. Who are most of the workers? Women! Look how many people were employed in domestic service in the 19th century. Who were most of them? Women! As for there being a lack of female influence, tell that to Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale (one of whose visits to Victoria makes up one of the 24 chapters), Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Fry, and all the other middle class women, and upper class women, involved in charity work or campaigning.
And were people really that bothered about the idea of a female monarch? Princess Charlotte had been extremely popular, and, whether in 1837 or 2022, most people, when asked to name England’s greatest ever monarch, will say Elizabeth (I).
So I must beg to differ with Lucy in that regard. But I still really enjoyed her book. She starts the book by pointing out that, throughout the twentieth century, most people’s image of Victoria was of a large, unsmiling elderly lady dressed in mourning. And that’s exactly how Victoria’s depicted in the statue of her which stands in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. Then pointing out that that’s changed in recent years, because of the film with Emily Blunt and the TV series with Jenna Coleman, which [the book was published in 2018, before the third season was broadcast] both show her as a younger woman who liked dancing and parties. Interesting how it’s been popular culture that’s brought about that change, not academia. The aim of this book is to look into how she changed from the young dancing princess to the sombre old lady.
There’s an amazing amount of detail. Some of it really feels quite prurient – things like what Victoria wore on her wedding night, how much she weighed at certain times and how old she was when she went through puberty. That’s very private stuff.
And it’s all personal. Would anyone write a book entitled “Edward III: Son, Husband, Father, Widower”? I don’t think so. Then again, there are plenty of books about Henry VIII which focus far more on his marriages than on such trivial matters as the Reformation or the Battle of Flodden Field! And, by Victoria’s time, the life of the monarch and political/economic/social events were no longer as intertwined as they were in the days when the monarch ruled as well as reigned.
It’s very frustrating how Queen Victoria is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on Prince Albert, and, equally, how Queen Anne is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on her friends. I once read a book – may have been by J H Plumb, but I’m not sure – which compared Queen Anne’s court to an Angela Brazil novel, with Anne as the new girl and the Duchess of Marlborough as the Head Girl. Would anyone make similar comments about, say Edward III and Alice Perrers, or Edward II and Hugh Despenser the younger, or James I and the Duke of Buckingham? No, would they heck as like!
But then a male sovereign is not going to have undergone nine pregnancies, most of them followed by post natal depression. If we look at our female sovereigns, excluding Lady Jane Grey who only lasted nine days, we’ve had Mary I and her phantom pregnancies, Mary II who had one miscarriage and was unable to conceive again, Anne who (before becoming queen) had seventeen pregnancies but no surviving children (that poor, poor woman), Victoria who had nine pregnancies during the first two decades of her reign, and Elizabeth I who chose not to marry but then had the problem of determining the succession. Our present queen is the first one whose reign hasn’t been significantly affected by issues relating to childbearing.
Lucy really doesn’t like Prince Albert. At one point, she describes him as being “pompous and cruel”. I think that’s a bit much. OK, he was clearly very insensitive towards his wife and children, but Victoria adored him, he did a lot for the country, and, if he were around now, he’d be in therapy for a long list of issues, most of them probably resulting from what happened with his mother. She plays down the romantic element of the match between Victoria and Albert, stressing the arranged marriage element instead, and even says that it was Albert who insisted on having so many children. We’ve all heard the “fun in bed” question, we all know that Victoria didn’t want to breastfeed, and, according to Lucy, Victoria knew about birth control but (presumably for religious reasons?) didn’t approve of it.
So I don’t really see how anyone can claim that Albert was solely responsible for how many children they had. She also says that, after her marriage, Victoria stops commenting in her diary that she’s worried about her weight, because Albert gave her more self confidence about her appearance. Give the man a break!
There are a lot of references, tied into the image of family life, to the idea of a middle class monarchy, intended to win the support of the class which held political power from 1832. Fair point to some extent. And I think (apologies for making a sweeping generalisation) that “Good Old Teddy” was far more popular amongst the upper and working classes than Victoria was. But from 1867, and even more so from 1884, the upper working classes had the vote, even if they weren’t actually becoming Members of Parliament. And are the middle classes really the only ones with the family values? I think this gets overstated, especially given the upper middle classes were so keen on sending their kids away to boarding school. Having nine children was more typing of the working classes than the upper classes, by Victorian times.
She also points out that some people in Ireland referred to Victoria as “the Famine Queen”, and that Duleep Singh allegedly referred to her as “Mrs Fagin” because Britain took the Koh-i-Noor diamond. It’s something that still happens today, the blaming of senior members of the Royal Family for something that was the fault of politicians or the Armed Forces or business interests. Prince William has recently been attacked by Caribbean politicians as if he were personally to blame for the slave trade, and booed by Liverpool “fans” as if he were personally to blame for the cover-up over Hillsborough. It’s not very nice, and it’s certainly not very fair. But it’s what happens. As well as the interest in the personality of the monarch, they (and their heirs) become the personification of the nation. And Victoria in some ways was the personification of an age. Even books written about the USA ,and other countries which weren’t part of the British Empire, refer to “Victorians”.
Lucy herself is full of praise for Victoria: she acknowledges that she had faults and made mistakes – don’t we all? – but the overall picture she presents is a very positive one. She gives her a lot of credit for working out a way to reign successfully at a time when a) the political power of the monarch was all but gone and b) many people (so Lucy says) had issues with the idea of a female monarch. The Crimean War is pinpointed as being a crucial time in the history of the monarchy, with the introduction of the VC, Victoria’s own idea, and Victoria’s letters to wounded soldiers, really making people feel that she cared. And we do need to know that the monarch cares. Look at all the calls for the Queen to speak to us after Diana died. Look at the effect which the Queen’s speech in the early weeks of lockdown had. And it meant so much to everyone in Manchester when the Queen came in person to visit those injured in the Arena bombing. The monarch is the head of the nation, and the person to whom people look to lead us in times of trouble, and also in times of celebration. No politician could ever do that in the same way
The overall message of the book is that Victoria might have seemed like an ordinary woman, but that she was actually an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life. Well, there’s no arguing with that. Nor is there any arguing with the fact that Elizabeth II is also an extraordinary, ordinary woman leading an extraordinary life. Great book by Lucy Worsley, and God Save The Queen!