Victoria: A Life – A.N. Wilson (2014)

Having been immersed in watching the PBS series, Victoria, this Spring, I became pretty interested in learning about this particular monarch and so, prowling my TBR shelves (go me!) I came across this thick volume about Victoria and dug right on in. 

First of all, I think that this detailed biography will only check the boxes for someone who is REALLY interested in Victoria. It goes into a lot of detail about the politics of the time, and so if you’re not really into that, I’m not sure that this will be the read for you. I had to really concentrate to stay alert through some of these parts, so I’m thinking other people may have the same problem. (There may or may not have been some skimming at times.)

Having said that though, Wilson has done a good (and thorough) job of giving the reader the details of Victoria’s life and times, so now (after 642 pages), I feel confident in having a much more thorough overview of Victorian times and their tubby little queen. 🙂

Wilson reviews the entirety of Victoria’s life, from birth to death, and generally speaking, it was a great read if you’re wanting to learn more about this enigmatic monarch. Wilson is a scholar and a biographer, but in spite of this, he still manages to sprinkle humor and wit throughout the book which brings a sparkle to an otherwise pretty dry read.

To be honest, the only really dry bits were towards the middle of the book (and her life) when Albert dies and when Victoria chooses to remove herself from public life and events for approximately 30 years or so. (Not a bad gig if you can get it.) She does, eventually, get back into things, but it takes quite a while for her to do this, and in the meantime, peeps are pretty mad at her, enough so there were rumblings of England turning into a republic (sans Queen). Her return was rather in the nick of time.

Wilson also addresses the significant others in Victoria’s life post-Albert, including John Brown and the Munshi. (See below for links to other related reads you might be interested in.)

Queen Victoria (on horse) with her “friend” (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more…. ) John Brown
up in Balmoral in Scotland.

I can’t blame them, really, as Victoria was hiding in her various palaces and only doing the minimum duties while she nursed her never-ending grief for Albert. (She did manage to throw up a lot of expensive statues and memorials for Albert throughout the country, but actual useful monarchical work? Not so much.) 

Despite this avoidance of public life, Wilson does show that Victoria was keeping up with the paperwork related to parliamentary life and diplomacy overseas, but it was very in-the-background for many years. (If you’ve watched the Victoria series, she goes through quite a lot of advisers and prime ministers over the years, and despite all the rules about the monarch and the government being separate and equal, Victoria liked to have her little hand in things of governance at times which raised some eyebrows. Anyway, this book rather sorted out that complicated revolving door for me a little more, so that was helpful.)

So, I think that this biography is more for the Victoria Super Fan than merely a casual observer, and even then, the middle bit about the political landscape was slightly dry (shall we say?)

However, this was more than made up by all the details about how closely the British royal family was tied up with mainland European royal families through marriage (mostly), and it clearly lays out how much planning went to determine who should get married to whom and when, and to see how her nine children fare (or don’t as the case may be). (And Bertie fares as well as you would expect…)

Thank goodness for a family tree at the start of the book. Some people change names when they’re put on the throne so it can get a tad confusing in places. 

As mentioned, Wilson is a master biographer who goes into great detail about the life and times of this miniature monarch. (She really was not very tall.) I know that I have another volume by Wilson about the Victorians in general waiting on the TBR shelves so feel comfortable looking forward to that read at some time. 

Other related reads on the blog:

Queen Victoria: A Life – Giles Lytton Strachey (1921)

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.

Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.

Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…

To the facts:

Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)

Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :

  • Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…
  • Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face.  In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …

Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.

  • After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
  • Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….

“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”

  • Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
  • After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
  • When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
  • Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
  • Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
  • Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
  •  “From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”

(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)

  • She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.)  She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.

Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways. 

So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

For some other Victoria-related reads, try: