Victoria – A.N.Wilson
The world’s bookshelves are groaning with books about the two World Wars, Churchill and Victoria – worthy subjects all but, as I mused when picking up Boris’ tome on Churchill, does the world really need another one. Surprisingly, this is the first biography about Queen Vic for thirty years, although that in itself is not a reason for inflicting it on the great reading public. But, actually, it is a pretty good study and worth finding that extra inch on the bookshelf for.
Wilson’s focus is to shine light on the woman herself rather than what was done in her name during her long reign which transformed the face and nature of Britain. This is not as easy as may seem at first sight because although he has access to papers that have not previously been available, her family carried out a major cull of papers and letters shortly after her death removing many incriminating and illuminating documents. So many of the key questions remain unanswered, none more so than did the Rev Norman Macloed, as he claimed, secretly marry Victoria to her Scottish ghillie, John Brown? Wilson can provide no definitive answer but he indicates that there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that might well have been the case.
A good part of the book is devoted to what Wilson describes as Victoria’s zoological role. Her succession to the throne was a consequence of some happenstance but also some determined matchmaking and succession planning on the part of her relatives and, in particular, her mother. Victoria was also the womb of the monarchy of mitteleuropa, providing links to both the German and Russian monarchies amongst others. In some ways the origins of the catastrophic First World War can be seen to stem from rivalries and jealousies within the extended royal family.
Wilson’s portrait of Victoria is of a woman of two parts – the rather submissive, domesticated doormat who feigned political ignorance to allow Albert’s light to shine and the more confident, domineering and even popular woman who emerged after the consort’s death and what the historian describes as her bout of mental illness in the 1860s. Undoubtedly, Brown helped her through that dark phase. Victoria was not averse to sticking her nose into political matters, was overtly political in her comments (in favour of the Tories) and treated Gladstone appallingly. It is not difficult to see where Charles gets some of his less welcome quirks. Equally though, her quotidian existence was deadly dull.
Wilson takes great delight in puncturing the myth that Victoria endured an unhappy childhood – her mother’s love shines through in many of the extant letters – rather, the myth of an unhappy childhood was invented to explain away the queen’s harsh treatment of her mum.
The book really takes off when Victoria is an old lady and, amazingly for one who was greedy for the public purse and was reluctant to carry out the most minor of public engagements, becomes the object of public affection. It was as if she was born to be an old lady and Wilson seems to have an extra spring in his stride when he tackles this phase of her life.
I found this an interesting take on Victoria’s life, thought-provoking and quite entertaining as a read. I think, though, thirty years will be too soon for another book on this rather extraordinary and enigmatic lady.