Victoria: A Life

Image of Victoria: A Life
Release Date: 
October 22, 2014
Penguin Press
Reviewed by: 

“carefully crafted, readable, honest, and concise work.”

This book tells the story of a very successful German breeding couple in Great Britain during the true Victorian Age. Although they did not miss any meals (obviously from their photographs) and lived comfortable lives, the European revolutions of 1848 and the violence of the Paris Commune of 1870 reminded them that they could join other members of their class as homeless refugees, or worse.

Millions of their subjects of the British Empire in danger of being homeless, jobless, and hungry would have found a comparison to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert laughable, but this book does make that case.

Victoria only gave her name and presence to her times and place—as momentous as they were. The royal couple held no real power thanks to the incompetence of her three predecessors, particularly the failed efforts at absolutism under her grandfather George III (“The mad”) and the scandals of her uncle George IV. That the monarchy survived at all owes something to the begrudging support for reforms under her uncle William III, but as this author, A. N. Wilson, points out, mainly to the strength of the British constitution.

Demands for change swept the western world from at least the 1760s. Although Prince Albert encouraged German liberalism for Great Britain, the greatest if not singular achievement of the royal couple was the survival of the monarchy in those politically charged times of the industrial revolution.  Wilson does a compelling job in Victoria: A Life of telling this epic history despite the loss of so many important documents.

This royal power[less] couple, however, did genuinely care and reached out to the world and its people beyond the palace gates, even if only allowed to do so in an orchestrated manner. Wilson writes that over the years the queen developed a “symbiotic sense of her subjects, and what they felt,” but even at that “she often got it wrong.”

Albert has received due credit for his efforts in this regard. As the author points out, he did not come from a reform environment. He succeeded despite suspicions of his motives and his failure to restore anything of the real power that the British monarchy had once enjoyed. The royal consort being a German, although the queen herself was three-quarters German and his cousin, permanently made him unpopular in some circles of British society.

The name of Victoria’s times came from her position as the longest reigning ruler (until recently) in British history and for happening to rule during the greatest era of her Empire.

Queen Victoria, as described in this work, often appears as ignorant, politically inexperienced, and petty, not unlike a typical one of her subjects at the time, but especially in angrily and frustratingly trying to find persons to blame for circumstances. Wilson writes that even as a princess, she was “a very difficult person, self-willed and in many ways foolish.”

The author does a remarkable job in making his subject a human being, however. That proves an irony because in her whole life few people she knew had any consideration for her as a person beyond the often suffering Prince Albert and her famous servant in her widowhood John Brown.

To that the author adds her “mother had known the real hazards of the royal snakes and ladders board, and the experience left her with a perpetual sense of insecurity—a sense which the Queen would inherit, and live with until her death.”

Albert proved exceptional considering his own upbringing (both were raised as exiles from their respective courts), but Victoria had the excuse for her shortcomings of having a life as a prisoner by her position, a reality for wives and women of her time, even beyond all other considerations.

No one expected or trained her to actually rule, or even think for herself. Like her son Edward IV, she was only a playing piece moved across the metaphorical chessboard of imperial politics. Just before she became queen, Britain abolished slavery in its colonies. Her uncle Leopold, King of Belgium, wrote to her that it was amazing that she was now the last slave in the empire.

Edward, the elderly Duke of Kent and father of at least ten illegitimate children, was the victor in a race of old men to produce an heir to the British throne although he died less than one year after the birth of his daughter Alexandrina Victoria. She was doomed to be the heir apparent, the monarch, and a baby machine for the British Empire. Her descendants provided monarchs and spouses for other kingdoms.

Having more than lived up to expectations (she had nine pregnancies, all of them successful), she spent her last decades as an imperial widow but still an isolated prisoner. It would almost seem justice that she passed hemophilia on to some of her descendants.

The German House of Coburg, to which she and Albert belonged, had already bred its way into power across Europe. From what the author refers to as royal zoology came a biological European union of states by blood that would largely achieve peace, prosperity, and cooperative unity—the Pax Britannica—until 1914 and the First World War.

Ironically, this era was also one of civil discontent and assassination, with several attempts made on Victoria that gave her reason to fear for the safety of her children. Appropriately, for this queen, the murder of her or her family could only be political and impersonal.

Wilson writes that the “history of the Monarchy in the Victorian Age could really be defined as the history of the Queen’s Private Secretaries.” A galaxy of prominent figures, none of them of Her Majesty’s choice (mercifully), served her government, including Melbourne, Peel, Palmerston, Wellington, Disraeli, and Gladstone.

The author gives the reader a carefully balanced account of the insanely complicated party politics of her reign. He is qualified to have written more but it would not be appropriate in a biography of Queen Victoria that is only 624 pages long.

Other biographies of Victoria and Albert exist, as well as works on the many complicated aspects of her empire at its height and amidst the enormous challenges of its colonialism, poverty, security etc. It would be hard, however, for anyone to produce a more carefully crafted, readable, honest, and concise work.