Sov­er­eign among crowns

With in­ter­est in this royal sub­ject as buoy­ant as ever, Michael Hall as­sesses two of the lat­est books to be pub­lished about Queen Vic­to­ria

Country Life Every Week - - Books -


Vic­to­ria the Queen: An In­ti­mate Biog­ra­phy of the Woman who Ruled an Em­pire Ju­lia Baird (Black­fri­ars, £16.99)

Queen Vic­to­ria and the Euro­pean Em­pires

John Van der Kiste (Fonthill, £18.99)

EVEN Queen Vic­to­ria’s great­est ad­mir­ers find it hard to keep up with her bi­og­ra­phers. In the past few years, we’ve been of­fered ex­cel­lent short lives by Matthew Den­ni­son and Jane Ri­d­ley and a full-scale biog­ra­phy by A. n. Wil­son. now, Ju­lia Baird weighs in with a stout 690 pages. Whereas Mr Wil­son at­tempted some­thing new, ar­gu­ing that the Queen was to be taken se­ri­ously as a po­lit­i­cal figure, Miss Baird con­fines her­self to an ‘in­ti­mate biog­ra­phy’, fol­low­ing the path of Christo­pher Hib­bert’s clas­sic Queen Vic­to­ria: A Per­sonal His­tory.

Al­though she has made rip­ples by re­veal­ing that the Royal Ar­chives ob­jected to her ac­count of Vic­to­ria’s re­la­tion­ship with John Brown, there are no sig­nif­i­cant rev­e­la­tions here and the vo­lu­mi­nous notes re­veal lit­tle re­liance on man­u­script sources be­yond the Queen’s jour­nals, now avail­able on­line.

Some may en­joy the re­lent­lessly sprightly, nov­el­et­tish tone—‘as she stood try­ing to stay still for a se­ries of fit­tings for her white lace wed­ding dress, Vic­to­ria men­tally scrolled through the lists of chores to be done for the wed­ding’—but I soon got weary of it. The book is most likely to be en­joyed by read­ers com­ing to Queen Vic­to­ria for the first time who want a bal­anced ac­count of her life, with no re­vi­sion­ist agenda.

Miss Baird’s sub­ti­tle de­scribes Vic­to­ria as ‘the woman who ruled an em­pire’, but reign­ing over an em­pire is very far from rul­ing it. The dif­fer­ence was fully ap­pre­ci­ated by Vic­to­ria, who dealt on a daily ba­sis with em­per­ors who did in­deed rule. John Van der Kiste has had the clever idea of trac­ing the Queen’s re­la­tions with the lead­ers of the four em­pires who dom­i­nated Europe in the 19th cen­tury—in Rus­sia, Aus­tria-hun­gary, Ger­many and the Sec­ond Em­pire in France.

Al­though based on sec­ondary sources (a his­to­rian who wanted to go back to the ar­chives would have a life­long task), the book reads very freshly and, at only 176 pages, is ad­mirably con­cise with­out feel­ing cramped.

The book weaves to­gether what is well known—in par­tic­u­lar the un­easy re­la­tion­ship be­tween Vic­to­ria and the Ho­hen­zollerns fol­low­ing the mar­riage of her el­dest daugh­ter, Vicky, to the fu­ture Em­peror Fred­er­ick III— with what is largely for­got­ten, such as the early links with the Ro­manovs that be­gan with the Queen’s ex­cited danc­ing with the fu­ture Alexan­der II at a ball at Buck­ing­ham Palace in 1839.

Her clos­est re­la­tion­ship was with the Em­press Eugénie of France, who comes across as a most at­trac­tive per­son­al­ity. I didn’t know the story that when she ar­rived at Wind­sor for a state visit in 1855, she dis­cov- ered that both her lug­gage and her hair­dresser had got lost and so went down to din­ner wear­ing a dress bor­rowed from a lady in wait­ing, with chrysan­the­mums in her hair that she had plucked from a vase in her bed­room.

How­ever, this is dy­nas­tic his­tory, not pri­mar­ily a fam­ily story. It’s now hard to grasp how such an ap­par­ently ar­cane mat­ter as Prince Leopold of Ho­hen­zollern­sigmarin­gen ac­cept­ing the throne of Spain in 1870 could have pro­moted a ma­jor war, but Mr Van der Kiste ex­pertly elu­ci­dates the in­ter­twin­ing of mar­riage and po­lit­i­cal al­liances.

Some of his ma­te­rial, such as the ef­forts made by Em­press El­iz­a­beth of Aus­tria to avoid Queen Vic­to­ria when on hol­i­day in Eng­land, are very funny, yet the over­all im­pres­sion is of an un­fold­ing tragedy, lead­ing up to the fi­nal pages, in which the ma­jor ac­tors take their po­si­tions for the cat­a­clysm of 1914.

Queen Vic­to­ria cer­tainly had her griefs, but the ex­ile of Eugénie and the mur­ders of Alexan­der II and the Em­press El­iz­a­beth must, to some de­gree, have made her glad that she did in­deed reign, not rule.

The Great Ex­hi­bi­tion of 1851, one of the great achive­ments of Queen Vic­to­ria’s reign, owed its suc­cess to Prince Al­bert

Queen Vic­to­ria with Tsar Ni­cholas II and his wife, her grand­daugh­ter Alexan­dra, who is hold­ing their first child, Olga. Vic­to­ria was re­spon­si­ble for many of the mar­riages be­tween the rul­ing fam­i­lies of Europe

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