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
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