Saturday, June 5, 2010

"We Two" Victoria And Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

Author; Gillian Gill
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 383 pages without notes and bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this wandering around in the library, and I was attracted to the subject having just seen the new film, The Young Victoria.

The Backstory

I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of England's Queen Victoria. She is the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and during her administration, England was transformed from a small, island country into the center of a massive empire that covered 1/4 of the globe. She is also associated with a social and cultural trend we term "Victorianism," which in today's society is a byword for a dull marriage to industrialization at the expense of the masses, the widely rejected concept of the "separate spheres" of men and women, and sexual prudism.

Victoria was born in 1819, the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. For a long time, it didn't seem probable that Victoria would ever become queen. Her father was George III's fourth son, preceded in the birth order by the future King George IV, Frederick, Duke of York (who died in 1827, three years before his older brother), and William IV. George IV had a daughter, Charlotte, who died in childbirth along with her infant son, and neither Frederick nor William IV had legitimate children. Although the fifth son, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, did have a son, George, Victoria was the offspring of the fourth son, and therefore, preceded him in the family line. Victoria was a woman, and certainly at a handicap in the minds of the English population at the time, but Elizabeth I set a standard for successful female monarchs, and England would only rejoice at the prospect of the reign of a second Elizabeth.

As her father died in 1820, Victoria was raised by her mother who was dominated by Sir John Conroy, an overbearing man who viewed Victoire and her little daughter as his ticket to power. Throughout her childhood, Victoria was constantly watched and her life was heavily regimented. In 1837, her uncle, William IV, died, and Victoria became queen.

A year before, Victoria first met Albert, her first cousin and son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. His parents, Ernest III of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was initially a happy one, but Ernest did not discontinue his sexual exploits, and the couple separated in 1824. Albert spent his youth with his older brother, Ernest. They shared an education at home until sent to the University of Bonn. Albert's marriage to Victoria had been contemplated by many family members, the most prominent of which was King Leopold of Belgium. Albert returned for a second visit to England in 1839. The visit was a success, and Victoria and Albert married in 1840.

Victoria and Albert had nine children together, and all of them lived to adulthood. Prince Albert saw his greatest triumph with the Great Exhibition of 1851, and he increasingly insisted upon having a hand in foreign affairs. Victoria was popular with the English people, but the public remained skeptical of a cold, foreign prince. Albert's biggest problem lie in his status--he was offered no official position other than "prince consort," which was an elastic title that had never been defined in terms of place and function in England. Although Victoria implicitly trusted Albert and he became her personal secretary, he never fit comfortably into what he viewed as a second-rate role in England.

Albert died in 1861 of typhoid fever after having visited his son, the future Edward VII, at school. For some time, Victoria blamed Edward for his father's death as they had spent many hours outdoors together in the rain, but it is clear that Albert was suffering from the disease long before this visit and his unwillingness to rest sapped his immune system's ability to fight the illness. Victoria went into mourning and would dress simply, in black, for the rest of her life. Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81 having outlived her husband by nearly 40 years.

What About the Book?

Gill's book is an exceptional scholarly work that reads very comfortably from cover to cover. Occasionally, the progression of chapters does not entirely work together. Because she treats topics in each chapter, one chapter may proceed through several years in the history of the couple, and the reader is sometimes forced back as many as ten years when a new chapter, or topic, begins. This forces the reader to remind himself/herself of the circumstances surrounding that particular time frame, but those circumstances may have been covered 150 pages before in the book. In addition, there are a few places where she alludes to a certain issue, but will put off discussing that issue for several chapters. I read the book in a few long sittings, which made dealing with these inconsistencies easier, but if someone is going to read it chapter by chapter over the course of a few weeks, it may be difficult to recall people and events between them.

One thing that readers will probably conclude is that neither Victoria nor Albert come out of the book as likable characters. Albert is fully the prudish, controlling, misogynist German prince of English lore and Victoria is the needy, lovestruck, obedient wife featured in numerous films and mini-series. Gill is plagued by a few problems, including an all-blinding feminism that creeps into the book. Although she attempts to explain circumstances in the context of their time, her view of Albert is clearly biased from the start. For example, she treats Victoria's life in nearly 90 pages at the beginning of the book, and Albert receives about 55 as his share. Gill mentions Albert's glowing points--his tender nature as a father, his intelligence, and his concern for his wife's well-being. However, everything Albert did and believed comes under critical scrutiny to the point that one finishes the book truly doubting whether Albert had any good qualities, whether Victoria was the strong character Gill asserts at the beginning of the book, or that they ever had a loving relationship regardless of the existing evidence--their successful marriage by royal standards and notably, their nine children.

For all of these faults, the book is extremely enlightening and well-researched. Gill clearly examined numerous documents, and each topic forms a tight, detailed chapter even if the chapters don't fit together for the ease of the reader. The writing style makes it easy to read, and it is probably the best analysis of the relationship between Victoria and Albert ever composed. The reader has to be aware of the author's biases and sift through the information, but there are enough facts to do this included in the text. Gill also assumes that her readers may not understand things like the order of succession, and she spends time explaining these, which I am sure will help many readers along. Her writing style is very fluid and clear, and her treatment of the topic is interesting enough that readers will complete the book having gained something from it whether or not that reader has a strong background in Victorian England to start with.

Rating: 7.5, but that is based on my coming to the book without much of a background in the history. I learned a great deal, but I'm not sure that someone else who has a greater familiarity with Victoria and Albert would feel the same given the bias of the author.
Buy It or Borrow It: Definitely borrow it at the moment. Since it was published last year, a paperback probably won't be available for a little while. The notes are excellent, and if someone is studying the subject, I would recommend purchasing the book when it does come out in paperback for research purposes.


Anonymous said...

An "all-blinding feminism"? What the hell is the matter with you? Feminism is the belief in human equality. It's the belief that women are humans, not inferior sub-beings. And you refer to it like it's a bad thing. And you're a woman! Seriously, what the fuck is your problem?

pilgrimchick said...

In response to your comment:

If you re-read this review of the book more carefully, you will discover that feminism, in and of itself as a social phenomenon, is not criticized here. What is criticized is the perspective of the author of this book who, I feel, allows her feminism to bias her account of Victoria and Albert as individuals and in their relationship. The author praises Victoria, glosses over her shortcomings, and brands Albert as mysogynistic, unable to perform anything without a deep-seated jealousy of his wife and her position. A good historical study attempts to understand the culture out of which particular individuals came. A good historical study does not apply a lens much more applicable to today's culture and society, where feminism is, quite fortunately, thriving, to a time when that lens did not exist. Worse than holding the past to a set of cultural standards that did not exist at the time is actually judging people and events by those standards. Of course Albert was a mysogynist--he was a man, at a time when men were expected to fit a particular mould, who was subordinated by law to his wife. Victoria, on the other hand, was far from a solid paragon of modern-day feminism, preferring instead to regularly bow to a perception of her lesser status as "wife" to Albert, even though she was also Queen of England. There is, quite simply, no room for feminism in this historical picture of the early to mid 19th century.