Victoria served as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 until her death in 1901, making her the longest serving monarch up until Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Lucy Worsley’s book uses letters, diaries, and other material to explore twenty-four days in Victoria’s life with insights into the era which was named after her.
Naturally, there has been a plethora of books written about Victoria and her reign with a wide range of opinion, speculation & gossip – some of it sympathetic and some not.
This book looks at Victoria’s life from her birth & childhood up until her death and shows her growth and development as a woman and a leader, her relationship to her husband Albert and their nine children, (she outlived three of them) and her interactions with various members of her staff and the government of the day.
When Victoria was still a baby, her father died of a fever leaving his wife, Victoire, in sole charge of their child. Unfortunately, as he was dying, he advised his wife to put her trust in his friend and servant, John Conroy, a trust that would cause much trouble later on as Conroy exerted his control over Victoire and Victoria.
As the years passed it became more probable that Victoria would one day sit on the throne and so her life was carefully regulated and controlled under the ‘System’ that Conroy devised for her.
Victoria and Albert met when she was sixteen but even though their meeting had been clearly arranged, she was resolved not to marry until she was twenty.
Three weeks after she turned eighteen William IV died and Victoria became Queen. Conroy had hoped to exert his power through Victoire as Regent in the likely event that William died before she came of age, but the king had hung on and now Victoria could rule in her own right. And Victoria rose to the occasion.
Pressure had been put on the queen to marry and at last she posed the question to Albert, as was her prerogative, and he accepted.
Victoria often used the third person to describe her actions as queen:
‘Had she been engaged to the Prince a year sooner,’ Victoria explained in later life, ‘she would have escaped many trials.’
Nine children were born to them and Albert took on many duties Victoria would normally would have done had she not had the responsibilities of motherhood.
Worsley portrays Albert as a bit of a controller with a hardened attitude in areas of royal business as opposed to Victoria, who she considered was more conciliatory by nature.
After the birth of their first child Victoria said that Albert’s care for her, ‘was more like a mother…’
Worsley observed that,
‘The words ring true, but they were perhaps strange ones to use of a husband: a ‘mother,’ a ‘judicious’ nurse. In fact, Albert was infantilising his wife.’
Albert was also portrayed as very moralistic, almost prudish – characteristics that are often associated with the Victorian Era. He was also said to have been very exacting of his children and expected them to be studious, which Bertie, especially, did not live up to.
Albert’s untimely death, supposedly from Typhoid Fever, at the age of only 42 years was devastating to Victoria. Since their marriage she had come to depend more and more upon her husband’s involvement in ministerial affairs.
A decade of mourning followed for Victoria during which she was absent bodily from public life but now her wayward eldest son, Bertie, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of his father’s death, was almost at death’s door himself.
When Bertie unexpectedly pulled through his illness, Victoria emerged from her more isolated existence and began to ‘re-possess her power…She returned to her best self, the self she had lost in Albert, had begun.’
This was a good introduction to the life of Queen Victoria and I liked the ‘twenty-four day’ approach as it helped to give an overview of her life in general. The author presents Queen Victoria as a complex person with faults and eccentricities but also as a person who was affectionate and sympathetic. Her unusual pressurised upbringing prepared her in many ways for her future role but it also disadvantaged her in other aspects, and certainly didn’t help her in her role as a mother.
Victoria came to the throne at a time when society was less comfortable with women in power than the Tudors and Stuarts were with their queens, but her strength was to rule through influence rather than power.
According to the author, on the one hand Victoria was very socially conservative but on the other she was ‘tearing up the rule book for how to be female.’ (I don’t know if this is just a modern take on Victoria or not.)
Reading this book filled in many gaps for me regarding Queen Victoria and it did so in an engaging way. Worsley presents Victoria as a multifaceted woman about whom you could feel both sympathy and dislike. I thought it was awful how she basically treated her unmarried daughters as ladies in waiting and her expectation that her youngest daughter, Beatrice, would not marry but stay with her as scribe and general dogsbody was appalling. (Beatrice did eventually marry but only after she’d promised her mother that she and her very good-natured husband would live with the queen!)
‘In this book I have questioned, sometimes undermined, the story of Albert and Victoria’s endlessly, superbly, unquestionably happy marriage. But for Victoria, his charm had never failed. For her, the bewitchment of the ‘angel’ to whom she had proposed marriage sixty-one years previously at Windsor Castle still geld strong.’
Besides being a writer of history books Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and a presenter at the BBC.
The lovely floral cover image on my copy of the book is from the William Morris Gallery.
It has 509 pages which includes 75 pages of sources and notes.
Age recommendation: I was thinking this might be a good book for my 15 yr old but there are some sections I’d definitely skip. There is mature content in quite a few of the chapters that I wouldn’t consider suitable for that age.
Linking to the 2020 Non Fiction Challenge: History