Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book 33: We Two

 I was barely even tracking the Royal Wedding so it had nothing to do with the fact that I was reading this book the same week as all the hype.  I stumbled upon this in the bio section of Barnes and Noble in January, but was slightly distracted by The Wheel of Time series, and as a result only recently started it.  One of the reasons that the book appealed to me is that while I know about the Victorian Era, and the current stereotypes of the era's norms, I really didn't know too much about the woman who gave her name to the era besides that she was grandmother just about all the royals at war with each other during World War I and that she looked a bit grumpy in her pictures.  I knew even less about her husband beyond that fact that I had seen his memorial in Kensington Park, and that the Victoria and Albert is named after them, and that I intend to go there next time I'm in London (two more months!).  I also thought the last line describing the contents of the book sounded appealing since it said that Victoria was able to create a fairy tale of their relationship due to Albert's much earlier death.
The book is divided into three parts, beginning with the story of Victoria which has been rather well documented, and the circumstances that led to her becoming heir to the throne despite being a daughter of a fourth son.  The second part concerned Albert's childhood and upbringing, and much of it focused on his family and their small kingdom since there are not many documents remaining from Albert's youth.  As a result Gill chose to bring his surrounding world to life to explain his background.  After Albert's death, Victoria wrote a biography of him, and Gill argues that Albert didn't necessarily give his wife a complete view of his childhood.  Also, being in England, Victoria did not have access to many things, and several key personnel didn't contribute to the book, possibly because their views would have disagreed with Victoria's.  As a result, her bio became the definitive word on her husband, but as an enamoured wife she was missing some of the context.  These two sections were the best part of the book, and Victoria's story was written in an incredibly engaging way.
The third part dealt with Albert and Victoria as a couple with a concluding paragraph on Victoria's forty years as a widow.  I enjoyed learning about the royal couple even though in some ways I had a hard time quite understanding their purpose.  With parliament and prime ministers and the such, it rather seemed like there wasn't much point to the monarchy.  In fact, Victoria took reign after rather weak kings and she and Albert hoped to see the monarchy restored to its rightful place.  As a result, they were allies determined to regain some of their power.  Gill also makes the point that the couple's, particularly Victoria's, popularity with the common people probably played a huge role in saving the monarchy while in many other countries, rulers faced rebellions (not that there weren't assassination attempts on Victoria).  Since Gill focused Albert and Victoria, a few things were slightly glossed over, such as assassination attempts.  However, while the book was informational, it just didn't seem quite what it promised.  For example, Gill's subtitle contains the word "rivals," but I didn't feel like she really portrayed them as rivals.  Yes, Victoria on occassion seems bored or unhappy with having lots of children, Albert disliked some of Victoria's confidantes and got rid of them, but I don't feel like they were really in a power-struggle.  Victoria seemed to more or less happily give way to Albert in most things.  Additionally, the book focused more on Albert than Victoria.  Victoria is portrayed as completely in love with Albert, while Albert is more concerned with work and power.  The last few chapters also dealt with different themes, such as their daughter Vicky, their son Bertie, the Crimean War, but all these things overlapped so sometimes this means it was hard to see how things truly progressed.  For example, Gill makes a comment about Albert's steadily deteriorating health, but while she had mentioned he was sapped of energy after the 1851 Exposition, she didn't mention too many other health problems until the chapter on his death.  Additionally, she says that the relationship between Albert and Victoria had been changing since 1857 or so, but I don't feel like I quite saw that, or maybe she had portrayed that but then gone back in time for her next two chapters so it didn't make the impression it should have.
For the most part, however, I liked reading about the era.  When Victoria first came to the throne, it was after several monarchs had lived in complete excess and accumulated debts.  Victoria actually attempted to live within her means, and upon their marriage, Albert assisted with this.  Victoria had been raised to be pure and moral because Conroy, her mother's advisor, saw that this would endear her to the people, and Albert's family that wanted him to be Victoria's betrothed from early on, raised him with the same goal in mind.  While this definitely worked to make the new royal family popular with the people, it didn't make them popular with the English royals, especially since Albert was so unforgiving and sanctimonious.  Once he arrived at the court, he would not let anyone with even a whiff of scandal near Victoria.  Victoria was more forgiving (or naive) when taking the reign, but she quickly agreed with Albert's ideas.  Still the prudishness of the Victorian Era is more Albertian than Victorian.  Gill portrays Victoria as fun-loving, outgoing, passionate, and quite the drama queen.  Her portrayal of Albert is more complicated since Gill herself doesn't even seem quite sure how she feels about him - on the one hand, he was often influenced by the fate of Germany and his family's kingdom when making foreign policy, but he also did quite a bit for England and the monarchy.  He argued with the wrong people, was incredibly strict and did not learn to make allies among the aristocrats but helped his wife win and keep the love of the commoners.  He was a hard-working fish out of water, but also ambitious, power-hungry, and judgmental .  His daughters loved him, his sons had complicated relationships with him.  Overall, he didn't seem like the type of guy that it would be very fun to be around.  His work and efforts helped the Empire, and Albert and Victoria's values reflected the growing middle class.  However, this also means they are also less fun to read about then the people from previous reigns since there are fewer entertaining scandals.
Overall, I would say this book is a good beginning for the subject, and there are a few topics I would like to read more about a few topics as a result now.  The chapter in which Gill addressed hemophilia was particularly of interest as it showed how this dirty secret affected generations of Europeans over the next few years since Victoria's descendants married into just about all the royal families of Europe.  I feel like I still need to read a biography of just Victoria to truly understand what she did since she seemed more like a figurehead in this book, guided by ministers and her spouse.  I'm not sure if I want to spend more time with Albert at this point, though.  He was a bit boring for me.  I've also found a few promising titles on Amazon, one about her three grandsons that were the reigning monarchs during World War I, and the other about her five daughters - Vicky's story in Prussia and as mother to Wilhelm sounds like it would be particularly enlightening.  I also thought the author's style was engaging and very easy to get through for non-fiction, so despite my minor issues with the later half, I would definitely pick up another book by Gill.

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