Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book 53: Victoria's Daughters

In preparation for my vacation to the UK, I decided to do things the proper way for once, and read a few books about the area before I went.  I figured it would be a nice change from normal, such as when I picked up a history on the Medicis after returning from Florence.  I had already read We Two a few months ago, but was a bit curious about a different perspective of Victoria.  I chose this because I thought it would cover a wider range of history, and after reading about Victoria and her husband, reading about her and her daugthers seemed like a natural follow-up.  I quite liked the book - I'm not an expert on Victoria or family by any means, so I can't say much one way or the other about some complaints on Amazon regarding the accuracy of the facts.  I noticed one mistake when the author referred to Kaiser Wilhelm and Bertie (or Edward VII) as cousins in a foot note when in fact they were nephew and uncle, but that's the only one I caught.  For someone with limited knowledge on the topic, this really seemed like the perfect book.
Given that Victoria had five daughters, and through them and her granddaughters was related to rulers like Czar Nicholas II and Emperor Wilhelm, reading about these six women is really an introduction to European history from the mid-19th to early 20th century.  Packard discusses Victoria's lack of interest in her children, and states that she really only had them to keep Albert happy and as her duty.  He argues that in some ways Victoria's interactions with her children caused them problems later in life, and it is certain that she could at times be hard and unforgiving.  However, I also think he may be being a bit hard on her, because I don't think most society women in the 19th century really spent that much time with their children, and left them to governesses, tutors and private schools, so Victoria was following a trend.  Since Victoria and Albert married for love, they also encouraged their children to marry for love within the proper circles, of course.  Also, Victoria was protective of her family, especially as she got older.  It was quite interesting reading about how she interacted with her grandchildren vs. her children but it seems like most people mellow and become more indulgent as they age.
While Packard spends a lot of time discussing Victoria to explain her relationship with her daughters, he also focuses on each of the daughters.  Her oldest, Victoria, was brilliant and her father's favorite, and was the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm.  After reading We Two which talked about "poor Vicky" and her relationship with her children, and especially her son, it was rather refreshing to read Packard who also addressed some of Vicky's flaws, and discussed how her early expectations may have been part of the reason her relationship with her son was so strained.  I've noticed this problem a lot while reading historical non-fiction lately: many foreign princesses have a hard time adapting to their new courts and don't understand them.  It didn't help that Victoria kept telling Vicky to act like an English princess rather than advising her to act in a manner her new family would approve of.
Packard did contradict himself a bit when discussing Alice, the second eldest daughter who had an interest in social improvement and nursing: at one point, he said her Englishness made it hard for her to adjust to her German surroundings and caused her problems with the people, but he also said she was well-beloved and greatly mourned at her death (she was the first of the daughters to die; one of her daughters married Czar Nicholas II).
Of Victoria's other three daughters, Louise was least conventional and had artistic ability.  She actually spent some time in Canada since her husband was appointed to an official job there, but they had some marital problems (he appears to have been gay).  The other two daughters stayed near to home, and Beatrice, the youngest, especially was seen as Victoria's helper and assistant.  At first, Victoria hadn't even wanted her to marry for this reason, but her husband agreed to be at the Queen's beck and call in order to marry her daughter.
Queen Victoria's family was full of personalities, and the fact that Victoria could be rather demanding certainly didn't make life easy.  However, Packard portrays a close and loving family, especially among the women of the family (the reader learns about the sons in passing and only when their actions affect their sisters, but it seems that Edward VII and his mother had an especially difficult relationship).  He doesn't fall into the trap of worshipping the royal family or trying to slander them, but instead presents portraits of a group of complex and flawed human beings.

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