Pros: Very well written and easy to follow story, with some new insights.
Cons: Drags a bit in spots, but still, worth it.
Of late, there seems to be a great revival of interest in the life of Queen Victoria and her family -- in the last several years, I've spotted quite a few new biographies. And of course, there was the film The Young Victoria, which did a very good job of recreating the queen's adolescence and early marriage.
But before there was Victoria, there were the messy, tangled relationships of the children of King George III. The king, most famous for his loss of the American colonies, had a great many children, about fifteen, and of them, nine sons. The English succession seemed assured, but by 1810, there was only one legitimate grandchild -- Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince of Wales. Two sons had died as children, and of the surviving sons, only two had made legitimate marriages -- George the Prince of Wales had married a cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, and the union was an unmitigated disaster, and Frederick, the Duke of York, had married a German princess, but the union was childless. The other royal Dukes had taken on mistresses and unapproved wives, and had fathered packs of illegitimate children and spent their time spending lavishly, making trouble, and scandal. In short, there wasn't a promising heir in the entire bunch.
But there was Charlotte, who despite the best efforts of her narcissistic parents to ruin her childhood, managed to survive it and had grown up to be a somewhat attractive, pleasant young woman. True, she was rather loud and a bit boisterous, but she was strong and healthy, and was very popular with the public. So much so, that her father, the Prince of Wales, was consumed with jealousy. Once Charlotte had reached a marriageable age, he started to seek a husband for her; one that he hoped would take her out of England and out of the spotlight. And Charlotte revealed that she had a very stubborn streak indeed when it came to whom she was going to be married to -- several suitors were rejected before she selected the penniless, but very handsome, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as her husband.
In a celebratory spending spree, Parliament voted the would-be King of England an annual pension of 50,000 pounds, and the happy couple settled down together at the country estate of Claremont. And when Charlotte became pregnant, the country rejoiced -- the royal succession would be assured. What no one expected was that Charlotte's pregnancy would be badly bungled -- she was underfed and bled too much -- and she and the baby would perish. The people were devastated, Leopold kept his annuity and kept his interest in British politics, and Charlotte's uncles hurried up to find themselves nubile, healthy princesses to breed up some heirs.
And Prince Leopold had just a princess on his hands -- his sister Victoire, who had proved herself healthy and fertile during a previous marriage, and now was conveniently widowed. The fourth son of the king, Edward, Duke of Kent, decided that she would do, and hurried off to court her. After some to-ing and fro-ing, they wed, and quickly the Duchess of Kent became pregnant, and in April 1819, Princess Victoria of Kent was born. But her father died of a sudden illness when she was eight months old, and the princess soon found herself cut off and alone.
For it seemed that the Duchess of Kent had come to rely on an out-and-out bounder, John Conroy, an Irishman who was determined that the path to wealth came through the royal family. He was charming, bullying, and soon had the Duchess eating out of his paw. By careful manipulation, he convinced the Duchess that none of the royal family would protect or provide for her, and that with careful management, Princess Victoria could be molded into a docile, obedient girl who could be controlled into adulthood.
But then, Conroy and the Duchess had not considered that the princess was rather clever, and had a mind of her own, not to mention her late cousin's stubbornness...
How Victoria came to survive her isolated and miserable childhood in Kensington palace, and the reigns of two of her uncles -- George IV and William III -- and came to be Queen of England at eighteen is the base of this nonfiction work. Kate Williams has written a riveting account of these two princesses who were very much alike, and had childhoods that were eerily similar. While not all of Victoria's life is chronicled here -- the story ends after her marriage to another Saxe-Coburg prince, her cousin Albert and the birth of their first two children -- it helps to understand how much the monarchy changed from the freewheeling, hedonistic lifestyles of the Georgian dukes, and how they changed during the Industrial Revolution and societal changes to something more recognizable today.
Using letters, diaries, and artifacts of the period, the story is very well-rounded and fleshed out, and it revealed some details and facts that I had not known about before. Two inserts of colour photographs and prints had some new items, including a photo of Charlotte's wedding gown, and a collection of some of Victoria's dolls, many of which she made herself that give an intimacy to their lives. But it is the narrative that shines here, Williams has a good hand with words, and keeps a bit of sly wit about royal behaviour and personal attitudes that give plenty of life to the story. Several genealogical charts help to untangle the various relationships of Hanoverians and Saxe-Coburgers. In addition, there is an extensive bibliography and footnotes that give ideas for further research.
All in all, I really enjoyed this one. It's going straight onto my keeper shelves, and would give a good overview of this period of history. The writing is good, the subjects are interesting, and the details stay fairly close to the known facts. Whether the reader is experienced or new to the story, this one is very readable.
This was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2008 under the title of Becoming Victoria.
Five stars overall. Recommended.
Many thanks to the CL Dramastef who was kind enough to add this to the database for me!
Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch
2009; Ballantine Books, Random House Inc.