Book Review: Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams

Book Review by Bud Gundy

This is the third biography of Queen Victoria that I’ve read, and it is easily the most engrossing and well written.  Kudos to the author Kate Williams for an engaging account, written with all the drama and suspense of a first-rate story.

What sets it apart from the other Victoria biographies is the focus on exactly how Victoria got to the throne, with a long look at the princess who was supposed to be queen in her stead.

The story of Princess Charlotte is not well known, but she was the daughter of King George IV, and she was the only legitimate heir to her grandfather George III, who was locked away at Windsor Castle, a raving madman for the last ten years of his reign.  Of an estimated 56 grandchildren, only Charlotte could inherit his throne because she was the only one born into a legal marriage.

Charlotte’s father acted as Regent for George III, assuming all the duties and rights of king while his own father was incapacitated.  When the old king died, George IV ascended to the throne for ten years while the country looked to Charlotte to deliver it from her wastrel father and the passel of drunken dukes, her uncles, who were widely hated for their self-indulgent tastes and lavish spending.

Charlotte was loved throughout England, attaining the reputation of a virtuous princess who would deliver the people from the debauched excesses of the sons of George III.  Her story is fascinating: her parents hated each other almost from the moment they met, and her weak father resented his daughter’s popularity.  The intrigue and subterfuge to keep the princess out of the public eye while George IV ruled is a tragic tale, involving plots and machinations that once sent Charlotte literally running from the palace to escape, if only for a night.

Charlotte married (a convoluted tale in itself) and soon became pregnant, but in a shocking development she delivered a stillborn son and died the next day.  The mourning was immense, vastly eclipsing even the overwhelming reaction to the death of Princess Diana.  England quite literally closed for two weeks – all shops and offices were shut.  The mourning was so great that manufacturers of finery begged the royal family to shorten the official period of grief to restart business.

After Charlotte’s death, the remaining sons of George III busied themselves with dispensing with their mistresses and marrying to produce legitimate heirs.  The Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, moved back to England (he’d been living abroad with his mistress of 28 years) and married a royal German widow who gave birth to Victoria.  After her father died, and then another uncle, Victoria was suddenly next in line to the throne.

Victoria never seemed a sympathetic person to me, despite the book’s long and interesting exploration of her unhappy childhood, ruled by a hapless mother who in turn was influenced by one John Conroy – a manipulative advisor who saw Victoria’s claim as an entry for himself and his own family into the royal sphere.  It was a bleak life in the small, dark rooms of Kensington Palace’s first floor.  But, of course, it was not nearly as bleak as the lives of the common people, who suffered from one economic depression after the next, and saw industrialization take their jobs and change their lives for the worse, a fact that Williams thankfully does not overlook.

I’ve always disliked the depictions of Victoria’s imperious sense of victimhood, her ranting and raving and absolute devotion to her own comfort and desires.  I suppose she felt it her due and that she didn't know any better, but it still grates to read of her shrieking tantrums when she did not get her way.  She was prone to these even as a child, and the all adults around her realized she would almost certainly one day be the queen and they were loathe to correct this behavior - thus the self-pitying adult woman.  The book closes a few years into the start of her reign, after her marriage to Prince Albert, leaving the long years of her rule to other sources.  Wisely so, I thought.

Despite my dislike of Victoria, I found this book an invaluable help in understanding her, and the turbulent times when she took the throne.  She remains a fascinating, enigmatic figure, and probably nobody, even her adored husband, really understood the forces at work in her mind.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this period.

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