Chronicling the life of Queen Victoria – Britain’s second longest-reigning monarch – is agargantuan task. To do it with pizzazz and panache, in such a readable way, I would have thought if not impossible, then at least daunting. But still, Lucy Worsley’s latest book, the simply titled Queen Victoria, manages it with ease.
Worsley takes a unique approach by tackling the life of the melodramatic matriarch, quite literally, one day at a time. Each of the 24 chapters represents an emblematic day in Victoria’s life, such as the death of Prince Albert, or the brutal inspection of Lady Flora as ordered by a vengeful teenage Queen. At first I viewed this approach with suspicion – was it just a gimmick? But, having read the whole thing, I now see it as genius. Each day functions as a window, allowing the reader – in my case, someone who knew relatively little about Victoria beyond the eponymous ITV show and the Horrible Histories series – to understand and experience at a gentle pace. These days give us a focal point with which to orientate ourselves before Worsley delves deeper into the issues at play; by zooming in, Worsley is allowing herself to zoom out, to contextualise. It works, giving the reader digestible snippets that ease together into the rich tapestry of Victoria’s vast and uneasy life. The only downside with this is that, at times, it feels like you are missing out. For example, the deaths of two favourite children are given just one sentence between them – I would have liked more. That said, Queen Victoria is quite a sizeable volume as it stands, so I understand the need to pick and choose what to include in a commercial history book. Worsley curates this over-abundance of juicy information beautifully.
Although, as non-fiction book, the people within its pages were real, I can’t help but want to call them characters. Because Worsley – who quite clearly is a born storyteller – turns them into characters, in the best of ways. She has a knack for picking out the unique little oddities of each ‘character’ in a way that not only makes them light up the page, but also endears them to us. Victoria’s mother, a German princess called Victoire, is not always painted in the most flattering light, but the titbit about her walking so fast through the palace that the gust she generated almost yanked off a gentleman’s wig made me like her that little bit more. Likewise with the anecdote about Lord Melbourne once hiring hairdressers to pluck out every grey hair on his head. She artfully weaves in the tiny minutiae that define a person, and that you would have thought to have been long lost to history.
It is the ‘characters’ that help to carry this ‘story’. Whilst some, such as Florence Nightingale, form the centrepiece for an individual chapter, others are with us for much longer, such as her personal doctors or the sinister Conrad. We watch Victoria herself grow, and then her children, and then her grandchildren (among them, the warmongering Kaiser Wilhelm, affectionately and disconcertingly referred to by the family name ‘Willy’), and we see people die, too. Victoria was a queen who was made up of many people. I must say, reading this book has left me itching to read biographies (or at least learn a little more) about some of those in it; the tragically dutiful Princess Beatrice who was all but imprisoned by her mother, or perhaps the charming Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim of no social standing who Victoria came to regard as one of her closest friends despite the colonial racist outrage of her close entourage.
Another ‘character’ who caught me out was Albert. It quickly becomes clear that Worsley is not a fan of the erudite German prince – and she fast made me a convert. Like many people (I think), I had been fed the idea of Victoria and Albert being this great romance, a true love match, so much so that Victoria spent the last 40 years of her life mourning him. Whilst this still may have been true, Worsley paints a picture of Albert as a controlling monster who used pregnancy as a weapon to bridle his wife, Victoria having had seven children in one decade, enjoying too much his role of regent whilst Victoria was incapacitated. Not only that, but he was physically violent with their sons, to such a degree considered excessive even by the standards of the day. Worsley makes no apologies for his behaviour, but neither does she cast him as the pantomime villain; she merely lets him exist as he was, the good and the bad. His death is still undeniably a tragedy, Worsley’s presentation of it gutting in its clinical brutality, not because you want him to live – but because of Victoria’s impending grief. In this simple sentence, Worsley broke my heart: “She had clasped his cold body because she could not bear to let him go.” Indeed, Victoria would be buried nearly 40 years later with her husband’s dressing gown and a plaster cast of his hand.
Just as we see Victoria and the people around her grow, I rather enjoyed the background thrum of technology that we see develop of over the eight decades of her life, subtly weaved throughout the book. It’s crazy to think that by her diamond jubilee in June 1987, she was not only able to have her photograph taken, but to also have her double chin ‘airbrushed’ out of it!
As with her previous book, Jane Austen At Home, it is clear to see that Worsley cares deeply about her subject. I was lucky enough to see her talk about Victoria as part of a promotional tour, and she filled the room with her passion. It does not feel, as some history books do, like you are being talked at with a million impossible words. No, this feels like you are sat around a fire place listening to someone tell impassioned stories of relatives or friends. This is a book which, while undoubtedly fascinating and educational, you as a reader can relax into.
Through immense research and intense passion, Lucy Worsley paints a nuanced picture of Victoria’s life, from birth to death, through 24 pivotal days. We see her horrendous childhood, her temper, her blind adoration, her uncertainty, her mistakes, her own terrible mothering, her selfishness, her own brand of cleverness, her cruelty, her patriotism, her devotion, her kindness, her crippling loneliness, her attempts to do what she thought best for her country and her people, who connected with her as they had done no monarch before. We are left with a picture not of a saint nor a sinner, but of a damaged and flawed human being. We are left with a life that no novelist could ever dream up, but that only a truly skilled historian could retell.
Favourite quote: “Her whole life, she looked her best in motion.”
Similar books: Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport; Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Ridell