- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VICTORIA AND ALBERT: RULERS, PARTNERS, RIVALS

By Gillian Gill

Ballantine, $35, 480 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Dobbin

The title of this biography is drawn from letters and documents in which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert called themselves “we two,” emphasizing that theirs was a love match, and apparently it was.

Royal marriages tended to be a mixed bag when it came to compatibility because whether the couple actually liked each other was not considered as important as their obedience to the requirements of exalted position. However, in the case of Victoria and Albert, she was by all accounts even more in love with him than he was with her, and he was “pleased to be adored.” His premature death plunged her and Britain into decades of mourning that did nothing for the country or her reputation for responsibility.

Gillian Gill has written an entertaining and well-researched account of the Victorian way of life at its highest levels, although her dedication to disentangling the tortuous royal-family structures in Germany as well as England occasionally becomes wearying.

On the other hand, she offers interesting and surprising insights into Victoria’s attitude toward pregnancy and children. The young queen hated being pregnant, and her attitude toward her nine children might be described as dutiful at best. The ubiquitous nurse-and-nanny system relieved the queen of most of the difficult tasks of motherhood, but she was faced with an ironic situation in that while she apparently couldn’t get enough of Albert, in another era, she would have made the most of family planning.

What is most moving about the story of the marriage is that within it, according to Ms. Gill, the couple found the affection, companionship and trust that neither had known as a child. Victoria embodied the English capacity for a steel backbone, and she needed it as heir to the throne in a household full of malice and caprice, with her formidable mother as her protagonist.

Albert had to carve out his own path, using his power as Victoria’s husband to manipulate and maneuver through the hedge of British bureaucracy and showing the kind of diplomatic skill that kept Britain out of the American Civil War. Yet even the queen acknowledged that on many levels, Albert was much stricter than she.

“From the first days of her reign she had shown herself to be both respectable and responsible and yet not straitlaced or judgmental. Her husband was all four, and became more so each year,” Ms. Gill writes. The “war on sin” that Albert waged zealously at the Court of St. James’s was “not wholly rational,” according to the author. She points out that while, strategically, Albert’s obsession with morality met certain goals for the queen and the monarchy, tactically it spelled disaster for the prince, who was “rash enough to set himself up at the age of twenty as moral arbiter to his adopted nation.”

Victoria reached the English throne as a teenager and was married at 21. The two were indeed “rulers, partners and rivals,” and she idolized Albert, who, nevertheless, was deeply disappointed that his marriage to the English queen did not mean any degree of independence in running her household. Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s beloved mentor and prime minister, held the real power. Poor Albert was told he could bring with him from Germany his librarian, his valet and his greyhound.

Victoria did her best to mollify her husband by bestowing such honors as granting him precedence next to her own and making him a field marshal in the British army. “But all these things were in her power,” the author notes,”and there was the rub. Power, not protection, was what Albert sought from his wife.” Her Cabinet made sure Her Majesty gave away nothing that was hers.

A member of the group close to her, Charles Greville, “a cynical man, was sure that in her heart of hearts, Victoria was not sorry her husband would remain so financially and socially dependent on her.”

Victoria was an adoring and dutiful wife, observes Ms. Gill, when she was alone with her husband, “But when the two emerged from the bedroom each morning, he fell into step behind her.” The author emphasizes that while Victoria sensed that marriage and motherhood held the key to her dynastic success, her people “did not love her husband because he was her ideal man.”

The queen expected fidelity, companionship, comfort and security from her husband, yet she was “like a fat tiger, content with the cage, answering to the whip, but lashing out from time to time and daring her tamer to get careless.”

By 42, however, she was a widow, and no one was ever allowed to forget it, with the possible exception of John Brown, a Scottish ghillie at Balmoral who took her riding and got her attention. After the death of her husband, Brown, a handsome and dominant figure, had enough influence over the queen — whom he persuaded to go on picnics in the Scottish Highlands — that there were mild flurries of scandal about her attachment to him.

As the author puts it, tongue in cheek, “The Queen was never safer than when she wandered the roads … riding her pony or driving her trap with a single companion by her side, a tiny woman in a giant bonnet, a plaid shawl and a muddy tweed skirt, startlingly, deliciously, daringly ‘alone.’ ”

What is sad is that the “friendly, athletic, impulsive” Albert, who would celebrate a military victory by “grabbing the first clothes to hand and dashing headlong to drink whisky and dance and shout around the bonfire with all the local men,” never emerges, and evidently, that was no accident. Ms. Gill asserts, “No one could fill the symbolic function of the monarchy better than the Queen. She was still the marquee attraction. Prince Albert was merely her understudy, and these were the basic facts though neither the Queen nor the prince liked to look them in the face.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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