BOOK REVIEW: ‘Becoming Queen Victoria’

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BECOMING QUEEN VICTORIA: THE TRAGIC DEATH OF PRINCESS CHARLOTTE AND THE UNEXPECTED RISE OF BRITAIN’S GREATEST MONARCH
By Kate Williams
Ballantine Books, $30 448 pages, illustrated

Fifty-six grandchildren, and not one of them legitimate - that was mad King George III’s situation after the death of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the debauched Prince of Wales, in 1817. This double biography of Princess Charlotte and of Victoria, the heir who was rushed into production to save the Hanover line, is delightfully gossipy, fast-paced, readable history.

Kate Williams, a writer steeped in the intricacies of the British royal family, devotes the first section of the book to the ill-fated marriage of the future George IV to Caroline, the odious Princess of Brunswick, and the battles over their only child, Charlotte. King George III and his wife had 13 children but, according to Ms. Williams, the king’s tyrannical behavior toward them caused his daughters to become “bitter spinsters and his sons hopeless rakes, detested by the country for their irresponsible behavior and shocking debts.”

The Prince of Wales‘ marriage to Caroline disintegrated almost immediately, but the prince could not obtain a divorce. (Caroline was far from faithful, but the Prince of Wales was so despised that public opinion was on her side.) The people eagerly pinned their hopes on little Charlotte. As Ms. Williams writes, “The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Charlotte, in turn, managed to avoid a number of pitfalls on the way toward assuming her inheritance as queen, successfully resisting her father’s attempts to marry her off to the detested Prince of Orange. She broke the engagement once it had become clear that such a marriage would require her to live primarily in the Netherlands. Instead, she eventually was able to persuade her father to let her marry the impecunious but handsome (and highly resourceful) Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who made a loving husband. She soon became pregnant.

Charlotte’s luck, however, ran out at the hands of doctors who bled and starved her relentlessly during her pregnancy and did not intervene in her extended labor. Writes the author, “She had been without sleep for thirty-six hours. She had had no food for twenty-four and she was weakened from months of bleeding and a starvation diet. She had not the energy to give birth.” She died soon after the stillbirth of her son. (A few months later, while attending another difficult birth, one of her doctors grabbed a gun off the wall and took his own life.)

The second section of the book, titled “Drunken Dukes,” is a romp through the unseemly scramble by the late Princess Charlotte’s dissolute uncles to quickly shed their mistresses (and numerous illegitimate children, in most cases), marry an acceptably royal wife, and produce a legitimate successor to the throne. Many achieved marriage and childbirth, but the only child to survive infancy was bouncy Victoria. Her story, divided into “Little Victoria” and “The Young Queen,” constitutes the latter half of the book.

Is there anything new to be said about Victoria? Perhaps not much, but with lively writing Ms. Williams manages to make the story fresh and appealing. (One can detect her background in hosting television historical documentaries.) Princess Charlotte’s grieving widower, Leopold, was instrumental in arranging the marriage between his elder sister, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, a young widow with two children, to the Duke of Kent. When Victoire (now the Duchess of Kent) was eight months pregnant, the duke insisted on having his whole household transported to England so that “key dignitaries could confirm his child’s legitimacy in the normal way.” Alexandrina Victoria was born there on May 24, 1819.

Alas, in eight months Victoria’s father was dead. He had contracted a cold, which worsened as successive doctors bled him six times and applied leeches. “The strongest of the strong” dukes had quickly succumbed, leaving a widow who barely spoke English and half-orphaning Victoria. Shortly thereafter, King George III died and the Prince Regent became King George IV.

Leopold, who had a generous allowance from Parliament, was determined that his sister and Victoria remain in England. Says the author, “Not only was [Leopold’s] position greatly enhanced by his influence over his sister and niece, but Vickelchen was the heir to the throne after her two uncles York and Clarence [the future William IV].” Leopold gave them a small portion of his stipend to live on, since the king refused to give the duchess a penny (“strictly speaking, ” writes the author, “a widow was the responsibility of her family, not of her husband’s relations.”)

The rest of the book chronicles the upbringing of Victoria, who from the beginning was treated like a queen: “You must not touch those, they are mine,” she once told a young visitor … who wanted to play with her toys. “And I may call you Jane but you must not call me Victoria.” The duchess appointed numerous tutors for her daughter, including the organist at St. Margaret’s Westminster, who taught Victoria singing and music. “On one occasion, when told that if she wished to succeed in music she must practice like everybody else, she slammed shut the lid of her piano and shouted, “There! There is no must about it.”

Ms. Williams doubts that Victoria, upon being surprised with a chronological table, ever said, “I see I am nearer to the Throne than I thought. … There is much splendour, but there is more responsibility. … I will be good.” Says the author, “The words are stilted and lack the spontaneity we associate with Victoria. It also seems improbable that she had no idea how close she was in line to the throne.” Moreover, she says, “Victoria herself remembered the incident differently. ‘I cried much on learning it and ever deplored this contingency.’ “

The author fully covers the power struggles among all those who sought to control Victoria, her eventual revolt against her mother and the emergence of the confident young queen, wife and mother. It’s a great read.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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