- - Wednesday, August 29, 2012


By Paul Thomas Murphy
Pegasus Books, $35, 688 pages, illustrated

There are many ways of looking at the protean life and reign of Queen Victoria, from icon for an age to dynastic bridge-builder — and, less fortunately, hemophilia carrier — into countless European royal families as “Grandmama of Europe.” Victorian scholar Paul Thomas Murphy, who teaches at the University of Colorado, has chosen to see her through the eight attempts on her life by seven men over four decades of her long reign:

“Victoria’s seven would-be assassins,” he writes, “were all shooting stars: They came from nowhere, burst into the light of public attention for a short time following their attempts, and disappeared back into obscurity, all of them living on, anonymously, for years after their attempts.”

That obscurity is a lot less dim now that this author has diligently searched through records on three continents to tell us what happened to them, and, in so doing, shines a valuable light on the penal customs of those times.

For it is a remarkable fact that although bystanders wanted to lynch these assassins on the spot, no real harm befell them, either from the mob or on any gallows. How many other societies in those decades would have permitted such men to escape the ultimate penalty? What we see here is the steady majesty of British justice which took account of insanity, although the capital charge of treason could automatically have been proved by the mere act of shooting at the monarch.

Indeed, the final attempt at regicide brought about refinements in the law, bringing in a possible verdict of “guilty but insane” for crimes other than treason. Guilty or not by reason of insanity led to indefinite incarceration in an institution for the criminally insane, the formula of detention at the queen’s pleasure having a little added piquancy in these cases.

The great thing about making attempts on Victoria’s life the focus of a book is that it can be a happy tale: She didn’t get hurt, let alone anything worse. After all, as Winston Churchill remarked of his experiences as a soldier, there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without effect. Mr. Murphy is wise enough to remind us of other, less happy assassinations back then: a French president, the king of Italy and no less than three presidents of the United States.

Victoria’s heartfelt letter of sympathy to the grieving Mary Todd Lincoln is well known, but we learn here of an equally heartfelt one to President James Garfield’s widow; and if her death had occurred only a few months later, there would doubtless have been another one sent across the Atlantic to Ida McKinley. Mr. Murphy notes the coincidence of Victoria’s receiving for lunch at Windsor, shortly after the final attempt on her life, the doomed Austrian Empress Elisabeth, who was stabbed to death 16 years later in Geneva. All around Victoria there were others not blessed with her charmed life in this respect.

The diminutive queen’s courage was beyond doubt. Although she could be self-pitying and willful in many situations, these brushes with danger and mortality brought out the best in her. She deserved the public response they engendered since she had earned it by her instinctive reaction. Mr. Murphy notes, there was also a two-way dynamic at work here:

“The tonic effect upon the queen of the spontaneous public acclaim after this [last] attempt had not diminished a bit from every earlier attempt. It was after this one that Victoria finally summed up the curious joy she felt after each of the attempts against her: ‘Anything like the enthusiasm, loyalty, sympathy and affection shown me is not to be described,’ she wrote to her daughter Vicky. ‘It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.’ “

Although Victoria being Victoria, we do get to see some her pettiness and other less attractive traits. On the whole, viewing her through the prism of the attempts on her life and how she handled them results in one of the more positive portraits of this extremely complex woman.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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