Becoming Queen Victoria – Book Review

The Victorian Era was a pivotal moment in time for British culture, and as we all know, Queen Victoria, was at the center of this changing world. Her ascension to the throne of England followed the tumultuous time of revolutionary democracy in America and France, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, population growth, as well as uprising and unrest. Victoria herself inherited her rule from a lineage of failed kings: George III who lost the American colonies and eventually his sanity, George IV who lost his relationship with his wife as well as his daughter Charlotte who died in childbirth, and William IV who was unable to produce a surviving legitimate heir. Into this disrupted world and dysfunctional family, Victoria rose as queen at the age of eighteen, a young woman leading her world into a new era of progress.

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Last year, Ballantine Books released a new paperback edition of Kate Williams’ 2008 history Becoming Queen Victoria: The Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch. With the feel of a smart historical novel, this biography of Victoria takes a broad view of historical context while simultaneously incorporating intricate behind-the-scenes details of Victoria’s family and personal life. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you (like me) having been watching the recent rendition of Victoria’s life on PBS Masterpiece and love the intrigue and drama of the royal family.

Interesting enough, instead of jumping right to the birth of Victoria, the book begins with a lengthy section detailing Victoria’s predecessors in the Hanoverian line, specifically the Princess Charlotte, who would have been queen if she had not died in childbirth. As Williams writes, Charlotte was Britain’s “perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father” (54). England was ready for a queen after too many terrible kings. Alas, Charlotte was only a shadow of the future queen.

Aside from Charlotte, the Hanover family was dysfunctional: full of alcoholism, affairs, unhappy arranged marriages, wasteful spending, and massive debt. Not to mention King George III, who eventually became so mentally ill that he had to be locked up in the last years of his life. George III’s many children had failed the dynasty, marrying against the will of the state and producing only illegitimate children. Until the birth of Charlotte, of course. And when Charlotte married and became pregnant, it seemed like the line would definitely continue. But tragedy struck, and the line was cut off.

This is the family background Williams sets up in the first 150 pages. At first this seemed strange, given that I expected the book to be solely about Victoria. But reading through the drama and tragedy of the Hanovers gave the desired effect: it was refreshing to dip into the section about Victoria. Before, the text submerged me in too many names and too many tragedies, but then, Victoria was born and the air cleared, and I felt relief just as the British people must have felt as their monarchy was finally stabilized over the rest of the 19th century.

 

The rest of the book then dives into Victoria’s life from infancy, concentrating on her young adulthood and early reign. Born into such a family, she definitely had an unusual upbringing: “The little girl was treated like a queen from the very beginning. A footman in splendid livery accompanied her wherever she went, and servants bowed subserviently when she trotted along the corridor” (174). From the moment she was born, her destiny was laid out for her in every way.

 

Unlike some histories I’ve read, this book does not get bogged down in dry facts. Never losing sight of her research, Williams provides beautiful visual details about people and setting and history, filling in the gaps when necessary: “She went to the robing room, where she donned a long red mantle lined with ermine . . . she walked, dazzled, into the abbey. There, in the interior that had been newly decorated with crimson and gold hangings and tapestries, the floors covered with oriental carpets . . . The queen herself looked charming. Lord Melbourne declared her floating on a silver cloud, a vision perhaps intensified by the quantities of laudanum he had consumed” (299).

But Williams doesn’t rely on primary sources and narrative alone: she incorporates poetry from Shelley and Byron, detailed descriptions of political cartoons from the time, as well as diary entries and letters from Victoria and her counterparts. These with the paintings and images in the center of the book combine to lend a complex look at Victoria’s world and what she was up against.

 

Historical Importance

Why study Queen Victoria anyway? Is it just to revel in more sedately British intrigue? Or to dream about a splendid royal life? I would argue that understanding the beginnings of Victoria, not only help us to understand the life of this queen, but also give us a look at an important moment in world history.

Reading Victoria’s story, I couldn’t help but meditate on the irony of it all. In the midst of a dysfunctional, directionless family, Victoria is born, coming to rule England as well as raise a seemingly happy family of nine children. However, the irony doesn’t end there. We think of the Victorians as prudish, restricting women to domestic spheres, yet Victoria as a woman was arguably the most influential leader of her time. I can’t help wonder what she truly thought about women’s rights (perhaps this would make an interesting deeper study). Also, Victoria is well-known as one of Britain’s greatest monarchs, yet under her reign, the British Empire expanded across the globe, colonizing and destroying many non-Western cultures, leading to war and conflict that continues today in our post-colonial time.

Studying Victoria’s place in this broader history, then, is important. Perhaps by understanding a little more about the time and family in which she was born gives a better idea of who she was as a woman and queen, helping us understand the state of our current world a little better.

About the Author

Writer and historian Kate Williams studied at Oxford and writes about world-changing leaders and royalty. Check out her website here!

Thanks to Ballantine Books and Penguin Random House for providing a copy of the book for review!

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Book Review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Quiet country village. Rolling hills. Grazing sheep in pastures. Singing choir and church bells resounding out of the parish church.

Sound familiar? It’s the setting for many of the British stories that we love. Except this time, the story takes place during World War II, when most of the men in the community have left for battle, leaving the women at home to fend for themselvthe-chilbury-ladies-choir-jacket-252x380es.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fast-paced story about a group of women who sing together, but it is more than that: the women are individuals who suffer, worry, and triumph through their separate experiences. One of the things that I find the most interesting about this book is this idea of the converse narrative. Most history book stories about WWII revolve around male narratives: men training, men fighting, men dying, men returning home. But a lot of the time (at least in the history I studied as a child), the female narrative is glossed over or left out entirely. Not so, in this book. Although it is a fictional narrative, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir reconstructs a female history of the war, covering the stories of many women of different ages, personalities, and social statuses. Put together, the book shines a light on the complexity of women’s lives during war time in the U.K. Jennifer Ryan does a good job of crafting a unique voice for each character, making it easy to follow along.

 

As a story of many stories, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is made of the narrations of many women through the form of letters and diaries. This not only makes the text easy to read, but also allows each woman to speak in her own voice.And voice is important in this story. 1940s Chilbury seems to be a culture in which women are supposed to be silent, or at least quiet, but these women sing to show their power and togetherness.

So here’s the gist (I will try to avoid too many spoilers):

The Setup

World War II. England. Most of the men (at least the young ones) are gone to the Continent to fight the advancing German army. Meanwhile, in the small village of Chilbury, the vicar wants to close down the community choir because there aren’t enough male voices to keep it going. Through the instigation of a female music teacher, the women of the village step outside the norm to create an all-female choir.

The Ladies

Mrs. Tilling is a widow who lives alone now that her son David has gone to France. Being alone makes her ruminate on the danger her son faces. She’s quiet, known as a “do-gooder,” and can be a little curious about other people’s lives. As a nurse, she helps out when the army retreats from Dunkirk, gaining a close-up encounter with the fatalities of war. When she has to take in a seemingly cranky colonel under billeting, her internal world starts to come undone.

Edwina Paltry is something of an outsider. She claims to be a midwife and seeks to boost her clientele (and pocketbook) in the village. Edwina gives us a look at the hierarchical social class of the village, as she represents someone without property. Wanting to retake her childhood home where she dreams of living with her sister, she is willing to do whatever it takes to save up enough money to return. I won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say that it has something to do with baby-swapping.

Kitty Winthrop is thirteen years old but sees herself as much older than she is. She serves as an observing lens to the rest of the community because she’s a bit ignored. However, Kitty’s view of the world is a little skewed as she imagines things to be more than they are in reality: for example, a “proposal” by a handsome young man. At first, I was a little confused by Kitty’s section as the descriptions seemed extravagant and overdone, but once I realized her voice as a dramatic teen, it made sense, reminding me of my own diary at that age.

Venetia Winthrop is Kitty’s older sister at eighteen years old. She is rather a flirt, and likes the attention of the young men of the village (most of whom have now joined the army or air force). With all the young men gone, Venetia turns her attention to Mr. Alastair Slater, a mysterious artist who doesn’t reveal too much about his past. Venetia finds a satisfying independence in spending time with him, but if her father knew what she was up to, he might think it was a bit too much time.

Silvie is a little Jewish girl who has come to live with the Winthrops after escaping the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. As an evacuee, she left behind her family and all her belongings. She’s very quiet both in life, and in the narrative, but her character adds to the depth of female experience in Great Britain at the time.

Other characters include Prim, the inspiring choir leader; Elsie, the maid who knows too much; and Mrs. B who has the negativity of a Debbie Downer and the forceful stubbornness of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.

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The White Cliffs of Dover, near where the soldiers returned – Photo Credit: Ad Meskins / Wikimedia Commons

At times, because of its simply styled language and dialogue-driven plot, this book reads like a British miniseries, which was appealing to me, lover of the BBC. I’ve heard the television rights have been picked up by Carnival TV, so here’s to hoping it does get made.

I read this at a fitting time, I think, since I’ve been watching Land Girls,  a TV show about women working for the British Women’s Land Army to produce food during WWII, and I just re-watched Atonement, one of my favorites, a film that connects the war to themes of family, love, and the power of words. So altogether, WWII has been on my mind, especially the non-battle stories of people who remained at home and fought metaphorical battles of their own.

Reading stories of hope and cooperation in the midst of danger and uncertainty is uplifting in times such as ours. As Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal: “Then we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other.”

Order your copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (released on February 14, 2017) here.Thank you to The Crown Publishing Group and Penguin Random House for providing this book for review.

 

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Missing Downton Abbey

Dear Downton Abbey,

I miss you. This is the first winter in six years that you are not waiting on the other side of Christmas to cheer up my dreary post-sunshine days. I will have to  find another justification for my blanket-wrapped, Biscoff binge-eating evenings (but between us, you are still my favorite). There are and will be other British television series to watch, but I will always remember you. I miss Anna and her patience, Carson and his dignity, Sybil and her daring, the Dowager Countess and her tartness. (sometimes, I even miss you, Thomas.) They say all good things must come to an end, but I don’t see why. Maybe someday, I will be able to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire to see what you all are up to. Tea time, probably.

Cheers,

Rose

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Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) image credit: Richard Munckton

For those of you also interested in visiting the locations from Downton Abbey, this is an amazing interactive map produced by Wayfair.co.uk :

I like clicking on each location to see the photo of what it looks like “out of costume.” As you can see, the show was filmed all over England and even Scotland, from Basildon Park to Byfleet Manor to Inveraray Castle. I don’t know about you, but I am already mentally planning a Downton themed vacation….

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Memoir Review of My History by Antonia Fraser and BOOK GIVEAWAY

London-born and Oxford-bred, Lady Antonia Fraser, queen of biography, remembers her own life in My History: A Memoir of Growing Up. With anecdotes that speak to Fraser’s love of, and later career in, biographical history, this winding journey of memory will appeal to lovers of Fraser’s work as well as Anglophiles who want to explore life in England during the 1930s and 1940s. The book follows Fraser’s memories from early childhood through her beginnings in publishing.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

A magical remembering of the bells ringing in Oxford start us out in the first chapter. Not yet three years old, Fraser witnesses King George V and Queen Mary on their Silver Jubilee, standing in a tower in Oxford. Throughout her childhood she speaks of castles and ancestral haunts. With such beginnings and surroundings, who can be surprised by Fraser’s later obsession with the history of the British?

Much of the first section of the book talks about Fraser’s parents, both of whom were very passionate politically and professionally. Coming from a privileged British family, Fraser was given a front row seat to her country’s workings as both her parents were involved in the government. She tells of canvassing door-to-door in her parents behalf and working on her mother’s campaign. This was a time Fraser remembers fondly.

Lady Margaret Hall Oxford “LMH Quad” by Sarah from UK

Those who are well-read in Fraser’s work will likely not be surprised by her interest in strong, fascinating women in history, such as Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots. This attraction to the female anecdotes of history can be seen starting in Fraser’s childhood. Reading the works of Henrietta Marshall from the young age of four, Fraser quickly gained an interest in the aged past, and especially the noted women of history. As she read about Mary, Queen of Scots, Fraser put herself in the place of the fated Queen; this speaks to her intuitive ability to connect the past with modern readers.

Perhaps another reason Fraser portrays strong female characters is because of her mother as well as her own upbringing. Watching her mother run for government and speak with passion about her beliefs perhaps inspired the daughter in her own independence and personal passion. Fraser recounts the years she spent at a school once known as a strictly boys’ school and how she felt somewhat special about being in the small number of girls present. These experiences no doubt helped build Fraser’s own character as she later made a name for herself in publishing.

Through vivid details and charming narratives, Fraser brings her own life to the realm of biography. She peruses her past with a historian’s analysis combined with a grandmother’s reminiscence. It’s as if Fraser is taking a step aside from her lifetime career of literary work to make meaning of her experience and bring it all full circle.

Those familiar with the biographies of Antonia Fraser will find her childhood background enlightening, connecting pieces of her own past to her future fascination with history. But even those for whom My History is their first book by Fraser will enjoy her personal stories, her tales of living through World War II, school at Oxford, and her growing up surrounded by British politicians. For Anglophiles, My History provides a look at an England changing from pre-war to post-war; it gives the reader glances at the streets of Oxford as well as the publishing realm during the mid-century.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up will be published in the U.S. October 13, 2015, but you can you pre-order your copy here.

Don’t forget to enter the book giveaway below! Doubleday has provided me with 2 copies of this wonderful book for my readers, so comment away and spread the word! Just follow the link and use your email to sign in. Then leave a comment or follow me on Twitter to enter the giveaway. Be sure to submit your entry THROUGH the Rafflecopter link below. Please let me know if this is not working for you and we will work it out :)

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Other works by Antonia Fraser:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Wives of Henry VIII

Mary Queen of Scots

The Weaker Vessel

The Gunpowder Plot
Thank you to Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for providing a galley for review.  

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Why British Expats Miss the Homeland

This summer, British Airlines posted this humorous video:

I’m not entirely sure if this an advertisement, or just a barely veiled complaint against typical British wetness. In any case, British Airways wanted to hear from British expats what they loved the most about the homeland. Apparently, there are over 750,000 expats from the U.K. living in the States alone (why they would ever leave the most magical place on earth in the first place is beyond me). And these Brits miss certain things about Britain. I miss them too, even though I’ve never been there. Here’s the original Facebook post where you can read all 3800 comments for yourself, but here are some of my favorite comments on the best things in the U.K.:

“British architecture, pubs, fish and chips, countryside and of course family and friends. oh and decent funny cards depicting British humour!”

“Yorkshire pud. Whitby kippers. Later evening dusky skies.and being called daft.”

“Fish and chips, wagon wheels, flake, crisps, biscuits, British TV/ humour….. Hearing the accent everyday….”

“The history, the beautiful countryside, the pubs, the pretty little villages, the seaside, fish and chips, the British sense of humour, M&S, I could go on and on.”

“British pubs in the summer. Afternoon walks to the pub, long nights chatting outside the pub, larger and lime in the pub, listening to British humour about people in the pub, (coz we can take a joke well), the barmaids, and barmen…and of course the crisps…the prawn cocktail, monster munch, Walkers Crisps!! Did I mention the pub?”

“Springtime in England when everything is fresh and green.”

“Walks in the woods, actually walking everywhere, real cheddar cheese, good bread, cadburys drinking chocolate, seasons, waitrose and M&S, Sunday roast, fizzy cider, malt vinegar on my fish and chips instead of ketchup, penny sweet shops, a perfect summer day in the park with a flake 99.”

“Everything!”

This last commenter really says it all – everything about the U.K. makes me want to go there! British Airways you have me thinking it’s time for some travelling… Check out ba.com if you feel the same. They have some good deals by booking straight through the airlines. Here’s a word from British Airways: “As always, customers can take advantage of BA’s hold fare and reserve their flight on ba.com for up to 72 hours with a deposit of just $10, giving travelers time and flexibility to book without losing the original price. Additionally, Flight+hotel and flight+car packages booked on ba.com are eligible for deposit payment, allowing travelers to take advantage of early deals and budget for their trips – especially while the dollar is strong.” If you do fly across the pond, let me know about your experience! It will tide me over till I can make it one day.

If you would like to know my favorite things about the United Kingdom check out:

Top 15 Reasons Why Americans Love England

and, because the list is neverending:

Ten More Reasons Why Americans Love England

British Flag

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Here’s a Toast to Queen Elizabeth!

Not only is Queen Elizabeth the longest-lived monarch in Great Britain, but as of last week, she is now the longest reigning monarch. At the age of 89, Elizabeth has aged well and still serves as the head of the Royal Family with a grandmotherly smile. Sixty-two years of holding the throne with grace and dignity certainly deserve a toast of honor. So here’s to Her Majesty, the epitome of British splendor!

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Elizabeth at age 3

Queen Elizabeth coronation

Elizabeth on her Coronation Day June 2, 1953

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A sunshiney photo of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007

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Why Great Britain Is Great Infographic

There’s a reason why it’s called GREAT Britain: in my opinion, it should be called Fantastic Britain, but maybe I’m getting carried away. If you don’t believe me when I say there are millions of reasons to love the UK, then check out this awesome infographic from the CityBase Apartments blog. This lists only twenty reasons, but they’re some of the best! You can check out the original post here. Let me know in the comment section why YOU love Great Britain!

20 Reasons Why Great Britain Is Great

20 Reasons Why Great Britain Is Great

Original post on CityBase Apartments

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