Tag Archives: biography

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.

becoming-queen-victoria

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!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History

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 :)

a Rafflecopter giveaway
//widget-prime.rafflecopter.com/launch.js

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.  

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Review