Tag Archives: victorian

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!

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Interview with Peggy Seymour from The Mymble’s Daughter

Around the time of my birthday this year, I received a bubble-wrap envelope in the mail. What made this bubble-wrap envelope more than ordinary was the lovely postmark that read “United Kingdom”. I knew it was from a very good friend of mine who knows me better than most anyone and who always sends me the best of birthday presents. Excited and curious to see what piece of England would be hidden inside the envelope, I opened it to discover a beautiful necklace depicting one of my favorite characters from Alice in Wonderland: The Gryphon. I loved the necklace so much, I had to look up where it came from.

the Gryphon necklace ~ photo by Rose West

Let me introduce you to Peggy Seymour from The Mymble’s Daughter, known on Etsy as adorapop. Peggy, master jeweler and artist extraordinaire, is based in Wales, though she’s actually from London. Her profile on Etsy talks of dragons and castles, leading me to believe that I’ve found something of a kindred spirit across the pond. A brief glance at her Etsy shop reveals that Peggy puts her heart into her work, creating beautiful and unique necklaces, pendants, sketches, and more. A little Victorian, a little steampunk, and a little fairytale, The Mymble’s Daughter has it all! There is a wide selection of jewelry, with themes from Alice in Wonderland to Charles Dickens to the Royal Wedding. The Signature Collection features jewelry depicting the birds that Peggy is so inspired by. She also sells a collection of beautiful bird sketches. You won’t want to miss checking out The Mymble’s Daughter – there’s sure to be something to catch your eye, either for yourself or for a gift for a friend.

Peggy graciously agreed to an interview, and I am pleased to be able to share with you.

The Interview

Rose West: Where do you find your inspiration when creating new jewelry?

Peggy Seymour: Anywhere and everywhere. Most often I’ll just be reading, or watching a film and inspiration just pops into my head. I am most inspired by birds and Victoriana so I try to surround myself with as much of these things as possible.

Red Riding Hood necklace ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: Is there a story behind your name, Mymble’s Daughter?

PS: It’s a mistranslation of a character’s name from one of the Moomin books written by Tove Jansson. Her name is Mymlan in the original Swedish but somehow she ended up as the Mymble’s Daughter in one of the English translations and I’ve always loved the name.

gold-plated Thaumatrope Steampunk necklace ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: What is your most popular item or collection on Etsy?

PS: I think it’s got to be either the Thaumatrope necklace or the Decision Maker necklaces. I guess it’s because they go with just about any outfit and they’re fun to play with. My most popular pendants are the ones with cats on them. Who doesn’t love cats?

sterling silver Decision Maker necklace ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: I love your charming sketches of British birds. How has art affected your life?

PS: I’m so glad you like them! I had a bad art college experience which wrecked art for me for many years but I am just now starting to draw and paint again. I find it very soothing. Birds are my favourite subjects at the moment as they have such personality. Art is incredibly important to me and I’m so glad to have it back. I missed it!

Dunnock and Goldcrest print from Field Notes on British Birds ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: Do you do much business with Americans?

PS: Oh, so much! I’d say at least three quarters of my etsy customers are American and I would be lost without them.

Royal Wedding Special Edition Necklaces ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: I see from your profile on Etsy that you are originally from London but now live in Wales. Which is your favorite place to be?

PS: That’s quite a tricky question. I love Wales very much and have been coming here ever since I was a tiny child. It’s beautiful here and I have a quality of life I just wouldn’t be able to find in London at the moment. However, I think London will always be my favourite place to be and I don’t feel quite myself except when I am there. It’s home.

The Bird and the Empty Cage Bobby Pins ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: What are your favorite places to visit in London?

PS: I realise this may make me sound a little strange but I love the old Victorian cemeteries like Highgate Cemetery and Brompton cemetery (where they filmed some of the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film). There is also the most wonderful little toy museum called ‘Pollocks Toy Museum’ which I insist everyone must go to if they visit London. Oh, and ‘Liberty of London’ is a must.

Pirate Princess Locket ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: So does everyone in Wales really live in castles?

PS: Of course! Well, I do anyway :)

Marie Antoinette Masquerade Brooch ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: I confess, one of my goals in life is to learn how to ride a dragon. Do you think you could hook me up?

PS: If you’re ever in the area I’m sure we could work something out.

Steampunk Necklace Number VI ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

RW: This might seem like a strange question, but I need to know: What does Marmite really taste like?

PS: Hehe. It tastes a bit like thick soy sauce, I guess. Very savoury. I love it but I never know what to put it on. The Danish actually banned in a few weeks ago! Something about it being too salty. Weird.

image courtesy Peggy Seymour

Thank you ever so much for taking time to talk with us, Peggy! It’s been such a pleasure!

Be sure to check out The Mymble’s Daughter on Etsy!

Charles Dickens Quote Pendant ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

Edgar Allan Poe Cufflinks ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

Alice in Wonderland bracelet ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

Old House by the Thames bookplates ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

gold-plated lapel pin ~ image courtesy Peggy Seymour

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