Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

This is not the book that I expected it to be – it’s more in some ways but less in others.

The title, the image on the front cover, the words on the back cover – they all suggest that this is a book about the early years and the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. And it is, but there’s a great deal of ground to cover before the story gets there, because this story goes much further back.

It tells the story of two young women who might have been Queen. Each was her presumptive to the British throne, each seemed likely to ascend to that throne, but only one of them did. And she was only born because the other did not.

It’s an amazing true story – or it might be truer to say a series of stories – very well told, in a style that is both chatty and informative. It’s clear that the storyteller knows and loves her subject, and that she is eager to share what she knows.

2785115Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in 1796 to Prince George – later Prince Regent, later George IV – and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but seeing few other children, and seeing her parents very rarely.

And athough it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, she was given little education or preparation for the role she was expected to be called upon to play.

Charlotte was born into an age when the large, profligate royal family was poorly regarded by its subjects. But she was popular; the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. Her dissolute, spendthrift father  hated that, and so he did his level best to keep her away from the public gaze, shut up in a grand mansion run by his own trusted servants. .

She grew up to be spoiled and wilful; but she also grew up to be vibrant, energetic, and very good at managing people.

When her father tried to marry her off to the unattractive and unappealing Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. Charlotte made some missteps, but eventually she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who she described as  “a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.”

Charlotte was eager to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.

The young couple were married on May 2, 1816, and then moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, where for the first time in her life Charlotte was secure and happy. Very soon she was expecting a child.

On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labour, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, she followed him to the grave.

Public grief was overwhelming. And after the Prince Regent and his six brothers, there was no heir to the throne. George  III had ore than fifty grandchildren, but not one was legitimate.

Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several the of the sons of George III. Mistresses and morganic  wives were cast aside. The Duke of Kent, a lifelong military man,  set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, who would be named Alexandrina Victoria.

The Duke died before his daughter was a year old.

Her mother kept her close, and kept her away from the world, determined that she would reign as her daughter’s regent.

William IV – her uncle, who had come to the throne after the death of George IV – steeled himself to live long enough for his niece to come of age, so that she could rule without a regent.

And her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece; and he spent years groomed his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.

That story rolls on until Victoria is a wife and mother and twenty-two years old – the age that Charlotte was when she died.

The telling of this whole extraordinary story is wonderful; it’s full of detail and it is clearly underpinned by a great deal of research.

I loved that it made history a very human story.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t highlight the parallels between Charlotte and Victoria, and that the author seemed more interested in comparisons with the present day. I was disappointed with that lack of analysis generally, and that momentum of the story overtook almost everything else.

I was left to do all of my own thinking, and I loved doing that but I couldn’t help thinking that I shouldn’t have had to do quite so muc hwork.

And yet I was engaged from start to finish by a story I already knew; I had a lovely time reading, and I am eager to read more about many people and events that this books touched upon.

16 responses

    • Charlotte’s story is very interesting – and there are parallels to be drawn with other royal ladies. This book tells her story very well, and I’ve spotted another book about her – ‘Charlotte and Leopold’ – in my library catalogue and added it to my long list of books to read one day.

  1. That’s a fascinating story – a shame there seemed to be too much narrative and not much analysis. A good starting point for exploring these areas, though – does it have a good bibliography?

  2. It sounds great but I don’t like it when I get to a book with the wrong expectations. In this case – astory that starts so much earlier. But it’s wonderful when you can tell how much an author liked her/his subject.

  3. Hm, I have so many biographies on my to-read shelf but it sounds like I should add this one. I knew the vague outline of the story but not the details. It sounds wonderfully engaging though odd that the author didn’t point out parallels between Victoria and Charlotte. Since you have pointed that out I can look for them myself.

  4. I was fascinated when I read this because although I had read other biographies of Queen Victoria I had never really understand how she came to be Queen. If you’re interested, I stumbled upon Janice Hadlow’s book about the family life of George Illl and his Charlotte and it was very good. The unfortunate family dynamics of this family go back several generations!

    • I spotted Janice Hadlow’s book in your sidebar, and I plan to order it in the library, because I can’t work out how the Hanovers got to the position they were in at the start of this book.

  5. I know very little about Charlotte so I would probably find this book interesting. It’s fascinating to think of how different things could have been if she had lived. The cover does seem misleading, though – it could have been made clearer that it’s not a book solely about Victoria.

    • I think you’d like this, Helen. I knew that Victoria came to the death because Charlotte died, but I didn’t know that she was born after – and in consequence of – Charlotte’s death. I suspect the publishers thought that a book about Victoria was more marketable, but as I knew most of her story quite well as was much more interested to learn more about Charlotte.

  6. I have this book and read it a couple of years ago. Mine, published in the US, is entitled Becoming Queen Victoria and has a different cover. I remember liking it quite a lot. Very good review! I’d forgotten some of the things you mentioned.

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