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.
Princess 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.