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Victoria: A Life
Wilson, A. N.
Penguin Press, 2014
656 pp., 36.00
One day in April 1838, the writer Thomas Carlyle saw the "poor little Queen," then eighteen, passing through London in an open carriage. In a letter to his mother he praised Victoria's healthy appearance but noted that she appeared "timid, anxious, almost frightened; for the people looked at her in perfect silence." After her death in 1901, Henry James wrote, "I mourn the safe and motherly old middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous Scotch-plaid shawl."
The beginning and end of a reign; a journey from callow youth to protective grande dame. On that journey, Victoria became the mother of nine and grandmother of 42 children, and not only Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland but also the matriarch of royal Europe. The biographer and novelist A. N. Wilson gave her only a cursory glance in his 2003 bestseller The Victorians, his main focus being on her subjects and her country's social, political, and economic transitions and upheavals. Now, in Victoria: A Life, he devotes a whole book to a woman he numbers "among the most fascinating and self-contradictory of all British monarchs."
Wilson opens not with a birth but a background. In a chapter amusingly entitled "Zoology" (after Karl Marx's assertion that "the secret of nobility is zoology"), he unravels the tangle of 19th-century royal lines, revealing the interconnectedness of the international monarchical systems and Victoria's dynasty-building forbears. Although her father, Prince Edward, died shortly after her birth, Wilson questions Victoria's claim that she had a "melancholy childhood." Growing up in Kensington Palace, she was cossetted by her German mother and various female attendants and played with a half-brother and half-sister. She developed a talent as a watercolorist and, more important, a candid and lively journal-writer.
Adolescence brought a crucial ...