Who was Queen Victoria? A little old lady, potato-like in appearance, dressed in everlasting black? Or a passionate young princess, a romantic heroine with a love of dancing? There is also a third Victoria – a woman who was also a remarkably successful queen, one who invented a new role for the monarchy. She found a way of being a respected sovereign in an age when people were deeply uncomfortable with having a woman on the throne.
As well as a queen, Victoria was a daughter, a wife, a mother and a widow, and at each of these steps along life’s journey she was expected to conform to what society demanded of a woman. On the face of it, she was deeply conservative. But if you look at her actions rather than her words, she was in fact tearing up the rule book for how to be female.
By looking at the detail of twenty-four days of her life, through diaries, letters and more, we can see Victoria up close and personal. Examining her face-to-face, as she lived hour to hour, allows us to see, and to celebrate, the contradictions at the heart of British history’s most recognisable woman.
As Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley gets to see and do things the rest of us can only dream about so it is hardly surprising she knows the life of Queen Victoria inside out. Since so much has been written about Queen Victoria, it is hard to find anything new to say but Worsley takes a different approach and presents the life of Victoria through the lens of twenty-four specific days. The reasons behind Victoria’s birth have been well-documented and Worsley explores the genuine fondness that developed between her parents before Edward, Duke of Kent’s death of pneumonia. It is sad to read how desperately happy Edward was to be her father yet cruelly denied of seeing her fulfil her destiny.
Victoria’s accounts of her lonely childhood are well documented in her famous diaries but Worsley presents evidence that the little girl’s early years were not as austere as portrayed. Edward spent a fortune refurbishing the rooms at Kensington Palace which were bright and colourful, and the little princess had all the comforts she could have desired. However, she was deprived of companionship of her own age and that would be true for the rest of her life. Worsley paints a rather sad image of a lonely child growing into a lonely woman.
When Victoria marries Albert, Worsley contrasts their different approaches to life with Albert being more methodical and Victoria more emotional. In Worsley’s opinion, it is Victoria’s emotional intelligence that helps her connect with her people even in the dark days of her widowhood. Albert doesn’t escape Worsley’s criticism for infantilising his wife and making her dependent on him to the extent she couldn’t see a way to go without him after his death. It was Albert rather than Victoria who was responsible for the prudish atmosphere at court as he disapproved of anything likely to evoke enjoyment. Victoria’s numerous pregnancies also allowed him to take over more of her royal duties since he believed he was better equipped to deal with them.
Albert doesn’t come out of this book looking very good, however the moments leading up to his death and Victoria’s subsequent anguish are as heart-wrenching as ever. The book doesn’t focus very much on the children, other than how much of a disappointment Bertie was to them and how his sexual exploits were abhorrent to Albert. Bertie’s adventures would intimately lead him to being blamed for his father’s death and create a rift with his mother that would never entirely heal.
The presentation of Victoria’s life in twenty-four days works really well and it offered a fresh look over well-trodden ground. Although, I think her story probably needs more than twenty-four days to really do it justice because there is such a lot to pack in to such a short time.