Monday, February 1, 2010
We two - Gillian Gill
Gillian Gill’s biography of Victoria & Albert deals exclusively with their relationship with each other. It ends with Albert’s death, with only a brief account of the rest of Victoria’s life. Their childhoods were remarkably similar & equally unhappy. Victoria’s father died when she was a baby. Albert’s mother was disgraced by an affair & never saw her son again after she was banished from Coburg when he was only a boy. They were destined for each other by their families so it became inevitable that they would marry. It’s remarkable that their marriage was a success. It was an arranged marriage that became a love match. Gill fills in the background of life in England & Coburg, the circumstances that formed character & had such an impact on their family relationships. The personalities of Victoria – ardent, impulsive, stubborn & emotional - & Albert – measured, pragmatic & equally as stubborn – come through very strongly. Victoria’s fatherless childhood predisposed her to find a father figure in her Uncle Leopold, her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, & then Albert. Albert submitted to the dynastic plans of Leopold & Baron Stockmar, his tutor & arch intriguer. Although he was never really accepted in England, there was a lot of suspicion & jealousy of the Queen’s German husband, Albert revolutionised & modernised the Royal household & steadied Victoria’s impulsive temper so that she gradually matured into a respected figure. His obsessive appetite for work & study was his downfall as his fits of depression & gloom intensified & his refusal to give in to illness led to his death from typhoid at the age of only 42. One of the interesting aspects of this biography is that Gill shows how very much the aristocracy disliked Albert. He didn’t enjoy the Society & balls, dinners, country house weekends bored him. Victoria had loved socialising when she first became Queen after a lonely, restricted childhood. As Albert became the centre of her life, she gradually withdrew from society, becoming the middle class wife & mother that suited Albert’s vision of a respected royal family. After the excesses of Victoria’s uncles, George IV & William IV, Albert wanted no scandal. There wasn’t much enjoyment for the members of the Court & Household in the stilted after dinner conversation & amateur musical evenings preferred by Albert. The royal couple’s love of the country & their holidays at Osborne & Balmoral estranged them from their courtiers even more, although the middle classes loved to see a royal family made in its own image. Albert comes across as a man who wanted to do the right thing but too often, as in his treatment of the Prince of Wales or his interference in foreign policy, he made a mess of it. Victoria could see no wrong in anything he did or said & years after his death, his wishes were law to her. She used her genuine grief at his death to selfishly remake her life to suit herself, from keeping his room exactly as it was when he died, to rebuking her family if they forgot an anniversary or allowed themselves some enjoyment, even many years after Albert’s death. Gill sees the public outpouring of grief at Albert’s death as an expression of guilt that Albert had not been loved in his lifetime. For many years, the only public engagements Victoria undertook were to unveil a statue or monument to her dead husband. We Two is a fascinating, exhaustively researched picture of a marriage, a partnership. Gill must be one of the few modern biographers who has read the 5 volume biography of Albert commissioned by Victoria after his death. My only quibble is one of style. Gill constantly refers to Victoria Kent & Albert Coburg in the early chapters & goes on in this style for other royals throughout. I don’t know whether it’s correct or not, but it irritated me.