Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: Victoria

Victoria: A Life
A. N. Wilson

[That's Queen Victoria, in case you were wondering. Not, say, Victoria's Secret. Crossovers are left to the imagination of the reader.]

The reviewers loved this book. I liked it quite a bit. I didn't quite love it.

The good parts are easy to identify. Victoria is very well written: easy to read, sometimes witty, quick-moving, and thorough. It has a large cast of characters and generally manages to keep them straight, which is really hard and thoroughly admirable. It's sometimes insightful and always entertaining.

Thematically, one of Victoria's strengths is how thoroughly it brings out the connection between Victoria and the royal breeding population of Europe--and, especially, Germany. She herself was three-quarters German, her husband was German, her daughter married the son of King-subsequently-Kaiser Wilhelm I, she had native-level fluency in the language, German was often spoken around her household . . . honestly, a mid-19th-century observer who heard that the 20th century would feature two major European wars could have been pardoned for predicting that they'd involve England and Germany as allies. This is not new--readers of Robert Massie, for example, will know the particulars--but it's well presented.

A second major thematic strand involves what we might term the domestication of the crown--Britain's transformation, over the course of the 19th century, into a modern democratic/constitutional monarchy. Wilson's analysis here is mildly toasted with academic Marxism, in the sense that he sees everything through the lens of class:
. . . Melbourne and all the Whigs would have fought to the death to defend themselves against radicals, plebeians, trades unions--anything which diminished their power in any way. Their only reason for siding with the liberals was self-preservation.
Fair enough; but I don't think that Wilson's case is as strong here. He wants to argue that Victoria was indispensable to the process. By his own precepts, the changes in power and in wealth that occurred between 1837 and 1901 made change inevitable. Victoria's role, while certainly not passive, doesn't seem to me to have been crucial in shaping it.

Conversely, Wilson doesn't give Victoria quite enough credit for something that really was attributable to her personally: she made the monarchy Respectable (capital R intended). Nowadays people tend to think of royalty as a thoroughly bourgeois institution, and act shocked when Prince X or Princess Y does something even mildly scandalous. Royalty, it is now thought, should confine itself to its traditional duties of smiling, waving, supporting worthy causes, wearing funny hats, opening shopping centers, etc. Anyone who knows anything about European history should recognize how absolutely wildly novel this idea is! Victoria's predecessor, William IV, cohabited with an actress for twenty years and ten illegitimate children, and that wasn't even especially scandalous. Wilson touches on this facet of QV's reign, but he leaves it only half-explored.

Wilson also has some authorial, um, idiosyncracies. He has a tendency, particularly in the earlier chapters, to wander away from his topic into some side issue, and thence into another side issue, before (sometimes) zooming abruptly back to his main point. There I was, for instance, reading peacefully about Lord Palmerston; then, suddenly, I found myself deep in the background of the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter. 

Finally, Wilson is writing for insiders. He refers to issues, interpretations, characters in abbreviated form, assuming that his readers already know what he's talking about. On the micro level, he doesn't think it worth his while to translate quotes from French into English, and he loves his offhand literary-historical references. On the macro level, he has a tendency to explain how he's affirming or reviewing some conventional historical view, which is only interesting if you actually knew already what that view was.

So I had a few reservations. At the same time, I want to emphasize that this was a spiffing effort, well done that man, top hole, and all in all a jolly good read. That makes up for any number of sins.

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