Monday, 8 February 2021

Review: Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, Lucy Worsley (2018)

Despite being “the Secret Victorianist” and running a blog dedicated to all things nineteenth-century literature and culture, I’ve not spent much time reading about Queen Victoria herself. So I was excited to read Lucy Worlsey’s unconventional biography, which looks at the life of this influential monarch through the lens of twenty-four specific days.

Worsley examines Victoria as a daughter—the winner of the so-called “baby race,” which saw the children of George III scrambling to produce a royal heir. Next, she focuses on Victoria as a wife, from her first impressions of her cousin Albert to the early years of their marriage, to its tragic end. And, finally, she turns to Victoria as she is now best remembered—as the dour and unsmiling widow, who has come to symbolise the age she in some ways defined. 

In her introduction, Worlsey writes that popular culture has given us “two Victorias, bearing no clear relationship to each other”—the young and the old. She tries to draw the through-line between the two, although the biography’s premise naturally leads to jumps through time, especially following Albert’s death.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its readable prose (this isn’t the sort of non-fiction read you have to slog through!) and the wide appeal I think it would have. There are enough tantalising details in here to please a dedicated Victorianist, but knowledge of the period, or the British Royal Family, is not a prerequisite. 

I also appreciated Worsley’s candour in her introduction where she answers the question biographers must get tired of hearing. Does she like her human subject? She writes: “The answer is yes, initially hesitant, but ultimately resounding.” 

This should clue you in that this biography isn’t going to deliver a critique of monarchy, or Britain’s colonial activity under Victoria’s rule. Worsley approaches this book with scholarship, but also with the reverence dedicated royal watchers accord to The Firm today. Page time is given to wedding dresses, pageantry, and Christmas traditions, as well as to British and global politics. And, whatever you might think of them, Worsley gives us a convincing argument that these trappings form an important part of Victoria’s most enduring legacy.

If you’ve enjoyed Netflix’s The Crown and want to understand the woman who set the stage for the current queen the century before, this could be a good read for you. And, if you know the broad strokes of Victoria’s life, this will offer new, very human insights. But, be warned, if you lean more republican than monarchist, you might want to stay away. 

Do you have any recommendations of books for me to read and review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to read my (Victorian-set) novel? Bronte’s Mistress, the story of the “bad woman who corrupted Branwell Bronte” is available in hardcover, ebook, or audiobook now. And make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

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