As you may remember from last year’s post about the History Books on the Keeper Shelf, As a child I had a serious Queen Victoria obsession. Other children were obsessed with My Little Pony, Lego or Beanie Babies, but I had a thing for the Empress of India. I could recite all her children’s full names in order. Where other kids wanted to go to Alton Towers as a treat, I wanted to go to Osborne or Frogmore (and my parents took me to both, bless their hearts). One of my favourite dressing up games was to be her eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, with my little sister taking on the role of Princess Beatrice. I think you’re getting an idea of the scale of the problem. Anyway over time it developed into my love of history and the history degree that I enjoyed so much. These days I love a good nonfiction history book as well as historical fiction and I’m particularly susceptible to books about Queen Victoria and her family.
Earlier in the year, I read Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, which I was hoping would be right up my street as it was billed as an examination of her role in using her granddaughters’ marriages to exert international power and influence. Sadly for me, it was more a of a group biography of the various grandchildren and what happened to them after her death than an examination of her machinations. It would make a great introduction to the subject, but if, like me, you already have an interest in the subject, there wasn’t a lot of new information here. It did get me thinking though about other books that I’ve read around the subject and reminded me to fill in a few gaps and read some books I had on the list and then it spawned this post. There’s a little bit of cross over from the aforementioned Keeper Shelf post, but there are some new books on the list too. So, if you’ve read Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking and want to know more here, are my suggestions (which I hope would work equally well if you’re just interested in the subject).
If you want to read a group biography about the principal granddaughters, my choice would be Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule, which examines the intertwined lives of the five of the granddaughters who went on to become queens of other European countries and gives you a good jumping off point if you want to find out more. Spoiler: they don’t all get happy endings. You’ll probably have come across one of these before – Alexandra, the last Tsarina of Russia. If you end up with a to find out more about the Romanov’s there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Romanovs, which I’m still working my way through on audiobook. I’m still only in the nineteenth century and I can vouch for the fact that it’s incredibly gruesome well before you get to the execution in Yekaterinburg. I listen to it while I’m out running, because it makes me go faster listening to all the terrible ways the Romanov’s found to kill people.
I wrote about Hannah Pakula’s An Uncommon Woman back in that Keeper Shelf post, and if you can get hold of it and want to find out what was going on in Prussia in the second half of the nineteenth century it’s still worth a read and is marginally more cheerful than a book about Kaiser Wilhelm would be. But only marginally – it’s still a story of what might have been and ominous portents of what is to come.
If you want to find out how Edward VII turned into the Uncle of Europe, but in a light and fun way, Stephen Clarke’s Dirty Bertie shows how the playboy prince turned into a shrewd manoevering diplomat who was able to help keep the peace in Europe during his lifetime, and why it all fell apart after he wasn’t there to hold it together any more.
And if you don’t mind me breaking my own rules about repeating authors too frequently, and want some fiction about one of the granddaughters, there’s Laurie Graham’s The Grand Duchess of Nowhere, about Ducky, aka Princess Victoria Melita, one of the daughters of Prince Alfred – who comes up in passing in Cadbury’s book, but who actually had a fascinating life, even if she didn’t marry a king. I reviewed it for Novelicous back in the day, but it’s like having a drink with an indiscreet, drunken elderly auntie. I still need to find a proper biography of Ducky to find out how much of it is accurate.
Still sitting on my to read list, hoping that I’ll get to them one day are The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley and Three Emperors by Miranda Carter as we head into the twentieth century. If you’ve got any more books that I should add to the list, let me know in the comments!
And now for the links. I got my copy of Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking via NetGalley but it is out now in hardback and Kindle. Born to Rule is harder to get hold of – there’s no Kindle edition and it’s 10 years old – but there are reasonably priced secondhand editions available on Amazon and Abebooks. Dirty Bertie is available on Kindle and is still in print in paperback so you may be able to find it in an actual bookshop as well as on Amazon.