Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

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Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The Queen is Victoria, and this is partly biography, partly a study of the British royal family from the 'Hanoverian family succession crisis' to the early years of Victoria's reign and motherhood.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 978-0099451822

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It's a story which has been told by many authors during the last century. The Victorian age, or at any rate the woman who gave her name to the era, came about largely if not wholly because of a crisis of sorts among King George III's family. By the time his seven surviving sons reached middle age, they had managed to produce one legitimate child between them, namely Princess Charlotte. Her unexpected death, and the need for at least some if not all of the others to do their dynastic duty and produce an heir or two, resulted in an undignified mass scramble to the altar. Edward, Duke of Kent won the lottery. It was he and his wife, a widow with two small children by her first marriage, whose daughter Victoria became the saviour of the royal succession.

Kate Williams brings a slightly different approach to the tale by beginning with the disastrous wedding of Charlotte's parents, the fastidious, extravagant and selfish George, Prince of Wales and his loud-mouthed, evil-smelling, badly-dressed tomboy cousin Caroline of Brunswick. They stayed together just long enough to produce the hapless Charlotte before separating, a process which culminated in her mother's undignified odyssey around the continent and his father's ill-fated attempt to divorce her. The author takes us through Charlotte's brief life and death in childbirth after producing a stillborn son, followed by the birth, childhood and accession of Victoria, culminating in her marriage to Albert and the birth of the first two of their children.

A brief epilogue recounts the celebrations for her golden and diamond jubilees in 1887 and 1897, an analysis of her constitutional status and the diminution of the sovereign's power as a ruler during her reign, and the sobering observation that long-lived female sovereigns may serve their country well, but do not make life easy for their heirs.

As the reference notes prove, there is nothing really new in this book – all the relevant archives have surely been mined extensively by earlier biographers, and I for one doubt if there is anything more to reveal. Nevertheless she tells the story well, and her analysis of character is excellent throughout. I would take issue mildly with her judgment of the reign of William IV as 'appalling', but that's only a small quibble. All biographies of the sometimes risible Hanoverians have their lighter side, and to take but one example, she paints a delightful picture of the future George IV, his brothers and several senior politicians, celebrating one of his birthdays in suitable style, by becoming hopelessly drunk. Her description of the scene, not least the Duke of York trying to sit up at table by grasping a well-laden tablecloth with inevitable results, conjures up visions not far removed from vintage Laurel and Hardy.

At the same time she deals thoroughly yet readably with the underlying political issues of the day. She makes the very valid point that Victoria's widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent and her unscrupulous secretary, Sir John Conroy, were foolishly backing the Whigs in retaliation against William IV's Tory sympathies, and thus inadvertently supporting the process that would ensure the diminution of Victoria's power to that of constitutional monarch. The historical and biographical elements are balanced well, and she certainly succeeds in bringing the characters to life.

For more on Queen Victoria, her family and life at her court, why not try The Queen's Knight by Martyn Downer, or The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison.

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