I would be surprised if the excellent recent film The Young Victoria didn’t stir up a new wave of interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were smiled at throughout most of the twentieth century but now, with greater historical perspective, are acknowledged to have been impressive figures. Those who want to know more can do no better than to turn to Gillian Gill’s We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals (now in paperback from Ballantine Books). There were two top-of-the-line biographies of Victoria in the twentieth century, by Elizabeth Longford (1964) and Christopher Hibbert (2000), but Albert has never been well-served by biographers. Gill gives the much-misunderstood prince his full due in this intelligent and beautifully written work. (Victoria lived on as a widow until 1901, but Gill cuts off her narrative with the prince’s death in 1861.)
As a German, a prude, and an egghead, Albert was never loved by the British public as his impulsive and demonstrative wife was, but he was a man of great intellectual gifts (if he had been born in other circumstances he could easily have been a professor, engineer, scientist, or professional musician) as well as being “a veritable bureaucratic Hercules” who devoted his life to the interests of his adopted country, at least as he perceived them to be. The marriage had its troubles like any other, but it was remarkable, among royal marriages, for being both a love match and a largely successful business partnership. Among other little-known facts Gill reveals that it was probably the Prince Consort’s influence that kept England from intervening in the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy; she posits, too, that had he lived another two or three years the path that would eventually lead to World War I might have been avoided.
The most influential historian of Victoria’s own time was Thomas Babington Macaulay, author of the bestselling History of England from the Accession of James II (1848-59). Macaulay was the key formulator of the so-called “Whig interpretation” of history, extolling the British system of constitutional monarchy as established by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and connecting that system with the success and perceived historical mission of the British Empire, at that time at its zenith. John Clive produced an excellent psychobiography of Macaulay in the 1970s, but only treated the historian’s early life. Now Robert E. Sullivan’s Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) has given us a fine new study of Macaulay. Sullivan explains Macaulay’s preeminence as a narrative historian, his tremendous cultural influence, and the way that “Above all, Macaulay sold the British Empire.” Special emphasis is given to the years Macaulay spent in India, where he was instrumental in launching English as the subcontinent’s second language, created the penal code, and managed “the re-creation of its British bureaucracy for the benefit of the classically educated alumni of the ancient universities.”
Victoria and Albert tried to indoctrinate their children and grandchildren with the same liberal political values espoused by themselves and by Macaulay, with varying degrees of success. Their Prussian grandson Willy — later in life Kaiser Wilhelm II — was their most notorious failure. Another of their grandsons, Albert Victor (generally known as “Prince Eddy”), the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, looked as though he would one day become the King of England and was a subject of special scrutiny. But for him, the great expectations seemed more oppressive than inspirational. Prince Eddy possessed neither his grandfather’s drive and intellect nor the easy charm of his father (who would later become King Edward VII), and no one seemed to know quite what to do with him or his equally unpromising younger brother, George. A few years after Eddy’s early death at the age of twenty-eight, the world had all but forgotten him.
With his new biography Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had (The History Press), Andrew Cook has attempted to revive interest in this doomed young man. He succeeds in demolishing the ridiculous rumor that Prince Eddy was actually Jack the Ripper, and also, I think, proves that he was not, as alleged, involved in the Cleveland Street homosexual brothel scandal of 1889. But Cook’s contention that had Eddy lived he would have ushered in “a profoundly different style of monarchy from that of his younger brother, who ultimately succeeded as George V” is wild conjecture and most unlikely. Prince Eddy was a sweet-natured boy but clearly no live wire, and Cook provides no evidence that as king he would have differed much from his brother, who in fact did a perfectly respectable job. Still, Cook’s tale is fun to read and provides a new look at late Victorian royal circles.
The end of the long Victorian era in 1901, with the succession of the queen’s son Bertie as Edward VII, coincided with a radical societal shift. Phillip Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 (Basic Books) gives the reader a superb understanding of what it felt like to live in that time, a time in some ways not so very different from our own. “Then as now,” Blom writes, “rapid changes in technology, globalization, communication technologies and changes in the social fabric dominated conversations and newspaper articles; then as now, cultures of mass consumption stamped their mark on the time; then as now, the feeling of living in an accelerating world, of speeding into the unknown, was overwhelming.”
The period before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 is typically portrayed as idyllic, a civilized old world about to collapse into chaos, but as Blom shows us, “To most people who lived around 1900 this nostalgic view with its emphasis on solidity and grace would have come as a surprise.” Blom gives us a detailed view of politicians and heads-of-state like Wilhelm II, Clemenceau, Trotsky, Lloyd George, and Nicholas II of Russia, and of artists like Wagner, Kandinsky, Marinetti, Klimt, Lartigue, Nijinsky, Thomas Mann, and Richard Strauss; he describes the period’s breathtaking scientific and technological advances and the often radical changes they effected in everyday life. Blom’s account — a model of Macaulayan “narrative history” — easily demonstrates that to those who lived in it, pre-war Europe seemed terrifyingly modern.
Taking a look at some of the royal characters in Blom’s narrative — the swaggering Wilhelm II, the blinkered workaholic Franz Josef, the hopeless Nicholas II, the playboy king, Edward VII — it is unsurprising that so many of these degenerate dynasties collapsed during and directly after World War I. Leslie Carroll’s Notorious Royal Marriages: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny, and Desire (New American Library) provides even more historical ammunition. Carroll doesn’t dig terribly deep and there is certainly no new material here, but the volume makes for agreeable bedside or bathside reading. Some of the marriages are genuinely notorious. England’s Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, for instance, had one of the most spectacularly dysfunctional unions of all time. A few centuries later, the efforts of the disreputable King George IV to divorce his equally disreputable wife Caroline of Brunswick presented a gruesome spectacle to a horrified Britain, the memory of which did much to enhance the popularity of George’s virtuous niece Victoria. The show put on by a more recent English royal couple, Charles and Diana, was not much more edifying. And Edward VIII (after his abdication the Duke of Windsor) and his American wife Wallis could only be described as trashy characters. Some of the marriages Carroll includes, though, like those of Nicholas II and Alexandra, or of Victoria and Albert themselves, are notorious only for being love matches — rare enough, among royal couples, to raise more than a few eyebrows.