by Carolly Erickson
Review by Cathleen Myers
1997 is the one-hundredth Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and Carolly Erickson’s book is a well-timed tribute to the petite queen who ruled over one of the most extensive empires in world history. If our readers want a quick, readable summary of Victoria’s life and times before PEERS’ Music Hall Singers’ Ball, this biography would be a good choice. Ms. Erickson, an American author with Bay Area roots, is a lively and entertaining prose stylist whose Elizabethan scholarship has been praised even by British historians.
Erickson argues, credibly, that Victoria and Albert’s "ideal" marriage was far from idyllic and was on the verge of collapse by the time of the prince’s final illness. The author’s entirely credible thesis is that Queen Victoria, while devastated by Prince Albert’s death, emerged from her widowhood a much stronger person and eventually realized that she was the stronger of the two. She argues that Victoria gradually emerged from her Widow of Windsor phase and settled down to serious government business much earlier than her critics realized.
But Ms. Erickson, who has also written entertaining but flawed books about Queen Elizabeth I, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Marie Antoinette, and the English Regency, is a generalist, not a specialist. A serious Victorian social historian, indeed even an amateur enthusiast, will find a number of historical errors in her new biography: Anyone who has danced the athletic and balletic quadrilles of the early 19th century will smile at her description of the quadrilles as "slow and stately." (They were an aerobic workout!) Her costume knowledge is also sketchy, and she repeats an insulting remark about the 14 year old Victoria’s bad whist playing without seeming to realize that whist is a game of strategy that continues to baffle adults much older than 14! Even Victoria’s small stature - just under 5 feet - was not unusual for a Victorian woman (Charlotte Bronte was 4’ 9"!), nor was plumpness a serious handicap to a Victorian girl with a nice bustline, as Prime Minister Melbourne tactfully observed to the young queen.
While Erickson is certainly correct that Victoria’s education as a teenager was inadequate preparation for a future stateswoman, she seems unaware that most young princes and peers were also superficially educated. They were expected to learn "on the job" - as Victoria herself did (Prince Albert’s Renaissance Man education in science, politics, economics, and world literature was highly unusual for a 19th century prince but he was an unusually gifted teenager). By the standards of the time, Victoria was actually a very accomplished girl, fluent in three languages, skilled in ballet in spite of her extra pounds, a genuinely talented artist and a well-trained musician and singer. A pupil of superstar Luigi Lablache, Victoria developed a silvery soprano voice with a professional actress’ projection. Felix Mendelsohn admired her singing; And even the socialist George Bernard Shaw admired the beauty of her speaking voice, which her early operatic training preserved into old age. In the end, Victoria’s superior social skills made her a much more effective ruler than her stiff and pedantic Consort.
It’s also hard to accept Erickson’s comment about Victoria’s "shallow aesthetic sense." Victoria may have lacked Albert’s intellectual prowess, but he, after all, was the one who designed the Balmoral plaid "of lilac, red and black on a grey background" which still makes visitors to the Castle nauseous.
Surprisingly, Erickson is rather hard on the sinners of the period: Palmerston, for all his sexual imprudence, was a clever politician whose mistrust of Prince Albert was motivated by his fear that the patriotic German prince would leak state secrets to Prussia (Pam and Albert eventually found they could work well together but Erickson doesn’t seem aware of this). The charming and popular Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, is portrayed in Erickson’s book as an almost subhuman sensualist and an ungrateful son (She herself marvels at his "sudden" transformation into the competent and respected King Edward VII) while Princess Louise is condemned as "an oddity" and "difficult" - though the source of her frustration is never discussed: Louise was trapped in a loveless marriage to a flagrantly unfaithful husband who preferred handsome young guardsmen to his wife at a time when divorce was not an option for a princess. Nor does Erickson mention that Victoria turned against even her "perfect" daughter Beatrice and refused to speak to her for six months after her engagement to Prince Henry of Battenberg was announced - even though Beatrice and Henry had already agreed to live in the Queen’s household.
By all means, read this book - but check out Erickson’s original sources and read them as well to get a more balanced vision of the age.
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