Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

Becoming QueenBecoming Queen by Kate Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where I got the book: purchased online. Amazon? I've had it for a while.

This is, in a sense, a two-part book, and the blurb is pretty deceptive. Fortunately I do not remove stars for publisher shenanigans. From the blurb you'd think this book is all about Queen Victoria whereas in fact 100+ of the 346 pages of text are devoted to her far less well-known cousin Charlotte, daughter of George IV (better known as the Prince Regent) and, during her short lifetime, heir-presumptive to the British throne. If she had lived to become Queen, Victoria would probably be a minor footnote in history and we could be talking about the Charlottian age (OK, probably some variation on Carolingian). Charlotte and Leopold instead of Victoria and Albert; I would like to spend some time developing that idea. (Leopold, interestingly enough, eventually became the first King of the Belgians.)

I'm not complaining about the time spent learning about Charlotte, because this lively soap-opera of a dual biography is exactly what I needed to understand a vital point in British history; the transition between the reign of the Hanoverians with their (not all at once--well, not always all at once) dull, incompetent, vice-ridden, hard-drinking, insane, eccentric, greedy and peculiar German princes and the new age of propriety and pantaloons we call the Victorian era. I had always thought of Victoria as the last of the Hanoverians but in fact she was never a Hanoverian ruler; under Salic Law a female could not inherit the Hanoverian title so it passed to Victoria's uncle the Duke of Cumberland. Even that's not as simple as it sounds, but that's another story... Suffice it to say that if Victoria had died before she ensured the succession so very effectively (nine children), the British and German succession would have got all mixed up again so thanks for all the childbearing, Ma'am. And George V got rid of all the British monarchy's German titles during World War I and renamed his family Windsor...

But I digress. The point is that the period between George III and Victoria wasn't an easy one for Britons longing for dynastic stability and Kate Williams has rightly fastened on it as a wonderful story, especially as two of the main players were young girls with parental issues. Charlotte's parents hated each other and the closer she got to the throne, the more they began to battle to get control of her. Victoria lost her father at an early age and fought throughout her teenage years to get out from under her power-hungry mother and her "special advisor" (ahem.)

The result is a fantastic soap-opera that would stand up to the Tudors any day and Kate Williams does a wonderful job with it, keeping the threads of the story in front of the reader so that I never lost track. She also covers the courtship and very early years of Victoria and Albert, which is a great story in itself. My appetite is whetted for much, much more about this period in British history, which also covers the century when Britain went from being a mostly rural, slightly backward (culturally speaking) society to the industrial and cultural superpower it was by the dawn of WWI. Suggestions for further reading are very welcome.

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