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'Queen Victoria' paints a full portrait of a complex woman

Historian Lucy Worsley offers a lively take on one of the most influential women of the 19th century. 

Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life By Lucy Worsley St. Martin's Press 432 pp.

Queen Victoria appears to be having a moment. With the breakout success of Julia Baird’s 2016 biography and the popular BBC series it inspired – Rufus Sewell’s swoon-worthy Lord Melbourne is to fans what Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy was in the 1990s – Victoria has finally transcended the image of a dour old lady in a high-necked collar. Perhaps, too, a newfound interest in powerful, even (gasp!) complicated women has made her ripe for a makeover. 

In Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, historian Lucy Worsley chooses a day-in-the-life structure, emphasizing Victoria’s domestic world. Detailing 24 days over the course of Victoria’s 64-year reign, she traces her evolution from girl to woman and sovereign. As chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, Worsley is no stranger to such terrain and excels at describing decor and dresses, unspooling their personal and political significance. Fashion and furniture aren’t my thing, so hats off to her for making even Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s dining room chairs interesting.

Her thesis is that Victoria’s very ordinariness, and skill in casting herself as such, was key to her popular appeal. Her knack for humanizing herself was an innate skill more politically potent than the intellectual rigor of her husband, Prince Albert. From rejecting royal robes for her wedding in favor of a simple white gown, or her crown in favor of a bonnet for her Diamond Jubilee, Victoria communicated to her subjects that she was one of them. In her bestselling Highland journals, descriptions of family picnics and candor about her grief over Albert’s death gave the public a sense of intimate acquaintance with their queen.

Hewing to the notion that women belonged in the domestic sphere, Victoria was hardly a protofeminist, yet her reign brought a transformation in the sense of women’s capacities in the public sphere, or so Worsley concludes. 

Whether or not this is true, Victoria was a mass of contradictions, largely due to the role into which she was thrust. She was stubborn in her views, yet only too pleased to be guided like a good Victorian wife by key men in her life – first, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, four decades her elder, who was devoted to her, and then her husband, Albert. She expected deference, but her confidants were those unafraid to contradict her, like future Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson, or her Scottish servant John Brown, whose closeness with the queen provoked scandals. 

The most powerful woman in Europe, and immensely popular, she was regularly under attack by those in her inner circles. Theories of women’s inferiority were a handy weapon for anyone with an interest in undercutting her, Worsley notes. When Victoria was a young woman about to ascend the throne, the ambitious Sir John Conroy, her mother’s companion, badgered Victoria to appoint him as adviser, without success. And one member of Parliament expressed the common view that “ ‘There would be no advantage’ ... in having ‘a totally inexperienced Girl of 18 just out of a strict Guardianship to govern an Empire.” Yet Victoria’s poise upended the notion that young women were innately unstable. Such attacks resurfaced regularly: In midlife, beliefs about post-menopausal
women’s “sexual insatiability” fueled insinuations about Brown, and years later her personal physician, Dr. James Reid, due to his rivalry with the queen’s favorite, Abdul Karim, threatened to call her sanity into question. 

Karim’s rapid ascent from waiter to private secretary and his foreignness as an Indian Muslim set servants and courtiers alike against him (sound familiar?). Reid went so far as to accuse him of spying. After Victoria’s death, the family expelled Karim from England, burning their letters – like her family’s “editing” of Victoria’s journals, a tragedy for historians.

Worsley is admirably evenhanded, not shying away from portraying her subject in an unflattering light. An account of Victoria’s attempt to play the white savior with Sikh Maharajah Duleep Singh reveals her investment in building an empire and also her insensitivity toward the deposed prince. Likewise, an episode with lady-in-waiting Flora Hastings – who Victoria unjustly accused of adultery with Conroy – exposed a certain callousness. Victoria banned Hastings from court until she submitted to a painful and humiliating examination by physicians to determine the truth of her condition. Worsley is just as unsparing in her account of what Victoria’s maternal selfishness cost her youngest, Beatrice.

Worsley offers little political history, so certain sections may be difficult to follow for those not well versed in the period, and the jumps between chapters can feel choppy. That said, her book is valuable in offering a lively new angle into one of the most influential women of the 19th century. 

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) and a regular contributor.

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