'Victoria: A Life' illustrates the remarkable power of a single personality

Biographer A.N. Wilson touches on a number of ways Victoria's life and image shaped the modern British monarchy and government.

Victoria: A Life By A.N. Wilson The Penguin Press 632 pp.

Victoria: A Life targets something of a false premise: the idea that many people, if they think of Queen Victoria at all, consider her to be a largely inactive figurehead. And yet it's difficult to read British history from any period during or following Victoria's reign without being buffeted by the consequences of her time as monarch. From the tangled but largely functional relationship between the royal family and Parliament to the meteoric ascent and eventual fading of the British Empire, Victoria is a central figure.

Biographer A.N. Wilson is no stranger to larger-than-life subjects, having written about Tolstoy, Dante, C.S. Lewis, and (as a bit of a topper) Jesus Christ. His ability to manage both length of manuscript and depth of analysis serve him well as he chronicles the life and times of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India. The period spans 1819-1901, among the most eventful years in British history, encompassing pivotal wars, rebellions, annexations, and industrial advances, all of which collectively laid the groundwork not just for the modern United Kingdom, but for the Commonwealth as a whole.

Much of the book is refracted through Victoria's intensely loving marriage to Prince Albert. Her marriage was a relationship that allowed the young queen to defer many of the responsibilities of state to her engaged and intelligent husband, but the loss of Albert was a double blow. Not only was she forced to play catch-up on statecraft, she was thrown into a profound and protracted period of mourning that at times threatened the overall welfare of the royal institution.

At the core of "Victoria" is the queen's struggle with how to define – and best exploit – the sometimes soft power that comes with being a constitutional monarch. Her initially clumsy and eventually masterful political tightrope-walking between passive figurehead and royal dictator gives the book a clean amd dramatic throughline, and the reader often feels the political vertigo that at times afflicted the monarch.

No biography of a major monarch would be complete without the courtiers and members of government who occupy his or her orbit, and "Victoria" is no exception. Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone (among others) bestride the pages of Victoria's biography, sometimes providing vital support to the queen, sometimes driving her to distraction and beyond, and always allowing the author to illustrate the taut and often tumultuous relationship between a parliamentary monarch and her nominal subjects in government.

There are no lack of opportunities for the exploration of such topics. The sheer scope of the Victoria's reign is reflected by the length and breadth of this history: from unrest amongst the working class of industrializing Manchester to the Charge of the Light Brigade to bungled campaign against the Islamist army of the Mahdi of Sudan, Wilson captures the rush of current events through Victoria's eyes even as domestic and personal matters sometimes eclipse world history for the monarch.

Wilson's effort here shares territory with "The Heir Apparent," Jane Ridley's biography of Victoria's son Albert "Bertie" Edward (also known as King Edward VII). Both books explore the shifting norms and rivalries of Victorian society and politics through the eyes of the royal family. If you've enjoyed one, the other will give you another richly informed vantage point and expand the historical ground covered by the other.

Although "Victoria" touches upon a number of ways the queen's life and image shaped the modern British monarchy and government, modern context isn't the book's mainstay. And that's fine. An observant reader will find the book's meditation on the queen's influence and iconic prominence a useful case study of those moments when individuals transcend their systems and assume historically unusual amounts of power. A reader has only to look to the accumulation of clout by Vladimir Putin in modern-day Russia, or the consolidation of power being undertaken by China's Xi Jinping to get a sense of what a single motivated and centrally placed personality can accomplish when the timing is right.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'Victoria: A Life' illustrates the remarkable power of a single personality
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/1124/Victoria-A-Life-illustrates-the-remarkable-power-of-a-single-personality
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe