The 21st century idealization of this same couple (from 2010 Young Victoria).
Dear friends and readers,
I get through life by reading wonderful books, and this has been one of them. Anyone interested in the Victorian era (trains, home life, 1851 exhibition), who loves to read intimate life-writings intelligently assessed, who finds Albert the real man fascinating, who wants to have respect for Trollope go up (his book on Palmerston) and of course books on the so-called numinous, rich, powerful (and why they became and stay powerful), a queen too (strong woman), should try this book. Naturally, a blog:
Several weeks ago I told the story of how I came to own a copy of Gillian Gill’s We Two. Izzy and I had gone to a JASNA picnic, and the people there were auctioning off a set of books. Someone there said the film, Young Victoria was based on this book (see Reveries under the Sign of Austen) and the book was excellent; and on my Women Writers through the Ages listserv (@ Yahoo), someone else had written a thoughtful critique of film as centering on a young woman’s humiliation (teaching her a lesson to share power).
Well, I did win a book before this one was chosen and brought it home. I began reading it, and at first found it turgid, too many genealogies and royal life histories of people Victoria and Albert were descended from thrust into the narrative in too small a space quickly, but when I got past the opening section, it became a splendid, originally thought-out informative dual biography of the marriage and all it affected while it went on. I write this blog to say why and recommend reading it.
Chapters 1-12: the book’s first phase:
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, important in the first part of Victoria’s adult career
Sir Robert Peel, became important to Albert in his career and private life too
After summarizing the internecine politics of the sons of George III and their courts, hangers-on and the German court from which the Duchess of Kent came, the book turns to the material of the film, and we get a powerful rendition of the politicking, bullying, and in the end by some of Victoria’s supporters, the desperate corrupt buying off of Conroy (perhaps Victoria’s mother’s lover). Victoria won through by the strength of her personality, because her German uncle and some of her German relatives came over and supported her and she knew of them, and of course her very biological chance position. In addition, there had been and continued to be limits to the tyranny of Conroy and the Duchess of Kent imposed on the girl during her growing-up; they set up a system to control, but not to destroy the princess. By chapter 7 she is ensconced with the governess she managed to hold onto (and who was important in her survival) and is Queen, holding her own with Melbourne and Russell (Melbourne especially) and the first moves have been made to couple her with Albert.
It’s interesting to me how vacuous is the all-encompassing public life of the queen; you might say she is at once there because it’s institutionalized (her power) but everything else is personal and cronyism networks.
Gill’s book becomes very good once Victoria grows up, and marries Albert. She was pushed to marry by her mother and others and was reluctant until she saw and feel in love with Albert. He would be a barrier against the mother she had come to dislike and with good reason.
She got bored with the role of queen pretty quickly, but was close to Melbourne because he knew how to flatter and how to manipulate her.
The chapter on the German princes and Germany in the 19th century is informative, insightful — what a vile sordid bunch they were, we learn of how they had no interest in their particular land or German people, much less the suffering lower class people they ruthlessly exploited: it was aristocratic caste all the way. (This reminds me of bankers today and the way the reactionary press in the US talks of unemployed people and recent legislation (stopping all extensions of benefits) would have pleased this bunch.) Gill tells, for an example from semi-private life of two women whom the Coburg men chose as mistresses and treated abominably. They both wrote memoirs well worth the reading; Paula Panam, Memoires d’une jeune Grecque; and Caroline Bauer, My life on the stage and Theatrical Tours (this is whats’ available in English).
The thing to keep your eye on is Albert, like Victoria, was in rebellion against this. They had common ground here, and in the essential decency of their characters and their intelligence — yes Victoria was intelligent too, but in different areas from Albert. He wanted to escape this petty amoral internecine world where many of the little families were in fact on the edge of bankruptcy. She reveled in the world she was lucky enough to be born to queen.
We know little about Albert’s childhood and young manhood because most papers were destroyed; we would know little about Victoria since her granddaughter destroyed many of her papers, but that Victoria wrote such an amount of life-writing and was so incapable of hiding her real self — or capable of getting herself vividly down on paper.
The bedchamber crisis is fascinating, but it is of course, the author, her voice, and outlook on this pair that makes this book so good.
Once the marriage is set, Gills tracks back to tell the childhood and young woman-, man-hood of this pair of people. Gill is superb and effective in her description of the home life of Albert growing up — so much better than Francine du Plessix-Grey (Chez Sade which I’ve been reading at the same time and on which I’ll write a separate blog), it’s striking. This despite a paucity of papers. What happened was Albert’s mother had been forced into marrying the father; at first love-making and the birth of two children made the marriage go, but soon the Duke returned to promiscuity, hunting, drinking all night with friends (reminding me of Arthur Huntingdon in Tenant of Wildfell Hall — how these books come together). She found a lover who she escaped with and married. This left the boys to the mercy of the servants and father. Albert was a gifted boy, intelligent and sensitive, much like her who therefore grew up without a mother and in this ancien regime vicious court. So did Sade (grow up without a mother in a vicious court), but Albert reacted against it in decency. It did give him a strong character for that enabled him to survive. He was also valued over his brother because he was so handsome.
Gill makes a subtle and nuanced case for Albert’s being at least bisexual, and suggests Albert and his brother, Ernest, had an intense sexual relationship. Incest and homosexuality are often stigmatized but not here. No girlfriends whatsoever. At the same time Gill shows what a shy, highly intelligent, potentially decent person Albert was, and how he had to be guided into marrying Victoria.
Unlike the film Albert (played by Rupert Friend, Young Victoria) there was no immediate physical attraction by Albert to Victoria at all. After a short while, they saw eye-to-eye in the sense of their values and sensibilities and to Albert England was a breath of fresh air where one could hope to actually do some work that might be of use. He would have been a good professional, but this sort of work (and training for it) was the one thing not allowed this aristocrat. The chapters show Albert’s traveling, schooling — all with Ernest. The break with his older brother was hard and was done by the older male relatives.
The portrait of this aristocratic German community is precisely like that of Donatien de Sade’s in the ancien regime in France and had Albert wanted to, he could have tried (and many did do) some of the same antics (not to extreme). The two communities worked in the same ways, drew power and interacted too.
Victoria was a very strong and determined personality who has now overcome her mother and is close to Melbourne. We see her being a strong force and we know that Albert too likes his own way (as Trollope’s narrator in HKHWR would say — a fourth book), so the clash the movie’s core is about is about to start in Chapter 12: “Victoria plans her marriage”
Although photography was available by the second decade of the marriage, there are remarkably few photos of the royal family because then as now the royal family’s image was strictly controlled: the painting we glimpse is by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
These are fascinating chapters which intersect with Anthony Trollope’s HKHWR, a novel about a struggle for power between a central married pair: one immediate trouble for Victoria and Albert is the norm was that a woman “lost all her independent legal and civil status. .. A married woman’s property [unless upper class family pre-nuptial trusts set up] was her husband’s’. Anything she earned was legally his to do with as he would. She could not buy or sell property or enter into any transaction without his leave.” He could “legally enforce sexual congress. .. physically chastise his wife, sequester .. commit her to a madhouse … the children were his …”
Now Victoria is the great exception — which did make lots of people very uncomfortable and especially Albert.
Albert was at first controlled and distrusted and not given an income of his own, or allowed to have his people around him, but gradually he began to take some power. How? he won Victoria in bed: Gill suggests that he was in reality no innocent as people keep saying; he was experienced as a gay man, especially with his brother. Second, she became pregnant and kept getting pregnant and all these pregnancies and then the children took up her time and energy. Third, it began to be perceived how smart he was, how astute, and well-educated and it was obvious to all Victoria was highly limited in her understanding.
But what’s interesting in these chapters is to watch the two struggle with their unusual positions, him with humiliation and boredom, and her trying to hold onto her power yet give him something. She had learned from her miserable childhood how important it was to hold out against others taking power over you and then bullying you.
Another chapter (14), and Victoria has ceded enormous amounts of power to Albert. Why? Yes the ministers and everyone began to realize how bright and decent Albert really was, but also the pregnancies. It’s they who did her in, and the taking care of all this progeny in their early years. Even a queen can’t escape (for my part I’ve thought Mary Stuart lost out against Elizabeth I because she had lovers).
Victoria did hate being pregnant: “The thing is odious and if all one’s plagues are rewarded only by a nasty girl [sic!], I shall drown it, I think. I will know nothing else but a boy. I never will have a girl.” She had several.
None of this cloying “baby worship” Trollope fervently believes is common to women for Vicky. Her letters and diaries are refreshingly frank. No self-inflicted ritual humiliation here.
It’s not true that Albert was able to take power because he was smarter. In fact he was narrow in a number of central ways, and in fact Victoria was a shrewd judge of people and very sharp about social manners and how they worked and connected to primal selves. She fought successfully to take power and it was her taking it that allowed him to come in. Without her, nothing.
She wrote superbly well: she comes alive in her diaries, but she was unable or inhibited from putting in her diaries the intimate realities she saw and experienced. On top of that papers that mattered about these were destroyed.
Gill’s book is filled with original insight into the relationship of these two people, she really goes into the money and accounts, how they got, what it cost them to live and how they spent it. She understands all about how their households worked; what happened in the nurseries and is on top of the Parliamentary politics too.
At the same time, Victoria’s pregnancies did her in. On top of that that she was a woman. In fact Albert half-despised all women and drove a hard bargain with her: he would behave nicely and kindly and do all she wanted if she submitted to him. Now he was super-competent, a terrific manager and ruthless, and he had the sort of liberal insight (wide) that was appreciated in the era. But he was a cruel and narrow type who was willing to destroy people to get his way: including her faithful governess, Lehzen who was responsible for her growing up with any strength, and managing to wrest her power from her mother. Very cruel: she was ejected and sent back to Germany. Victoria did give her a decent pension, but Albert’s conduct broke her heart. She is not the only one Albert managed to peel away from Victoria and didn’t care what happened to them.
He was German aristocratic left over from the ancien regime.
Albert was (Gill thinks) not centrally heterosexual so one of his tricks was to lock himself in. He would not come out. Victoria would go to the door and say this is the Queen of England. Silence. Time passes. She’d come back and say Albert, this is your wife. Then the door would open. She also understood how much she’d have to struggle everywhere as a woman to keep her power in parliamentary dealings and it was easier to let Albert do it. He did become close with Peel; he was a Peelite Tory, she a Melbourne Whig.
The stories about her and Disreali are mocking denigration, really the usual anti-women talk.
I said Victoria gave in because Albert did lots of good things and made life easy for her too –. Though she hated the endless pregnancies she did know that’s what she was “hired” for. He cataloged the paintings and fixed the indexes in the libraries by hiring the right people. One of the massive things he did was set the royal household in order. It was run like a university with the people who hire someone and fire him or her different from the people who work with him and who he or she serves. In the Victorian era most people lived on the edge of ruin (as we are beginning to experience now) and this kept jobs intact. One set of people also were say responsible for the outside of the windows, and another for the inside. Result: dirty windows because both sides never cleaned at the same time and not at the rate those looking out wanted, but at the rate those who paid them demanded — who were different from those who had hired and could fire them.
Albert ferociously worked to change all this. He did this in several areas and he was not liked.
Those who saw and liked the movie, Young Victoria should read this book. Indeed as I read it I begin to think she is as and maybe more important as an instance fo what happens to a women in power who is successful in part as any Elizabeth I or other icon. More because her ways are still touted today — not well understood either.
One of Gill’s purposes is to correct Strachey who presents Victoria as a shallow stream, is condescending, dismissive, making fun. It’s this idea of Victoria as stupid that Gill refutes utterly. Yes Albert had learning she didn’t, had far more liberal attitudes, and was respected by the parliamentary men as she was not: but all this is familiar to us. It’s anti-woman, anti-feminist. Gill nowhere mentioned Strachey directly, but it’s his withering portrait she demolishes: what he did was take what Victoria wrote as really reflecting her mind and her work and what she did. Much of her real life is left out of these, what was private was destroyed by her granddaughter.
We have another case like so many others in this misrepresentation of her.
A lack is nowhere is Victoria’s reading discussed in any detail by Gill, probably because Victoria didn’t discuss it. She was a busy lady.
It does seem as if Victoria can see how much time the children take when they get older and how they are getting in the way of her being queen too, but there are no remarks about that. If they existed, they were destroyed by the granddaughter.
“The Court of St Albert,” “Finding Friends” and “A Home of Their own”
Josephine and Napoleon have been characterized as two political animals; well, Albert and Victoria were that but they were something much more and that they were beloved is explained as well as aspects of the Victorian world put before us: the effect of trains allowing everyone to go places quickly and the growth of vacations, holidays and how Albert and Victoria first built a beautiful place on the Isle of Wight (Austen’s Fanny Price called it “the island’) and then Balmoral.
Their difficulties in finding friends — very touching. Both so intelligent, with Victoria able to fit in such much more easily and Albert standoffish but the one doing the politics in parliament.
It’s fitting their real friends were their maids and valets who themselves left nothing of the intimate life — all veiled. Albert may have turned “his merry non-judgemental wife into a censorious prude just like himself” but that was for public consumption.
Victoria instinctively did dislike his brother, Ernest — again some hints the two men had been lovers. And the other friends she made and his need of Carl, the Swiss valet whose death left a big gap, and so too Albert’s dog’s death.
We have another case like so many others in this misrepresentation of women, one she did cooperate in partly to please Albert whose ‘war against sin” Gill says was irrational and about himself. We see Albert’s picture near her. It’s a studied pose, set up by her. Jim suggested to me there is something odd about there being so few or no photographs of the royal family from the 1860s on (when Albert was alive). The US civil war begins the era of photography and if we have so few photos, and instead only these mostly very fake (as the queen marveling over Alfred’s many dead birds when she hated blood sports, or other absurdities) and ceremonial paintings. Albert and Victoria didn’t want us seeing into their real private lives or selves. Only very late did she succumb when photography had become ubiquitous and then she presents herself repeatedly as grieving widow retired from life.
“The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Lord Palmerston Says No”
“The Greatest Show on Earth” shows Albert in his finest hour: he created an intelligent exhibit to which everyone was invited, and all but those who pride themselves on and live by exclusion came. By train often. It was offered at different prices to accommodate all too, and for stated periods free entrance to the big building itself. There was something for all intellects and tastes too. He could and did work very hard with men like the best aspects of himself: entrepreneurial, scientists, artists, musicians, intellectuals, middle class effective businessmen, professionals.
At the same time he could not make friends with them, and two of his closest associates died: Peel, his ‘second father,’ and Anson, ‘almost like a brother.” In his deepest outlook Albert remained a man of the ancien regime in Germany, and he really thought he could and should run the British government behind its machinery the way the prince-run states in Germany or tzar ran his. He was no republican, or democrat and could not understand why or like Palmerston (first an undersecretary in the foreign office and hen foreign secretary) supported revolutions against his, Albert and Victoria’s relatives in Germany and Russia — as well as Italy, France and other places.
He discovered that machinery — the political establishment was not a front. He was. And Lord Palmerston says No shows our prince at his feeblest, worst, though by the end, when he found he could not dismiss Palmerston and run the government, compromising and again acting decently and working hard to help the effort to win and quickly end the Crimean war, an expensive, bloody and useless event which Albert’s behavior in getting rid of Palmerston had partly helped bring on.
Queen Victoria reviewing the troops (this one is supposedly with Duke of Wellington so earlier): an example of how little portraits of the era have to do with the realities of the people acting; here militarism celebrated
Gill’s story of the Queen and Prince’s attempt to get rid of Palmerston and why they could not relies a little on Trollope’s portrait of Palmerston, and at one crux, Gill quotes Trollope to great effect. [Palmerson] took it [life, how the world is set up to work] as it came, resolving to be useful after his kind, and resolving also to be powerful,” and his social and sexual talents keep him afloat in the highest levels of British society. Gill lays bare the power structure of the era, its real sexual mores, and also how the queen in the end had to come out publicly and work in the public arena and how good she was at it. How relieved to when the “shadow life” of endless pregnancies came to an end.
Gill’s portrait of Palmerston’s early career (Irish, a man on the make, not too scrupulous but pro-English, hunting, drinking, and promiscuous sex including an unwise attempted rape on one of the queen’s ladies), his first successes and choice of a lower office in government, finally marriage to the rich and canny Lady Emily, worldly as his, a real partner — bears a striking resemblance, transmuted to Phineas Finn and Madame Max’s slow coming to partnership and later years.
Chapters 23 and 24: hemophilia and French influence
If I had been told that hemophilia emerged in the British royal family and then spread to most of the others around Europe (as they so intermarried), I had forgotten, and in any case did not think about what this meant to the private lives of those without genetic knowledge. Chapter 22 is powerful because Gill structures the story of Albert and Victoria’s early years bringing up their children around the reality that he and she did everything they could to deny there was anything wrong with Leopold, all the while wrapping him in cotton so that he did (remarkable) live to 31, marry and have two children himself. She makes a good case for understanding why a couple would lie to others and partly to themselves. It’s not just that women were blamed and the power of the throne threatened; a whole system was based on this cousin intermarriage and exclusionary practices.
At the same time she shows the emotional damage this did to all who were involved — especially the children siblings, including those who married in and themselves had hemophiliac sons. A couple encouraged to marry and this real probability hidden from them. This includes the Tsar whose heir was a hemophiliac.
We see many of the strains in the Coburg marriage, Again Victoria loved Albert devotedly and erotically far more than he did her.
Chapter 24 is how unexpectedly Albert and Victoria got along very well with Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenia. Everything Albert and Victoria were said to believe themselves against was embodied in this couple and it didn’t matter. The new relationship was catalyst for changing some of the worst aspects of Victoria and Albert’s marriage. It freed her from the puritanism Albert had subjected her to to some extent. Albert had someone to talk to who would understand. And Bertie, the son and heir found Paris a revelation. He was no moralist, no intellectual, and loved social life and sensation, pleasure and found it there. Alas, for Victoria’s oldest daughter, though, Vicki, the visit to Paris did not change things: the door was clanged shut on her quickly, she was disciplined and soon married off.
The last years; father and son; Albert’s death
Chapter 25 is called Father and Son, and does justice to Bertie as a person in his own right with valuable qualities, albeit deplored by “mom” and “dad.” How refreshing Gill’s description of Bertie’s temporary Irish mistress (the parents would not let him carry this one at all): “the amiable Miss Clifden, after giving the Prince of Wales some pleasure and comfort he was in great need of, went back to her music hall and her other gentleman, one hopes a little richer” (p. 356).
But it also explicates and lays before us Albert’s close relationship with Vicki (oldest girl), how both he and Victorian nonetheless made some bad decisions about her when young and how her life was spent amid stupid, paranoid, utterly aggrandizing Prussians who would have preferred her to have died in her first childbirth. She was saved by her mother sending a decent doctor for the breech-birth — something she could not admit to; she remained angry the doctor put his hand up her vagina! Vicki had her limitations, a child of Albert in intellect, she nonetheless was close to her mother and they developed a better friendship through incessant letters which Albert, jealous, tried to put a stop too. Alice is not neglected as another girl who loved her father dearly and so an important witness of his loving tender master of the revels role.
Painful the realities of the marriage as it developed. We can see Victoria’s great gift (not acknowledged sufficiently) for writing — for getting her self down on paper. It’s often not appreciated I’ve learnt. How much she and her daughter meant to one another. Albert and Victoria stopped having sex after the last child; he didn’t mind after all and he didn’t want her to die. No one did. It’s after that that the first cracks in the letter open up to show Victoria’s strain and discontent and occasional strong irritation and frustration.
Family politics is subtly and persuasively shown. Albert fraught between Vicki and his wife. And epistolary relationships. The chapter on Albert’s death is used to show us a good deal about Victorian medicine, living conditions, the state of knowledge about germs and diseases.
Albert died of overwork and depression as well as typhoid. It was the middle term that escaped everyone. I appreciated the description of the long dying and also the lack of sentimentality in Gill where she implicitly pointed out how Albert was not so missed as everyone wanted to pretend (and most ungrateful they were in a real sense), not even after a few years by the queen. How as the marriage was a power struggle too (as many are) it was Victoria who proved the stronger. She did not die of the situation. He did not cling to life as she did.
42 is young to die.
The book has flaws. The early part is turgid; Gill is telling too much too quickly. In the latter part she begins to lose perspective and identify too strongly with the royal family as so powerful. She really suggests that has Albert lived one more year, he would have urged his son-in-law to take the throne of Prussia, and of course been listened to (Gill assumes) and liberal democracy might have flourished in the Germanies and no WW1 at all and Vicki somehow be responsible for this. Beyond the danger of counter factuals and believing in them, she has lost all sense of how one or two people do not a country make – which she didn’t lose in her chapters on the Exhibition and ironic backlash against Albert directly afterwards or why he lost against Palmerston. She does seem to think an oligarchy really rules a country and perhaps she’s right (alas, we see that in the US right now) — and Trollope agreed in his New Zealander as did Carlyle and many Victorians. But the oligarchy in Prussia made WW1.
It’s natural to begin to identify strongly with your characters. I also found her acknowledgments page grating with upbeat happiness. How she is surrounded by all these loving friends. They give her tours, devotedly help, selflessly. What world does this belong to? Not the one shown in her book, but then acknowledgments have become a genre of ludicrous sycophancy, showing off who you know and cloying sentimentality.
On other hand, her notes are filled with good things, are little essays in themselves. For example on p. 410 under “faced with the mass of evidence,” Gill notes that Strachey did in fact offer a sympathetic portrait of Albert as “a gay man … a brilliant, sensitive intellectual tragically immolated on the altar of his family’s dynastic ambitions and his wife’s predatory sexuality.” Whew. That take Gill corrects: Albert was himself intensely ambitious, did all he could to enact public and social manliness, and Victoria’s sexuality was deeply loving, amorous. Among the ending portraits is of her later life close to John Browne. Here again we find that usual chorus of people determined to deny sex if there’s no explicit evidence. I’m puzzled at why people find others lessened in their eyes if they have sexual intercourse with a beloved or congenial person. But there it is again (We Two, p 381).
This footnote also shows Benson seeing into Albert’s feminine side, and more biographers analyzing what was the truth of Albert’s boy and young manhood. This book should help rehabilitate Victoria as a complicated honest, shrewd and most un-puritan woman, important for power politics of her time.
Gill’s article with her son, Christopher, on Nightingale in the Crimea is uniformly superb: Christopher and Gillian Gill, “Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Examined,” CID [Center for International Health], 205:40 (15 June).