A review of We Two—Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, Gillian Gill’s fascinating account of a royal marriage as a modern, complex power struggle
Just as Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians demolished the patronising myth of the staid and uptight Victorians, Gillian Gill eliminates the myth of the dull, ultra-conservative and dour Queen Victoria. In Gillian Gill’s account of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, it is Albert, not Victoria, who emerges as the prudish, priggish and serious one, always judging Victoria and making her apologise. Britain’s arts and sciences owe Prince Albert a great deal, but he is not always easy to like.
Queen Victoria, who is forever associated with the allegedly straitlaced era that takes her name, emerges as a little powder keg of passion, joie de vivre and willpower. She was in an impossible position in an especially misogynistic epoch, surrounded by male politicians, bureaucrats and courtiers, trying to appease thin-skinned and sexist Albert by being his ‘little wifey’, whilst holding on to the power the English Constitution invested in her.
Victoria was a woman in power who had to disown that power in a male-dominated society; a woman passionately in love with a man who wanted her to be a mere figurehead so he could fulfil his own political and dynastic ambitions. Queen Victoria seems to have encouraged Prince Albert to take on big administrative projects such as making the royal residences more efficient, cost-effective and hygienic so she could get on with the job of being the real boss.
In return for giving up so much, Victoria, a charming egotist with no tolerance for boredom, expected a great deal from her husband: total fidelity and constant companionship, comfort and security, and an unending succession of new pleasures and sensations. The Queen was like a fat tiger, content with the cage, answering to the whip, but lashing out from time to time, and daring her tamer to get careless. (Chapter 15, We Two)
Prince Albert might have been happier as a bourgeois captain of industry or an engineer. He was an early adapter of technology who worked hard, was methodical and pedantic. Albert wanted others to be industrious and efficient, but he also had a philanthropic side and sought to introduce better sanitation and living conditions for all. One can imagine Albert as a William (Sunlight Soap) Lever or a John Cadbury or a Joseph Rowntree—the kind of non-conformist, teetotalling industrialists who made fortunes but aimed to establish model communities for sober, God-fearing workers.
The Prince Consort was not popular amongst Britain’s aristocrats, politicians or the general populace, despite his talents and diligence. His social and public duties seem to have taken a heavy toll on his mental and physical health. He was, I think, an introvert who might have thrived in a very responsible but less public role. Prince Albert’s intelligence and conscientiousness were simply of no use to him in situations where he needed to charm.
Thanks to Gillian Gill, I found myself longing to know more about Victoria, Albert and their wily uncle Leopold, King of Belgium, as well as the slightly louche Lord M (Lord Melbourne). Victoria may have been a very different monarch had Lord M’s tutelage continued.
Gillian Gill raises questions in the reader’s mind that conjure up alternative histories. Would Queen Victoria have allowed Prince Albert to assume so much power and influence if she had had access to reliable contraception, instead of being burdened with nine pregnancies and post-partum depression? How would Britain and Europe have been different if Prince Albert had lived longer? And was Prince Albert everything Queen Victoria, his most influential biographer, would have us believe? I for one will never think of the gold-painted Albert Memorial in London in the same way after this:
[Before her marriage] Victoria dreamed of a partner as chaste as herself, a man who had never loved a woman, and who would be hers alone. Given the sexual mores of early nineteenth-century royalty, finding such a man was about as easy as finding a unicorn. Fortunately, Victoria’s uncle Leopold and Baron Stockmar anticipated her wishes and were busy breeding the mythical creature in their own paddock. (Chapter 10, We Two)
Albert, the gold-plated unicorn?
I didn’t want Gillian Gill’s entertaining double biography to end, which is unusual as I often tire at around the halfway mark of most biographies and I am a republican in principle, not a monarchist. Gillian Gill makes this account of a marriage into a fascinatingly modern drama, a complex power struggle set in a time of huge change across Britain and Europe. The author has piqued my interest so much that I am seeking out related books (please send suggestions) and have begun reading Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the death that changed the monarchy.
© JD Ellevsen 2018