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 rise and eventual fading of the British Empire, Victoria is a central figure.
Biographer AN Wilson is no stranger to larger-than-life subjects, having written about Tolstoy, Dante, CS 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.