If you enjoy PBS as much as I do, chances are you’re also spending your Sunday nights watching Victoria. Even if you’re not following the show, if you like historical nonfiction with a hefty dose of fascinating interpersonal relationships, have I got a book for you! Not your typical Valentine’s Day read but full of romance nonetheless.
Deborah Cadbury transitioned to writing historical nonfiction after a long career as a BBC producer. Quite a few of her books have focused on royalty, though this one has a much broader focus and grander ambition.
At its heart is Queen Victoria in her later years and the various schemes she and her extended family concocted to marry off her grandchildren. Her overarching goal was one of balancing power and ensuring peace in Europe, and she firmly believed that marital alliances between her grandchildren scattered across the continent and their respective royal houses was the key to achieving this ambition. However, her interests were not entirely mercenary, as she also plotted to pair up those whom she felt were the most well-suited for each other. But as the old saying about the “best-laid plans of mice and men” acknowledges, nothing actually went according to plan. . . .
I enjoyed this book, though I also found it far from perfect.
The book is at its best when it is charting the various machinations that Victoria, her children, and her in-laws engaged in, all in the name of securing their respective thrones. Sometimes, their antics come off like something out of a cheesy rom com, royal style.
Nevertheless, Cadbury is always careful to focus on the very real people who were the subject of these schemes, many of whom were less than thrilled about their family’s intrusions. Cadbury did extensive archival research and quotes extensively from letters and diaries from all the major players, as well as then-contemporary newspapers. It provides a refreshing glimpse into the personalities of what could have been otherwise quite distant historical figures and lends a very human touch to the very human drama that plays across the book’s pages.
Cadbury chronicles some of the more famous of these unions, including one Victoria bitterly opposed (her granddaughter Alexandra’s ill-fated marriage to the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II), but I ended up finding some of the less familiar ones more interesting. I was somewhat familiar with Eddy (the unlucky older brother of George V), but I had no idea how frustrating he was for his family. A large portion of the first half of the book is devoted to the many doomed and increasingly desperate matches his grandmother and parents tried to arrange for him.
Cadbury also does an admirable job of laying out the often byzantine political issues that drove a lot of the marriages and the frequently convoluted relationships/personal ties they had to each other. All of it builds up to the rise of revolutions and the fall of monarchies that accompanied WWI. Cadbury is careful to note that, try as Victoria and her relatives might, their plan to bring peace to Europe on the marriage market made little difference when war finally arrived.
As interesting as the book is, I felt like the first half was much stronger. She organized her chapters by attempted pairings, and toward the end, this just seemed like a token gesture since the alleged subjects of the chapters often were featured very little in the sections ostensibly devoted to them. I suspect part of the problem was there is just simply too much relevant history to cover there, so her efforts to follow up on everyone came off as scattershot, especially against the backdrop of something as major as World War I.
I also personally felt that, befitting her background, Cadbury had a much stronger grasp on royalty than she did wars and revolutions, so those parts of the text were less engaging to me. I also found some careless typos (including multiple references to letters Victoria wrote in 1990). These issues did diminish my enjoyment of the text a bit, but I felt like the rest of it was interesting enough to make up for these concerns.
Recommended for those interested in 19th century/early 20th century European history and royalty.
Do you like reading about scheming monarchs? What’s your favorite period of history to study? What PBS Masterpiece drama is must-see TV for you? Tell us in the comments! Please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information about this item.