Royals behaving badly
Okay, so I’m something of a royal watcher. The recent crop of royals are all very entertaining and such (Princess Kate is a gift from God as far as fashion editors are concerned), but for the really interesting stuff, I’ve recently discovered that the Regency period—best known to avid readers as the background to Jane Austen’s novels—is something of a golden era for royal bad behavior. The offspring of George III, the long-reigning and increasingly mad king, produced an astonishing fifty-six grandchildren—and not one of them was legitimate. With increased pressure on Parliament to expand suffrage, food shortages prompting riots and royalty so despised that the Prince Regent as often greeted with stony silence or worse when he ventured amongst his subjects, the time was ripe for England to transition to a very different or even non-existent monarchy than today’s. Historian Kate Williams details in ‘Becoming Queen Victoria’ the lesser-known struggle for the throne comes to light.
Although the book purports to be about Victoria, this is really a dual biography. The daughter of one of George III’s younger sons, Victoria was never meant to inherit the crown. That distinction was to go to Princess Charlotte, the sole legitimate offspring of the dissolute Prince Regent (later George IV). Born to parents that were feuding even before their marriage, Charlotte spent almost all of her life as a helpless pawn. Williams has written novels set in the same period, and thanks to a considerable trove of letters, journal entries and contemporary news accounts, Charlotte’s story reads like the plight of an unwanted orphan—albeit surrounded by the opulence of the British court. With Charlotte’s untimely death in childbirth, however, the race was on among the royal dukes to sire an heir. The second half of the book recounts Victoria’s rise and her struggles to wrest power from her overambitious mother and take power in her own right. Including many of Victoria’s writings and perceptions from those nearest, or those attempting to be near the throne, the young Victoria emerges as a woman faced with carefully walking the boundary between what was expected of her as a woman, while firmly asserting her rights as monarch.
Williams is blessed with both an engrossing story and a cast of characters that would suit any novelist, let alone historian. But Williams the historian makes assertion—successfully, I believe—that the fate of Charlotte and Victoria’s rocky first years of rule truly defined the state of the British monarchy up until the present day. In the course of two generations, the throne went from real political power to The Firm that we know today.