Many a bride or groom in history have been plagued by meddlesome relatives with opinions, solicited or otherwise, on the proper course a couple should—or shouldn’t—take in the path to wedded bliss. There is, after all, one’s happiness at stake. But let’s for a moment take a moment to feel for the offspring of that great matriarch, Queen Victoria. The queen and her beloved husband, Prince Albert, were graced with nine children, who in turn begat 42 grandchildren. To Albert, this ‘royal mob’ wasn’t just the product of a loving marriage, but was also the opportunity for a very personal type of diplomacy that he hoped would ensure a liberal and peaceful Europe for generations. After Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria took on his vision with single minded determination, ensuring that she would have a say in the fate of Europe’s ruling houses—and thus its politics—into the twentieth century. The machinations and pressure behind each marriage, where Grandmama Queen could make the point that nothing less than European civilization rested on the proper choice of spouse, makes the pressures of modern marriage, even modern royal marriage, pale in comparison. In Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking: The Royal Marriages That Shaped Europe, the result of those pivotal dynastic couplings is outlined in a detailed and compulsively readable history by BBC producer Deborah Cadbury.
Royal someones, even in a period where most European nations had a healthy (figuratively speaking) class of bluebloods, still were a rarity in the late nineteenth century. As a result, Victoria’s matchmaking was often between first and/or second cousins. But unlike her own flock of offspring, Victoria’s grandchildren were often an independent bunch. Cadbury draws much of her research from family letters, revealing the often frank assessments of who suited who, and the occasional counter maneuvering that went on along with match targets. Although Victoria was strong-willed, she was a romantic at heart, a fact that sometimes was used to shape her approval. Cadbury focuses on several specific couples that would be pivotal to history, and the use of letters helps to draw sharp characterizations of the players. The exasperation shared by Victoria and her first-born Vicky, Crown Princess of Germany over Vicky’s son Wilhelm (soon to be Kaiser) is easily relatable to anyone who’s had a boorish cousin to put up, although the thought of said cousin with the might of the German military complex at his beck enforces the notion that these family dynamics had very deadly consequences. Yet there is a bit of lightheartedness here too. The particularly vexing question of who would marry Victoria’s grandson and heir, Prince Eddy, gets several chapters as religious differences, salacious gossip and fate derailed efforts by Victoria and family to see him settled (he escaped marriage by dying a month prior to his planned wedding to Princess May). Even Victoria’s decision to have new heir Prince George inherit Eddy’s fiancée required almost comical efforts by aunts to throw the two together (“don’t you think you ought to take May into the garden to look at the frogs in the pond?”) and was almost ended at the last minute by the late-nineteenth century equivalent of fake news.
Cadbury places particular emphasis on the relationship of Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra (Alix). In an era that often saw terrorist attacks against royalty, Victoria was adamantly against sending any of her grandchildren to Russia, whose autocracy she saw (rightly) as a prime target for assassinations. Yet the relationship between Alix, her favorite granddaughter, and Nicholas, was also the only one that could be rightly called a love match. Cadbury doesn’t pretend to cast Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking as a history of the causes of World War I and the revolutions of the twentieth century, but her sense of the Romanovs marriage as heartbreaking not just for the fate of its members but also in how it may have affected the brutality of the Russian revolution carries some weight. The book could do with a family tree to keep track of who is related to who, but there is a dramatis personae, which helps to keep various Victorias, Elizabeths and Maries sorted. A lively and well-researched work, Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking is an appealing work of popular history, and a look at how a very singular family’s dynamics made a monumental mark on history.