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History Without the Moon

By (February 1, 2011) No Comment

Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch

Kate Williams
Ballantine Books, 2010

Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the history, the mystery, and the lives of the remarkable men and women who make up the ongoing drama that is a Year with the Windsors.

The paths history takes are almost always tangled, and surprises lie in wait for every generation. Even so, the most avid trend-watchers two centuries ago would likely have ignored the picturesque little German duchy of Saxe-Coburg. Its most notable claim to world attention was Leopold, the handsome, charismatic young prince who in 1816 married Princess Charlotte, the oldest legitimate daughter of the man who would be England’s king, Prince Regent George the Prince of Wales. At the time of the marriage, the Prince Regent’s life was one enormous public scandal papered over the bulging outlines of a hundred private ones. He was largely disliked by the gentry and political leaders of the land, widely mocked by the common folk both at home and abroad, and generally unfit for the throne. His debts were staggering; his indifference to responsibility was absolute; he was paying investigators a small fortune to dig up (or manufacture) sufficient dirt on his wife Princess Caroline to allow him to divorce her. By the time George IV ascended to the throne in his own right, following the long madness of his father George III and the unapologetic stupidity of his grandfather George II, not to mention the various and colorful imbecilities of his brothers, the British public was as thoroughly disgusted with its ruling house as it had been since it fired James II and went shopping on the Continent for his replacement.

When Saxe-Coburg dispatched dashing young Leopold to the altar, that public looked with hesitant anticipation to him and his intelligent, spirited Princess bride to change the tenor of the monarchy, or at the very least to live two consecutive days without scandal, vomit, or public lewdness at the theater. As Kate Williams points out in her sparkling, engaging new book Becoming Queen Victoria, the hopes of the country focused on the revitalizing blood of Prince Leopold and the vivacious sweetness of Princess Charlotte. “Through it all,” Williams writes, “Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.” The public – and the world – got far, far more of a jolt than it expected, and in a way, Princess Charlotte did indeed provide it: she and her newborn baby boy died in childbirth.

The nation mourned extravagantly, poets and statesmen vying to lament not only the death of such a well-liked young woman but also the apparently inevitable back-slide into yet more Hanoverian lunging and bumbling. No more heirs apparent were waiting in the wings, and the sons of George III with their mistresses and their caravans of bastards suddenly found themselves obliged to do that which they did best: procreate. William IV, who had succeeded his brother George IV in 1830, set about the task with patriotic gusto, but the ghastly infant mortality rates of the age worked against him, and when he died in 1837 he was succeeded by the eldest daughter of his brother Edward, who had abandoned his long-time mistress and taken a wife half his age, Princess Victoria … of Saxe-Coburg. Their daughter Alexandrina became the young Queen Victoria who, proud of her ancient German lineage, promptly took as her husband her Saxe-Coburg cousin Albert. Not for nothing did Bismarck refer to the little duchy as the stud farm of Europe.

Queen Victoria in her wedding gown

Kate Williams is right to remind us that if fate had taken a different turn, if Princess Charlotte’s pregnancy had ended with mother and son happy and healthy, the woman who would become Queen Victoria would never have been born, and all of Western history would have taken an alternate and distinctly different course, to say nothing of the 19th century taking on a different name. The contrast was evident even in the royal upbringing, as Williams writes, “His [the Prince Regent’s] family agreed: Charlotte should not be trained up as a politically engaged, socially adept future queen but used as a marriage pawn.” Through the voluminous contemporary accounts Williams cites we see much of Charlotte’s gaiety and frivolity but almost nothing of the stolid dedication to duty that would be such a forward part of the young Victoria’s own nature. The rule of Queen Charlotte unfolds in the mind’s eye as a probable litany of little embarrassments.
It all seems unthinkable now, mainly because Victoria so thoroughly remade the monarchy that, ironically, it seems like an insult to her memory to refer to her by the lineage she herself so revered; for us, she cannot be Victoria of the House of Saxe-Coburg – we must make our nomenclature limber enough to install her figuratively in the position she already occupies literally (or is it the reverse?): as the titanic force, the demi-urge that founded what we know to day as the House of Windsor.
In 1837 a concatenation of factors were beginning to give rise to a new England unlike anything the world had ever seen. As Jeremy Paxman writes, “Victoria was fortunate to have taken the throne at the point at which British military strength, industrial productivity, and imperial vision turned much of the map of the world pink. The empire was the greatest the world had ever seen; and it happened to have a queen at its head …”
This alone would have been remarkable but to it Victoria – only the sixth queen regnant in England’s history – added three elements all her own. First, she was prodigiously fecund (as one waggish historian put it, she spent as much time pregnant as regnant), producing nine children and assuring them so much care that all nine reached adulthood, thereby positioning the English royal family as the premiere marriage-brokers of the century. Second, she was conscientious in a dull and unrelenting way that would scarcely have been comprehensible to her ham-fisted Hanoverian forebears; she worked – reading government documents, keeping up with her “boxes” of official minutes and dispatches – very nearly incessantly. And third, she doggedly refused to die – she reigned for sixty-seven years, and by the time she celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1897, nobody could remember a world without her. The age of gilded ballrooms and horse-drawn carriages was quickly giving way to the age of the modern metropolis and the technology of the wireless – it was a technological revolution that spanned two generations, and Victoria’s reign spanned them as well. She slowly became inextricably identified with both the idea of England (“She became England,” Stanley Weintraub concludes) and the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Both these identifications were infinitely delicate affairs; if Victoria had been the simpleton her detractors have claimed she was (or if she’d died after a rule of twenty or thirty years), this change would have gone very differently.

Queen Victoria with Prince Albert and their nine children

As it was, by the time the old queen pressed a button and sent out her Diamond Jubilee message in 1897 to her millions of subjects spanning a quarter of the globe (“From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them.”), the idea of that constitutional monarchy – of a king or queen who somehow retains the mystique of rule without more than a shred of its power – had been thoroughly domesticated, and both partners in the agreement had become reconciled to their limitations. The people in the London streets rapturously loved their Queen, even when she secluded herself in decades of ostentatious grieving after the death of her beloved husband, the Prince Consort Albert. And the Queen (condescending malapropisms notwithstanding) dedicated all of her energies to being a conscientious public servant, even when the public she served baffled her with its newfangled ways. She wept over the casualty lists of the various bush-wars of her reign; she squabbled with some of the dozen prime ministers who served her (and played favorites with the rest); she was prickly about her public dignity but loved nothing more than to laugh with her servants. But the “boxes” never stopped filling, and she never stopped working on them. The Times had commented on her “habitual subordination of ordinary personal comfort to ceremonial requirements.” Guests at Windsor saw the light in her window burning long after everybody else had gone to bed. It had a cumulative effect. Indeed, Queen Victoria herself may best be described as a cumulative effect.
Again, it might not have happened. In Becoming Queen Victoria Kate Williams wisely foreswears speculating on what an age of Queen Charlotte might have been like. We have tantalizingly few clues as to the woman she might have grown to become, and we may likewise speculate about a parallel chance: what if young Queen Victoria had died giving birth to her firstborn son Edward? The government might have installed another regency until the boy came of age under the watchful eye of his father, but it would have been a long regency, and the nation – at least in terms of moral tone and respect for the monarchy – had not fared so well with the last one. Williams’ book is interesting mainly because, as noted, its central hypothetical, what if Queen Charlotte had lived? seems inconceivable: a history without Victoria seems as fancifully outside the realm of imagining as a history without Jesus, or dinosaurs, or the moon.

The Queen dressed in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee

As it was, Victoria distrusted her son (and given the mammoth scale on which he conducted his gambling and philandering, she had cause) and spent decades keeping him away from the mechanics of the monarchy. He was 60 when she finally died in 1901, and even the least sentimental of her subjects felt that an era had ended with her. The feeling was largely shared by the rest of the Western world, whose sense of loss was put into words by the transplanted American Henry James:

… I mourn the safe and motherly old middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent. I felt her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol …

Legions of historians rushed into the gap she left, and most ended up sharing a certain amount of the awestruck affection so many of her subjects felt during her lifetime. The reach of this effect extended to the 20th century, where Victoria’s best-selling biographer could write without irony:

Nevertheless, it was not entirely bombast. She was incomparably the best Queen the world had got and more than one foreign nation, still struggling under a rule of tyranny, self-indulgence or fatuity, wished she were theirs.

She reigned for almost sixty-four years, longer than any other English ruler, and she gave to a new century a monarchy almost thoroughly renewed. She herself might have retained her family name of Saxe-Coburg (she even dreamed of perpetuating it with almost pharaoh-like precision, insisting that all the heirs apparent and presumptive bear the name Albert), but only her oldest subjects could even vaguely recall the stock from which she sprang so long ago. This diminutive empress of India was, ironically, the least grandiose of women and would probably have argued with anybody who suggested it, but she was the founding of the House of Victoria. A little more time and a war only she could have prevented would change that name, to the House of Windsor, but the essence – the art of reigning without ruling – would remain as Victoria made it. Each of the men and women who followed after her would grapple with that balancing act in their own way – starting with the son whose ability to do just that she had distrusted for so long. In 1901, after an entire lifetime of waiting, King Edward VII came to the throne.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.