Over the years, A.N. Wilson has become renowned for his studied portraits of Victorian history. Now he has finally come around to attempt the impressive endeavour of chronicling the long and full life of Queen Victoria. The resultant biography succeeds in making an excellent first impression. To the book’s strength, the writer opts not to commence at Victoria’s birth, but instead starting a fair deal earlier, allowing room for important figures to be introduced more naturally. Beginning with the race to deliver an heir to the throne to the moment of Victoria’s ascension, the particulars surrounding the early years of her reign are described at a fluent pace. Wilson clearly possesses no small measure of humour, and knows how to turn potentially dry historical commentary into something that’s pleasantly legible.
At the same time, this has as a side-effect that the writer is present in his own narrative, affecting its flow with his jokey asides, choice of subject, and his personal views on reality. This leads me to ask several critical questions: Why does Wilson feel the need – especially throughout the beginning of the book – to dedicate so much attention to sensuality and sexuality? This runs the risk of rendering the author’s description of the two portraits of a young Victoria and Albert almost ridiculous. Also, why does the author choose to meticulously investigate certain seedy sexual preferences attributed to Lord Melbourne, while foregoing any mention of the ensuing discussion on women’s rights following his supposed affair with Caroline Norton? Wilson’s assertion that the homosexuality of the original editors of Victoria’s letters has any bearing on their editing choices at the very least demands something of an explanation.
On the matter of historical accuracy: Why does Wilson choose to qualify Prince Albert’s decision to become friends with the Austrian empire as an “embarrassing fact”, while failing to clearly elucidate the distinction between Albert’s vision of a unified Greater Germany and the wholly different and volatile concept of a Greater German Reich espoused by the likes of Bismarck and Hitler. Of course he knows, but dealing with such a precarious subject, he would do well to inform his readers more clearly. Particularly early on, these kind of passages give me the impression that the writer cannot sufficiently separate his own views and predilections from history itself, and mostly just wants to pen a juicy story.
What is impressive is Wilson’s vast knowledge of all the little minutiae that make up Victoria’s life, and of political developments of the 19th century in general. The author has certainly succeeded in creating a swift and solid style to bring order and clarity to all the many twists and turns of Victoria’s personal life, as well as all the confluent political questions that marked her long and storied reign. This in itself is a extraordinary feat. I thought his take on John Brown was remarkably sympathetic: He candidly acknowledges that he honestly hasn’t been able to come to any conclusions as to what sort of relationship Queen Victoria had with her cherished servant. This offers readers a chance to make up their own thoughts based on the collected evidence and enumerated hear-says Wilson presents.
On the other hand, his psychological analyses leave much to be desired. For instance, Wilson insists that Victoria’s latter-day lamentations about her unhappy childhood are exaggerated. According to her own writings, Victoria had felt alone, lacking any emotional support by her mother. Wilson views these complaints as ad hoc inventions, born of her own self-pity, asserting that her childhood was relatively care-free. I feel this type of reasoning shows little psychological insight. Victoria was only in her teens when she came to experience the tremendous pressures of her station, imposed on her by her mother’s secretary, John Conroy. Is it really that strange that a young lady who has spent most of her adolescence missing the company of her peers, while having to suffer the machinations of her overbearing custodians, would later describe her youth as being unhappy?
As I said, Wilson does know how to keep track of political events quite expertly, chronicling the coming and going of cabinets and prime-ministers without sacrificing his audience’s engagement. When discussing politics, special emphasis is put on the international field of foreign questions and conflicts, as well as the question of Home Rule for Ireland. For me, I would have liked to have seen the writer tackle domestic developments, such as the call for the advancement of women’s rights, or the struggle for improved access to better education. The book has such a great pace, that I could have done with some extra hundred pages quite easily.
All in all, Victoria: A Life has more than enough going for it, densely packed with historical information, penned with impressive clarity by a man who obviously possesses a store of knowledge about the Victorian Era. Nothing short of what we’ve come to expect from Wilson, raised to prominence by his past tour-de-force, The Victorians. Yet, I would refrain from classifying Victoria: A Life as the “definitive biography” as it reads on the back cover. The author has a too much of an intrusive tendency to draw peculiar conclusions based on his own tinted deliberations, as well as neglecting to cover a number of important chapters from Victorian history. Nevertheless, Victoria: A Life forms an invaluable addition to existing biographies, celebrating the life and times of an illustrious monarch.