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BOOK REVIEW

The life, love of Britain’s Victorian power couple

Queen Victoria was always in search of a father figure, says author Gillian Gill in the book “We Two.’’ Queen Victoria was always in search of a father figure, says author Gillian Gill in the book “We Two.’’
By Chuck Leddy
September 5, 2009

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In painting an intimate portrait of one of the most famous marriages in history, that of Britain’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Bedford resident Gillian Gill faces a large obstacle: Neither of these legendary figures much practiced sharing their feelings. As Gill notes about Albert, “the autobiographical urge was, in fact, singularly absent in him. . . . His diary is resolutely impersonal. Even to his wife, Albert imparted only tiny shards of memory.’’

Although Gill offers a more colorful portrait of Victoria, her inner life also remains mysterious. Her father, the Duke of Kent, died before she was a year old, leaving her upbringing to her controlling mother and her manipulative, ambitious business manager, John Conroy. For much of her childhood, Gill notes, “Victoria was kept under virtual house arrest,’’ with her mother and Conroy controlling everyone around her, reading her mail, and even “corresponding in her name and keeping crucial documents from her.’’

Despite the dearth of firsthand details about the royal marriage, Gill does an excellent job building an entertaining, informative narrative with what sources she has. For instance, after discussing the early death of Victoria’s father and her Big Brother-like childhood, Gill makes an important observation: “As girl and woman, the Queen was always in search of a father surrogate to guide and protect her.’’ Even after Albert’s untimely death, Victoria would turn to another male protector, John Brown.

Gill also makes a strong case that Albert, as the less powerful partner, felt the constant need to show his worth. Intimately involved with raising the couple’s nine children, more even than his wife, Albert was also deeply engaged in government business. Gill describes how Albert clashed with Britain’s powerful foreign minister, Lord Palmerston, in a failed attempt to turn British foreign policy toward alliances with Germany and Russia. In the end, Albert became a workaholic who died young trying to prove his mettle.

The crucial question for this unique marriage was the same question many marriages face, Gill notes: “Who would have the upper hand,’’ wear the pants? Victoria, explains Gill, “intended to have her Albert and her own way,’’ retaining her independence and power. “Albert,’’ the author notes, “planned to take the reins of power from Victoria once they were married. He would leave her queen only in name.’’ Something had to give.

As Gill describes this battle for control, she shows that Victoria’s nine pregnancies allowed Albert to assert control over royal finances and government duties. As for exploring the couple’s sex life, Gill has little to work with. Lacking firsthand accounts, Gill is left using the pair’s art collection for clues about their intimacy. One painting, Gill awkwardly notes, “shows a magnificently muscled, half-dressed man . . . being embraced by a beautiful naked woman.’’ Alas, Gill theorizes that “[t]he erotic side of the royal marriage is expressed far more clearly in their art collection than in their letters and journals.’’

Gill makes it clear that Albert won most of the marital battles, but that Victoria won the war. “She took possession of the prince in death as he had taken possession of her in life.’’ The queen idealized her late husband, another massive challenge for biographers. Gill’s surprisingly refreshing account exposes the profound falsity of the Victorian-era ideal of a powerful paterfamilias sheltering his defenseless wife against the cruel, brutal world. Victoria was always the stronger of the two and, Gill shows us, poor Albert worked himself to death trying to prove otherwise.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

WE TWO: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals By Gillian Gill

Ballantine, 460 pp., illustrated, $35

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