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Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of…

Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the…

by Kate Williams

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This is a book-club selection for me and I don’t think I would have picked it up otherwise. The subtitle gives you all the description you need: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch.

I knew some of the history that resulted in Victoria’s ascending to the throne. Williams has given us a long and detailed history/biography covering approximately 50 years of British royals, from 1796 to 1841. I had seen the movie The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blount, so some of this was quite familiar to me, but thank heavens there was a family tree schematic included; I referred to it constantly. Knowing what happened before she was born to put Victoria in such close proximity to the throne did help, but it was really HER story that I was most interested in, and which the title of the book promised. Yet we were 150 pages into the book and she hadn’t even been born yet!

So while I enjoyed reading about all the intrigue and politics involved as various royals (major and minor) realized the possibilities of ascension to the throne and jockeyed for position, I grew first confused, and then bored with the detail and intricacies of all those relatives and mingling of family trees. As a result, I found myself skimming certain sections.

However, once Victoria reached majority and became Queen, I was fully involved. It’s clearly well-researched, and Williams even includes quotes from diaries and letters to support the text. On the whole I read the book much more quickly than I had anticipated, despite getting bogged down and having to refer to the family tree so often. ( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
George III had seven sons and only two legitimate grandchildren, Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), daughter of the Prince of Wales, Prince George, and Princess Victoria (1819-1901), daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth in line to the throne.

The society of the day for the upper classes was quite open, relationships between men and married women, over-drinking at the endless round of parties, little show of responsibility for one’s actions let alone one’s responsibility toward society in general, and indebtedness were common.

Against this background Williams, in “Becoming Queen,” examines the lives of Charlotte and Victoria in great detail, perhaps too much detail. It is important to know of the relationship of each princess to her mother, not good, but it does not need to be presented to the reader numerous times.

Decisions were made, not with the best interest of the children in mind, but on how much money it would bring into the household. Charlotte’s reaction was to rebel, to runaway, to play off her parents against each other. She finally settled into a good marriage only to die as a result of childbirth in 1817.
In 1818 George III’s health was failing badly and a newspaper article suggested his sons, all over forty, marry and produce an heir. Following this there were four marriages but only one heir, Princess Victoria. The Duke of Kent died when his daughter was two years old leaving the raising of her to her mother. The Duchess formed an alliance with John Conroy with the objectives of keeping Victoria separated from children her own age and from her father’s family, controlling her so she was biddable to their wishes and to make as much money off her as possible. The princess was a quiet child but also strong willed and refused to give into her mother. When she was told she was queen she did two things that indicated her future direction, she dismissed her household and, for the first time in her life, spent an hour by herself and she had her bed removed from her mother’s room.

The books ends with the coronation and marriage of Queen Victoria. Prior to reading this I had thought of Albert as a weak man who followed the Queen’s wishes. I overlooked the fact that he was German royalty and raised with strong views of right and wrong and his place in life. I suspect it was a tempestuous marriage.

I learned a lot from this book which is something I look for in each book I read but I didn't enjoy it. It is well researched but it could be better edited so you aren't bogged down but the repetition of family details and the writing could flow more easily and not make you feel you are lost in the facts and missing the story.
Posted review. Three stars. ( )
2 vote pmarshall | Jan 21, 2015 |
Note: please click on See Review to see the illustrations.

The so-called Regency Romance is a popular genre of historical romantic fiction. Usually the story is set roughly in the first twenty years of 19th century Great Britain, when the Prince of Wales served as regent for his insane father, King George III. They are populated by dukes and earls going to ton balls and Vauxhall Gardens. Occasionally, the Prince Regent, commonly called “Prinny,” makes a cameo appearance. Even his gang of drunken, dissolute brothers may show up.

One member of the royal family of whom I was completely unaware, however, was Prinny’s only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales. She was born in 1796 to Prinny and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but few other children. She saw her parents rarely. Although it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, her education was desultory, and she was not a diligent student. She was vibrant and energetic, and remarkably sweet given how spoiled she was.

This was a politically perilous time in Great Britain and the large, profligate royal family was uniformly disdained. As Charlotte grew older, she became more popular with the masses while her spendthrift father became more hated. After he was named regent for his father, Prinny feared that upon George III’s death he might be skipped over in favor of his daughter. His solution was to virtually imprison her in a ramshackle mansion full of toadies and spies. Her mother is without power to help her and doesn’t seem very interested in doing so anyway. Occasionally, Charlotte was allowed to visit the sea at Weymouth, but other than that she never traveled outside of London and Windsor.

Charlotte, who was known to have Whiggish tendencies, became the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. She was only vaguely aware of her potential power, but when Prinny tried to marry her off to the unattractive Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. After a brief infatuation with a Prussian prince, known by all to be a worthless rake, she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, a strikingly handsome cavalry officer in the Russian army. He was no virgin hero, though, having once had a passionate affair with Napoleon’s stepdaugher, Hortense de Beauharnais. He was, however, strong, steady, disciplined and honorable – quite a contrast to Charlotte’s father and uncles.

Although she was stung by the Prussian prince’s rejection, she decided to marry Leopold, terming him as “the next best thing, which was a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.” (And ladies, take a look at this fellow and tell me if you wouldn't have settled for him too.)
Charlotte was desperate to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.

They were married on May 2, 1816, in a ceremony deliberately kept small by Prinny. Her dress, however, was said to have cost £10,000.

The newly wedded couple moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, and for the first time in her life Charlotte was independent and content. Just like in a romance novel, she and Leopold soon fell deeply in love, and before their first anniversary, they announced the expected birth of their first child.

Sadly, there was no HEA. On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labor, she gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, Charlotte herself succumbed. The medical care she received was atrocious by today’s standards but probably the best available at the time.

The public’s grief was overwhelming; everyone, even the poorest beggars, wore some form of mourning and shops closed for two weeks. “Her death is one of the most serious misfortunes the country has ever met with,” said the Duke of Wellington. After Prinny and his six brothers, there simply was no heir to the throne. Of George III’s estimated fifty-six grandchildren, not one was legitimate.

Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several of Prinny’s brothers, including the relatively respectable lifelong military man, the Duke of Kent. Not coincidentally, he set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, whom Prinny decreed would be named Alexandrina Victoria. Sadly, the duke died before his daughter was even a year old.

The story of Queen Victoria’s upbringing and marriage comprises the second half of this book. Those events are well known, and I won’t summarize them here. Suffice it to say that her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece, and young Victoria looked upon him almost as a father. For that reason, as well as for his own ambition, he spent years grooming his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.

If you’re interested in learning more about the regency period, I recommend this book. The writing is lively and not pedantic, even though the author holds a D. Phil. from Oxford. Neither George III nor Prinny come off looking very good here; they both were just awful parents. Moreover, Prinny, later George IV, and his brother, later William IV, were drunken, selfish kings who cared only for their own comfort and privilege. As with Charlotte, the public pinned their hopes on young Victoria, and this time their hearts were not broken.
( )
  LadyWesley | Sep 25, 2013 |
Readable...the story about Princess Charlotte is actually more engaging than that of Victoria, whom the author never really seems to get inside of. Maybe he really wanted to write about Charlotte? ( )
  bookweaver | Feb 10, 2013 |
Where I got the book: purchased online. Amazon? I've had it for a while.

This is, in a sense, a two-part book, and the blurb is pretty deceptive. Fortunately I do not remove stars for publisher shenanigans. From the blurb you'd think this book is all about Queen Victoria whereas in fact 100+ of the 346 pages of text are devoted to her far less well-known cousin Charlotte, daughter of George IV (better known as the Prince Regent) and, during her short lifetime, heir-presumptive to the British throne. If she had lived to become Queen, Victoria would probably be a minor footnote in history and we could be talking about the Charlottian age (OK, probably some variation on Carolingian). Charlotte and Leopold instead of Victoria and Albert; I would like to spend some time developing that idea. (Leopold, interestingly enough, eventually became the first King of the Belgians.)

I'm not complaining about the time spent learning about Charlotte, because this lively soap-opera of a dual biography is exactly what I needed to understand a vital point in British history; the transition between the reign of the Hanoverians with their (not all at once--well, not always all at once) dull, incompetent, vice-ridden, hard-drinking, insane, eccentric, greedy and peculiar German princes and the new age of propriety and pantaloons we call the Victorian era. I had always thought of Victoria as the last of the Hanoverians but in fact she was never a Hanoverian ruler; under Salic Law a female could not inherit the Hanoverian title so it passed to Victoria's uncle the Duke of Cumberland. Even that's not as simple as it sounds, but that's another story... Suffice it to say that if Victoria had died before she ensured the succession so very effectively (nine children), the British and German succession would have got all mixed up again so thanks for all the childbearing, Ma'am. And George V got rid of all the British monarchy's German titles during World War I and renamed his family Windsor...

But I digress. The point is that the period between George III and Victoria wasn't an easy one for Britons longing for dynastic stability and Kate Williams has rightly fastened on it as a wonderful story, especially as two of the main players were young girls with parental issues. Charlotte's parents hated each other and the closer she got to the throne, the more they began to battle to get control of her. Victoria lost her father at an early age and fought throughout her teenage years to get out from under her power-hungry mother and her "special advisor" (ahem.)

The result is a fantastic soap-opera that would stand up to the Tudors any day and Kate Williams does a wonderful job with it, keeping the threads of the story in front of the reader so that I never lost track. She also covers the courtship and very early years of Victoria and Albert, which is a great story in itself. My appetite is whetted for much, much more about this period in British history, which also covers the century when Britain went from being a mostly rural, slightly backward (culturally speaking) society to the industrial and cultural superpower it was by the dawn of WWI. Suggestions for further reading are very welcome. ( )
1 vote JaneSteen | Jan 12, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099451824, Paperback)

This is the little known story of Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, her husband Prince Leopold, and also Queen Victoria. It reveals how Victoria’s reign was shaped by the sudden death of Charlotte and the subsequent royal marriages.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:45 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

From the acclaimed author of "England's Mistress" comes a smart, gripping account of the rise to the throne and the early life of Queen Victoria, and the tragic, little-known story of Princess Charlotte, the queen who never was.

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