I’ve said before that two of my favorite genres are history and romance, but I love when the two are blended together. Most often, this takes the form of historical romances, but every now and then I’ll stumble upon a book that focuses on a romance of history. These can prove the most satisfying, because they were real.
In this edition of Erin’s Bookshelf, we’re highlighting my love of history once again, with a romantic twist, with We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill.
Here’s the book’s description from Amazon (Warning: It’s a long one):
“It was the most influential marriage of the nineteenth century–and one of history’ s most enduring love stories. Traditional biographies tell us that Queen Victoria inherited the throne as a naïve teenager, when the British Empire was at the height of its power, and seemed doomed to find failure as a monarch and misery as a woman until she married her German cousin Albert and accepted him as her lord and master. Now renowned chronicler Gillian Gill turns this familiar story on its head, revealing a strong, feisty queen and a brilliant, fragile prince working together to build a family based on support, trust, and fidelity, qualities neither had seen much of as children. The love affair that emerges is far more captivating, complex, and relevant than that depicted in any previous account.
The epic relationship began poorly. The cousins first met as teenagers for a few brief, awkward, chaperoned weeks in 1836. At seventeen, charming rather than beautiful, Victoria already “showed signs of wanting her own way.” Albert, the boy who had been groomed for her since birth, was chubby, self-absorbed, and showed no interest in girls, let alone this princess. So when they met again in 1839 as queen and presumed prince-consort-to-be, neither had particularly high hopes. But the queen was delighted to discover a grown man, refined, accomplished, and whiskered. “Albert is beautiful!” Victoria wrote, and she proposed just three days later.
As Gill reveals, Victoria and Albert entered their marriage longing for intimate companionship, yet each was determined to be the ruler. This dynamic would continue through the years–each spouse, headstrong and impassioned, eager to lead the marriage on his or her own terms. For two decades, Victoria and Albert engaged in a very public contest for dominance. Against all odds, the marriage succeeded, but it was always a work in progress. And in the end, it was Albert’s early death that set the Queen free to create the myth of her marriage as a peaceful idyll and her husband as Galahad, pure and perfect.
As Gill shows, the marriage of Victoria and Albert was great not because it was perfect but because it was passionate and complicated. Wonderfully nuanced, surprising, often acerbic–and informed by revealing excerpts from the pair’s journals and letters–We Two is a revolutionary portrait of a queen and her prince, a fascinating modern perspective on a couple who have become a legend.”
Anyone familiar with Queen Victoria will know the legacy of her marriage to Prince Albert. They loved each other so deeply, that when Albert died, Victoria wore mourning black for the rest of her life. Together they had nine children who would spread across Europe, connecting nearly every royal family in the continent back to Victoria and Great Britain. Prince Albert brought the greatest minds of the world to England for his Great Exhibition, and Victoria ruled an empire during the height of Britain’s power, the longest reigning monarch until Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her. Their story together is one of prestige and dynasty, played out on a global stage.
Yet Gill brings something new to the story. She humanizes the legend, breaks apart the mythology of Victoria and Albert to see the truth behind it. She doesn’t focus so much on how the powerful couple ruled together. Instead, she highlights two individuals, and how they maneuvered through the complicated dynamics of royal power and marriage, all while maintaining a passionate love that was as real and gritty as any regular couple’s.
Gill divides the book into two sections: The Years Apart and Together. In The Years Apart, she tells their independent stories, showing us how each was shaped by the people around them and the responsibilities and expectations thrust upon them. Their intended marriage hangs in the background of their lives, but initially as a political move by their families rather than a love match.
In Together, Gill tells the story of two people navigating the unique circumstance of their marriage. We are shown the struggles that each individual faces while trying to love their spouse. Albert has difficulty finding his place in Britain, as well as defining his role in his new home and marriage. He is a husband, and should be head of his family, but he is married to the most powerful woman in the country, and is by law subservient to her. Victoria desperately loves her husband and wants to make him happy, but is forced to walk the fine line between wife and constitutional monarch, working to please both her country and her husband. Victoria is dramatic, and Albert has a cold temper. He can sometimes be manipulative, and she stubborn and childish. Yet, they still love each other and fight as hard for their relationship as they do for their individual rights and powers.
This book is beautifully written, using the bare-bone facts of history to dig out the emotions at play in this complicated marriage. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves history or romance. It will leave you with a new understanding of the motives of the black-clad widow Queen Victoria, and the love of her life, Albert.
Until next time,