52 Good Books

Book Review 48 – Victoria of England by Edith Sitwell

Queen Victoria, by George Housman Thomas. Image belongs to the National Portrait Gallery.

Queen Victoria, Empress of India, wife and widow of Albert. Why is it that Victoria inspires our interest? What is it about her lonely, imperious figure, shrouded in black, that keeps us coming back for more? I wanted to get to know Victoria a bit better and when I saw Victoria of England appear on the book reviewer site, Netgalley, I was thrilled to put in a request to Agora books and have it approved. This meant I got a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Lucky me!

But before I could get to the great queen herself, I found myself almost as intrigued by the writer, Dame Edith Sitwell who wrote this book in 1936. The blurb at the start of the book puts her up there with other artistic types of her time. The eldest of three literary siblings, she created a ‘literary and artistic clique’ around herself in the 1920s. I was just picturing her having evening soiree’s in a flapper dress with pearls round her neck and feathers in her hair. To think that she was speaking to us from that time made this book feel like a history within a history, but, as we will go on to see, it also posed some challenges.

Sitwell launched into Dukes and Prince Regents in the beginning of the story, clearly assuming some prior knowledge. Luckily this didn’t last too long as Victoria was born within a couple of pages (and so too was Albert.) But there was a tendency to assume a level of prior knowledge that kept me on my toes throughout.

That said, first and foremost, this book was an eavesdroppers joy. It had a real fly-on-the-wall feel to it. Sitwell manages to draw characters and conjure up descriptions of outward appearances as well as inner thoughts, which makes the book very personable. Victoria of England is not just a historical book, you see. It is the story of a young girl, her journey to the throne and the ensuing reign that took her to the ripe old age of 81. Now if you read that on the jacket of a book would you pick it up to read? I suppose it depends on your preference of genre, but it would be right up my street!

Victoria herself is depicted as a morally upright child, eager to please. When asked by her uncle, George IV what her favourite music was the ten year old Victoria, ever the schmoozer, replied, God Save The King. I couldn’t help liking her a bit for this. In fact I couldn’t help mostly liking her throughout the book. It is true her sense of humour takes a serious nose-dive following the death of her husband, it’s true also that she is portrayed as extremely stubborn, but Sitwell also shows Victoria’s unswerving desire to do the right thing.

Speaking of Sitwell, I got the distinct feeling she was a bit of a Victoria fan. So I wasn’t sure how much of what she said I could genuinely trust. How much was fact and how much was an economic truth? It’s always difficult to look back at historical events with a modern lens. We have different ideas of what constitutes good and bad. In reading this book we are first judging Victoria by 1930’s standards and then judging those standards by 2018 standards. Doctor Who may know how to deal with this paradox, but I just find it perplexing.

The queen’s story also wasn’t told in an entirely linear way. Whilst I appreciate this can make for a more interesting style of telling a tale, when it comes to grappling with the facts of history I found it a little confusing. People aged and become young again, died and came back to life again. Confusingly Prime Minister’s genuinely fell out of office and back in again. Something that we are unused to in the 21st century. I don’t see David Cameron making a come back any time soon, do you? But the lack of a linear narrative meant that I struggled at times to piece together the order of things.

Victoria of England isn’t confined to the queens story but details a lot of the other general goings on of the time. Some of this, such as the conditions of workers I was interested in, others less so. At one point there was an entire page listing all the products that would have been on the dressing table of the French Empress… (yawn!) I had to keep reminding myself that Sitwell wrote this biography in 1936. There were a lot of things that might have been symptoms of the time in which they were written. For example the use of multiple French quotes, none of which were translated. I guess I got the gist, but it felt a little unnecessary.

I suppose the theory in republishing Victoria of England, is that nothing relating to Queen Victoria will have changed since the time this book was written. The reality however is that whilst history hasn’t changed the way we write has and, whilst there are parts of this book that really do shine, modern readers may find themselves slightly bemused with the style of the rest of the book.

Next week I’ll be reading another Netgalley approved book, The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams. Come see me again on Monday when I’ll tell you all about us…

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