At first glance, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s reign in Britain seems stereotypical of the era. Social standards had predetermined their wedding, the couple stimulated a strong sense of nationalism, and they abundantly supplied Europe with royal offspring. However, as Gillian Gill highlights in her book, “We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals” in reality this relationship was far from orthodox. In a world where misogyny, debt, and lewd behavior were common among rulers, their partnership broke many modern-day standards and created a new set of values.
Though many of these values emerged in struggle for power, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert managed to stay together, and ultimately, redefined European politics, economics, and society in the 1800s. By the time of their first encounter, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were very different people. While both hailed from the Coburg family line and grew up in single parent households, dissimilar childhood personalities and circumstances shaped two divergent characters, and had an immense impact on their future decisions. As a child, Victoria found herself in an especially unique position.
Before her father’s last breath, he managed to scrawl a signature onto his will, establishing his wife, Duchess Marie Luise Victoire, as sole protector of Victoria. For a royal child to be placed in the custody of her mother was unprecedented in an era where women lacked equality. If her father had not made a will, guardianship of Victoria would have been given to her Hanoverian uncle William IV, prince regent. It is safe to assume that a Hanoverian Victoria, growing up in Windsor Castle with the prince, would have led an extremely different life, and become a very different person and queen.
Instead, the young princess grew up in Kensington Castle, under the wary eye of her mother and her mother’s right hand man, Sir John Conroy. John Conroy, a Hanoverian relative to the duchess, was an expert manipulator and domestic enforcer, and who sought strict control over Kensington Castle’s inner workings. Under his “regime,” Conroy developed an authoritative scheme, known as the Kensington system, in order to strengthen his grasp on Victoria and power. Internally, the system limited Victoria’s freedoms and molded her to Conroy’s will.
Externally, it portrayed the Duchess of Kent as an ideal mother, so no one could seek guardianship over Victoria. For the purposes of maintaining control and silencing the princess, Conroy succeeded. Victoria, who had once been outspoken, courageous, and energetic, was severely worn from her life at Kensington. However, when she became queen at 18 and discovered freedom from Conroy’s power, she was prepared to forget her past and pursue new ventures. Whereas Victoria’s thoughts about ruling England were suppressed as a child, Prince Albert’s were encouraged.
Albert’s chief advisors, Baron Stockmar and King Leopold (of Belgium), played a pivotal role in shaping Albert into the perfect husband for Victoria. However, this was no easy task in the small duchy of Coburg that was atavistically sexist, feudal, and vulgar. Nonetheless, Albert broke these Coburg mores in order to achieve his goals; he came to value solitude, learning, and most significantly virginity. This training not only produced a man that Victoria could love, but also one with a high regard for morality and the values that would later be titled Victorian.
Upon Victoria’s ascension to the throne, she found herself at once engaged in the “thrilling” affairs of state and permitted to socialize in ways previously forbidden at Kensington. Moreover, as an unmarried monarch with considerable liberty, Gillian Gill notes, ‘Victoria was far more man than woman, as a social and legal entity. ” She had power, freedom, and helpful guidance under her close friend and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. However, much to her dismay, marrying Albert on February 10, 1840, changed these circumstances.
Within a year of marriage, the social institution of motherhood had cheated her of the extraordinary independence she possessed. Despite legally controlling the most powerful empire of her time, ardently loving her husband, and possessing nearly unlimited human resources, the 9 pregnancies that Vitoria considered the “yoke of matrimony,” left her vulnerable and dependent on others, especially Albert. As Victoria regretfully sank into the role of childbearing, Albert encountered the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to seize control of the British monarchy.
Despite the harsh anti-Coburg (as well as anti-Albert) hostility he experienced, Albert presumed (correctly) that as husband to the most loved figure in England, he could work his own agenda. Initially, Albert took on small bureaucratic tasks for Victoria; he sorted important documents, provided his thoughts on international relations, and developed economic strategies. However, following the birth of his first child (Victoria) he was in a strong position and hoped that soon his ambitions to take on meaningful roles in the state would be realized.
But two people blocked the mastery he sought: Prime minister Lord Melbourne (Queen Victoria’s right-hand man and close advisor) and Baroness Louise Lehzen (Victoria’s childhood mentor and dear friend). Albert saw that both had a significant influence on Victoria’s decisions, and furthermore completely disagreed with the ideologies they encouraged. In time, through clever negotiations and an alliance with the Tory party (An alliance that would dictate many future policies), Albert was able to oust Melbourne and Lehzen from Victoria’s side. His actions had culminated, and consequently gave him a firm grip on the reigns of the British monarchy.
Though Albert’s rise to power had been gradual, once he finally attained authority, he wasted no time exercising it. Because King Leopold and Baron Stockmar had trained him from a young age to value virtue and honor, Albert’s immediate goal was to raise England’s moral standard. He chastised the court for their devotion to drinking, gambling, and extra-martial sex, and fired numerous royal staff members deemed corrupt (especially those working with his children). Above all, with the help of Victoria (who was submissive despite resistance) and modern photography, he presented his family as a moral role model that the public could emulate.
However, while Albert won favor with the Anglicans and Methodists in England, for many, his strict adherence to morality was not likable. In addition to reshaping the moral institutions in England during his “reign,” Albert also played a big role in England’s economic and political landscape. Arguably his greatest success was constructing the Crystal Palace, which held the Great Exhibition in 1851, showcasing Britain’s prestige as well as innovations in a rapidly changing world. This event flooded the treasury with cash, as well as helped define England as a global power.
On a political level, Albert also played middleman in many international debates, especially in the Crimean War. To some extent, he even used his children as pawns to advance the British monarshy. Once they came of age, Albert strategically encouraged marriages that would create powerful political and economic alliances. Though many English citizens, especially Prime minister Lord Palmerton, saw Albert’s international decisions as reckless, even naive, modern-day scholars argue that, had he lived longer, and continued to influence European politics, the First World War may have been prevented.
Despite Victoria’s love for Albert and his successes, she also despised her limited role in the government. Gillian Gill describes the Queen as, “a fat tiger, content with the cage, answering to the whip, but lashing out from time to time, and daring her tamer to get careless. ” As time progressed, and pregnancies halted, this “tiger” lashed out more and more, questioning her husband’s choices, and resuming some of her old jobs. Additionally, Victoria recognized, that Albert was growing weary. In his determined quest for power, Albert, had lost his youthfulness, emotionally and physically.
The Queen noted in her personal diary, “barely 40, he [Albert] looked 60. ” Now as vulnerable as she had been during her pregnancies, but with added monarchial responsibility, Albert needed Victoria’s help. The power had shifted once again. Victoria managed her new responsibilities quite effectively, however, that is not to say she did so joyfully. After Albert’s death in 1861, she would never be the same. It was then, in her long withdrawal into mourning, that she wrote eloquently of “we two,” recalling a time “when the world seemed only to be ourselves.
While the unique struggle for power caused divisions between Prince and Queen, love between husband and wife, overcame all. Considering this relationship’s unique devotion and faith, in addition to the social, political, and economic ideals of 19th century England, presents a complete picture of the “Victorian Era. ” It was a time when discipline, responsibility, stability, innovation, marital fidelity, and faith, became the primary motivation and concern of a nation deeply affected by its Queen and Prince.
Gillian Gill, the author of “We Two,” is a well-known British chronologist and biographer, with a Ph. D. rom Cambridge University. Gill has taught classes and led seminars at Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern, focusing on mainly British History and women’s rights. She has written four thorough biographies, with a centralized around British women including Florence Nightingale and Agatha Christy. In We Two, she breaks from this sole focus on women and describes a relationship between a powerful woman and man instead. Despite this change, she utilized extensive resources (evident in the bibliography), including primary source documentation and first-hand visits to some of Victoria’s private estates, to conduct research for the book.
Throughout the story, Gillian Gill frequently interjects her interpretations, in response to the primary source documents she chose to use. However, by denoting such opinions with the first person pronoun I, she effectively separates her interpretive comments from the 3rd person narration. As an outspoken feminist, accusations of bias might arise regarding her description of Queen Victoria’s suppressed power. Yet, by providing solid evidence in many different situations, Gillian Gill, proves, that this was the harsh reality rather than a feminist appeal. The only true source of bias in this story is from the primary documents themselves.
Gill, notes that several ideas expressed in the book come directly from Victoria’s diary entries, which have personal bias pertaining to the Queen. Overall, this story helps display the truth about the Victorian era, and the Queen and Prince that shaped it. By vividly describing their relationship, Gillian Gill, not only enlightens readers about the unique social and political aspects of 19th century England, but also provides a greater global picture. Gill displays just how unique the 19th century was, how much the world was changing, and how influential individual actions were.
Through easily understood language, colorful commentary, and creatively selected document excerpts, this story reads more like a novel than a strictly factual historical piece, making it more accessible to broader audiences. While a creative and engaging story, may be subject to scrutiny in the historical community, ultimately, the facts at the root of this creativity are concrete. Gill’s research was extensive, her writing was clear, and her story was gripping. We Two truly a unique piece to read, and provides a new perspective on 19th-century European life that can captivate and surprise scholars and teens alike.