Books I’ve Read This Week: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 43: From Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II In recent weeks, I have been reading new perspectives on the lives and reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, a novel about Queen Elizabeth II, three volumes of scholarly articles about 19th and 20th century British and European royalty and a new history the United Kingdom in the 19th century. Here are this week’s reviews:

#295 of 365 Queen of the World: Elizabeth II: Sovereign and Stateswoman by Robert Hardman

Genre: Biography

Date Read: October 29-30, 2018

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Paperback, 578 pages

Review: The best royal biography of the year! Most books about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign focus on her life and reign within the United Kingdom but Queen of the World examines her role as Head of the Commonwealth and sovereign of sixteen Commonwealth realms, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hardman provides fascinating behind-the-scenes descriptions and analysis of royal tours and state visits as well as subtle examples of royal diplomacy, especially within the context of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

The various aspects of royal travels including unique gifts, fashion choices, menus and itineraries are explained in detail. There is a section devoted to the role of the Royal Yacht Britannia in royal diplomacy before the ship was decomissioned in the 1990s. Queen of the World includes interviews with numerous ambassadors, diplomats and members of the royal household as well as Princess Anne, the Countess of Wessex and Andrew Parker Bowles. Over the course of the book, Hardman addresses some of the inaccuracies in The Crown series on Netflix, including the circumstances surrounding the Queen’s historic 1961 visit to Ghana.

Hardman places Commonwealth history within the context of current events concerning the monarchy and Commonwealth. Queen of the World begins with the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London, which confirmed that the Prince of Wales will succeed the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth and concludes with the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, who included floral emblems from the Commonwealth nations in the design of her wedding veil. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the global significance of the monarchy and the Queen’s role in international diplomacy.

#296 of 365 The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray

Genre: History

Dates Read: October 28-29, 2018

Acquired: Received as a gift

Format: Paperback, 390 pages

Review: A culinary biography of Queen Victoria and a history of attitudes toward food, cooking and dining in the Victorian era. Victoria was an enthusiastic and adventurous eater who who sampled bird’s nest soup in 1884 and an ostrich egg omelette in 1899. There are fascinating descriptions of the Queen as a culinary tourist, tasting bouillabaisse in the French riviera and seeking out local delicacies on private visits to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Victoria’s daily meals, which generally featured lamb chops or mutton, are compared to the more elaborate meals served at state dinners.

Queen Victoria’s weight fluctuated over the course of her reign, declining during her adolescence, increasing in her early years as Queen, declining again during her marriage to Prince Albert then increasing rapidly during her widowhood. I would have been interested to read more about the impact of the British Empire on the Queen’s meals. There are references to her enthusiasm for Indian curry dishes and assurances by importers of preserved meats from Australia and New Zealand that their products did not contain kangaroo but there is no discussion of Canadian wheat, bacon and fish, which were all exported to Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. The book includes recipes for a variety of dishes enjoyed by the Queen including pancakes with marmalade and royal haggis. A delicious read with a fresh perspective on Queen Victoria.

#297 of 365 The Autobiography of the Queen by Emma Tennant

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: October 25-26, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Harcover, 218 pages

Review: An interesting premise for a novel: Queen Elizabeth II departs for Windsor Village, St. Lucia incognito as Mrs. Gloria Smith to write her autobiography. There are a few fun details imagining the Queen flying economy class or checking in at the aiport, in contrast to the formal circumstances of her official overseas tours. Unfortunately, the novel is consistently written in the tone of an outsider curious about and mildly critical of the monarchy rather than the Queen herself. There is a lot of time devoted to the contents of the Queen’s handbag and what the corgis might do if the Queen was not there to walk them on their usual schedule.

The references to the Queen’s German ancestry and detachment from the day to day lives of regular people sound as though they were written in a critical opinion column about the monarchy rather than how the Queen would muse about her own circumstances. Some of the speculation about the Queen’s opinions is dated as the novel was published in 2007. The plot twist concerning a pretender to the throne ignores the existence of The Royal Marriages Act. For better historical fiction about the Queen, I recommend Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn and An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

#298 of 365 Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 293 pages

Review: A well researched and insighful collection of scholarly articles concerning the role of heirs to the throne in 19th century monarchies. The editors observe that the 19th century saw the expansion of the institution of monarchy in Europe as newly independent countries such as Greece, Norway, Belgium and Bulgaria adopted monarchical government. At the same time, the spread of photography and the popular press allowed for greater scrutiny of royal dynasties as families. There were increased expectations that the lives of royalty would bear some resemblance to the lives of their elite and middle class subjects instead of other royalty alone.

Numerous articles in this collection focus on the popular view in 19th century Europe that royal weddings should follow a romantic attachment between the bride and groom and that the royal domestic sphere should allow for relaxed and informal interactions between royal parents and children. The popular perceptions of royalty developed in the 19th century continue to influence attitudes toward royal family life in the 21st century. Although the focus of the book is the 19th century, there are some fascinating articles about perceptions of royal heirs during the First World War as the future Edward VIII became extremely popular because of his military service (even though his position precluded a combat role) while Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son Crown Prince Wilhelm was satirized across Europe as “Little Willy” because of his self indulgence during the war.

The focus of the book is Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Britain with individual articles concerning Belgium, Spain and Demark. The inclusion of articles concerning the role of the heir to the throne in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states would have enhanced the collection. The examination of popular perceptions of 19th century female heirs such as the future Queen Victoria or Queen Wilhelmina would have also been of interest. I look forward to reading future volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series!

#299 of 365 Royal Heirs and the Uses of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Frank Lorenz Muller and Heidi Mehrkens

Genre: History

Date Read: November 5, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 325 pages

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the royal image from the early 19th century until the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947. The editors observe that royalty needed to find new methods of maintaining public support during this period including presenting their family life to the public through photographs and public appearances. In common with Sons and Heirs: Succession and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europethe topics addressed in this volume remain relevant to public perceptions of royalty in the 21st century including attitudes toward royal tours, fashions, wedding and childrearing as well as royal involvement in the Olympic Games.

There are some fascinating chapters about royalty whose relationship with the public is less known today including King Oscar II of Sweden’s efforts to cultivate a Norweigian identity during his visits to Norway and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s objections to royalty being concerned with their public image. There are detailed chapters devoted to 19th and early 20th century royal tours of the United States and India. The volume is informative and interesting for both scholars and general readers.

#300 of 365 Monarchies and the Great War edited by Matthew Glencross and Judith Rowbotham

Date Read: November 11, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 336 pages

Review: An informative, original and insightful collection of scholarly articles concerning the impact of the First World War on European monarchies. Matthew Glencross notes in the introduction that studies of royalty between 1914 to 1918 often focus on the personalities of individual monarchs involved in the conflict rather than the wider political and ceremonial aspects of monarchical government. Monarchies and the Great War examines this wider context in addition to the individual kings and queens who reigned during the hostilities.

The book includes an analysis of the role of royalty in Anglo-American relations from the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War, discussing the importance of a frequent royal presence in Canada to royal engagement with the United States. There are detailed chapters devoted to the wartime activities of King George V and Queen Mary as well as the political agenda of the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary in addition to chapters concerning monarchies at war in Belgium, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Japan.

Although Czar Nicholas II’s ill fated role as Commander and Chief of the Russian Army from 1915 to 1917 is discussed in the introduction, there are no chapters devoted to the Romanovs, a surprising omission considering that the other prominent European monarchies of the First World War each receive at least one chapter. Judith Rowbotham’s analysis of Queen Mary’s war work is excellent and the inclusion of more articles concerning European royal women’s roles during the First World War would have enhanced the book.

Monarchies and the Great War is an engaging and topical read for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I hope that there will be further volumes in the Palgrave Studies in Modern Monarchy series that continue to explore this fascinating subject as there is still much research to be done concerning European monarchies in wartime.

#301 of 365 Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (The Penguin History of Britain) by David Cannadine

Genre: History

Dates Read: November 10-14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 602 pages

Review: A masterful political history of 19th century Great Britain and Ireland with a strong focus on the Westminster System and party politics as well as the changing role of the monarch over time. Histories of 19th century Britain often begin with Congress of Vienna and extend to the outbreak of the First World War but Victorious Century begins with the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and integrates Irish history into the narrative. While the focus of the book is political developments, Cannadine (the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), also weaves cultural history into the narrative, discussing the work of authors from Jane Austen to HG Wells. Social history receives less attention but the final chapters contain an extended analysis of how daily life in the United Kingdom changed over the course of the century. Events in the wider British Empire and Dominions are mentioned throughout the book but do not receive the same attention as politics within Great Britain and Ireland.

In terms of royal history, Cannadine notes that the 19th century was a period of gradual evolution from a monarchy able to influence political events in the manner of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert early in Queen Victoria’s reign to the more ceremonial role of the elderly Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. He also observes that successive monarchs misread the political and religious situation in Ireland. King George III opposed Catholic emancipation and Queen Victoria was hostile to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule. Not until King George V did a monarch observe that Irish Home Rule in the 19th century would have been a wise policy.

Cannadine admires Prince Albert, arguing that “no member of the British royal family since has made so many-sided a contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of the United Kingdom” and there is a chapter devoted to the Great Exhibition of 1851. In contrast, Cannadine is dismissive of King George III’s “delinquent sons” and argues that the Duke of Kent did not make any notable contribution besides fathering Queen Victoria, a claim disputed by the Duke’s recent biographers. I would have been interested to read more of Cannadine’s thoughts about Queen Victoria’s changing political views over the course of her reign. Overall, however, Victorious Century is an authoritative and engaging history of the 19th century United Kingdom, especially for readers interested in the political figures and developments of the time.

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