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We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals    by Gillian Gill order for
We Two
by Gillian Gill
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2009 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The term Victorian conjures up all kinds of images in our minds - tea and crumpets, an expanding British Empire, a prudish kind of morality, and the royal couple's exemplary, ever faithful - and very fruitful - marriage. Have we been sold a bill of goods? According to acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill, author of the highly recommended We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, Queen Victoria, 'that tiny bundle of energy with the core of steel', worked very hard to put her own spin on Prince Albert's life and on their relationship, which was not quite as harmonious as it might have appeared on the surface.

Gillian Gill portrays two individuals with very unhappy childhoods (Albert lost his mother from his life at age five, while Victoria's father died when she was only eight months old) who were very carefully controlled, manipulated and molded by those around them to fit their later roles in life. Victoria's mother Victoire and her unscrupulous advisor, Captain John Conroy, hoped to rule England through a regency (and kept her 'virtually a prisoner in her own home'). Albert's ambitious uncle Leopold (who had missed his own chance to become Britain's prince consort) was the puppetmaster who planned to put his nephew on the throne - and insisted that he 'come to the marriage chaste'.

Though Albert's own family members were as licentious as their peers, he was raised (in a reactionary atmosphere) to despise women, and to carefully guard his reputation - and hence eligibility to marry the first cousin who had been trained 'to prize moral purity.' But Gill also depicts Victoria - and her daughter Vicky - as having very healthy libidos. And she shows us a queen with a strong sense of her entitlement to rule, who appreciated the many talents her husband brought to the table, but who only gave up what control she did because of the physical demands of her successive pregnancies. Finished with childbearing by the time he died at age forty-two, 'Victoria was already chipping away at Albert's pedestal.'

Gill calls Victorian 'an intensely affective word, since it relates to the things closest to all of us, to the way we run our sex lives and organize our families', and tells us that in the 90s 'a lament had arisen over the loss of Victorian values', which include discipline, innovation, entrepeneurship, parental control and social cohesion - in addition to the faith, thrift and sexual continence that we all associate with the term. There is certainly much to admire in the way the royal couple conducted their lives. One comment in the book that especially intrigued me was that if Albert (who seems to have worked himself to death) had lived even one more year, the first World War might have been averted.

Gillian Gill's We Two is an absorbing and highly recommended read for anyone with an interest in history, or who would like to reassess our over-simplistic appreciation of the Victorian (perhaps more properly Albertian, according to Gill) era.

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