I’ve long been a fan of the historical novel, particularly when it’s closely based on reality. There’s usually some new angle of a person’s impact on history, which I nearly always find interesting. I tend to go through periods of immersing myself in a particular period in history, reading a few books from that era before moving on. Some factual, some biographies, and some fiction. Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, late nineteenth-century Japan. While living in Ireland, I went through the fight for independence (1916 to 1922), as well as the Troubles.
Now in England, I’ve been somewhat slow to pick up on this, which I suspect is at least partly due to there being such a wide range to choose from. Tudors or Stuarts? William Wallace or William III? Edwardian or Georgian? There’s also a risk that the focus would be on the kings & queens themselves, rather than on the rest of what was happening in the country at the time. And so I’ve tried to get a big-picture view of English history thus far – getting to grips with the main events, people and places, and improving my understanding of who fits in where, before deciding where to focus my time. The problem with this is that the knowledge is gained in small snippets – a little town has a little museum where something happened in the context of the Civil War, for example, which has a loose connection to the main thread of the story. Keeping all these details tied together somehow is quite a challenge.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post – which is that there’s a new exhibition at Kensington Palace, which looks at the early life of Queen Victoria. Specifically, the period from when her father died and she took over the crown, to when Albert died. In and of itself, it provided no new historical information as such, but it tried to bring out the personal side of Victoria during that time. In this, it succeeds remarkably well.
There are extracts from her diary printed all over the furniture, walls and displays throughout the exhibition. They describe her reaction to the initial meeting with the Cabinet, her early childhood, and her romance with Albert.
It is this last bit that really struck me as something new. I knew she had a happy marriage, and that Albert died early, and she mourned him and wore black for the rest of her life. But hearing it in her own words, from excerpts of letters she wrote to him and others, made it really intimate. Under the hard, dominant Queen of the Empire exterior, there was an emotional young girl blissfully in love with her prince. It’s a fantastic piece of work by the Historical Palace people. Definitely worth seeing.
It almost made me change my opinion of her. But then I brought to mind those three words that keep her in a certain historical box in my books, and all was back to normal.
Great Irish Famine
Ah yes, that’s more like it. But it did make me think that perhaps it would be good to add her to my list of people and periods to investigate next – maybe there will be enough in her life to change my mind.