One-Minute Book Reviews

July 1, 2009

‘We Women Were Not Made for Governing …’ — ‘We Two,’ a Biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Gillian Gill

Filed under: Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.  By Gillian Gill. Ballantine, 460 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

We Two is something you don’t see every summer: a good beach biography. It’s not so dense and scholarly that you’d have to squint at agate-type footnotes through your Ray-Bans to make sense of it. But neither is it so lightweight that you might be embarrassed to carry it onto a beach even here in New Jersey, the proud home of Boardwalk attractions such as the Shoot the Geek concession stand that lets you fire paintballs at a luckless teenager dressed like a terrorist.

This book is rather the enjoyable story of two fascinating people: Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert, her cousin and husband,  and how they helped to shape the modern world during a marriage that ended when Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42. We Two is is a love story but not just a love story, and Gillian Gill makes affairs of state as interesting as those of the heart.

Gill notes that Victoria won praise on an official visit to Paris when, from a box at the opera house, she waved to people below and then sat down again without a backward glance: “The crowd was impressed. Experts on protocol emerged to note in the French press that only a real queen never looks to see if her chair is in place.”

But Gill also gives vivid accounts of the domestic life of Victoria, who had nine children at the rate of one every two years, and the German-born Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. For all her privileges, Victoria felt so keenly the disadvantages of womanhood – and especially of child-bearing – that she wrote to her eldest daughter, “I think our sex a most unenviable one.”

Gill’s prose, to put it mildly, doesn’t always sing. She has the pedantic habit of continually starting sentences with “However” and a weakness for projecting 21st-century clichés and psychology onto 19th-century royals. Thus we read that the daughters of a king had “dysfunctional” parents and that, in the days of Victoria and Albert, “full disclosure and transparency were not to be expected from royal persons.”

But Gill excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist and serves up a banquet of memorable tales, some involving almost comically soap-operaish behavior by royals. One story involves Prince Albert’s father, a notorious rake, who one night summoned a mistress named Pauline Panam to his favorite retreat.

“After a long walk in a violent rainstorm that soaked her to the skin, Panam waited outside the house alone for hours,” Gill writes. “Finally she was obliged to climb up a ladder to the duke’s window and, when this proved too short, to scramble onto a chair he lowered for her from his bedroom.”

Best line: “Since it was strictly forbidden ever to turn one’s back upon a member of the royal family, the key skill required of women at [Victoria's] court was to walk gracefully backward, even when wearing a train and a headdress eighteen inches high.” We Two abounds details like these that make you see its era.

Worst line: “Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Cambridge graduates did their utmost to block the prince’s election [as chancellor of the university], but, happily, they failed.” But they probably weren’t too happy about how “happily” they failed.

About the headline: Queen Victoria’s comment about women and governing, as quoted by Gill, is:  “We women were not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations; but there are times which force one to take an interest in them mal gré bon gré [whether one likes it or not] and  I do of course,  intensely.”

Published: May 2009

About the author: Gill wrote Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.

Furthermore: An otherwise favorable Wall Street Journal review found several small errors of fact in the book.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 16, 2008

Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles': Now in Paperback

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” With such sharp observations, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in The Diana Chronicles (Broadway, 576 pp., $15.95, paperback). Brown tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s character and motivations. And what she says often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is far better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but because Brown finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography. Click here to read a full review of the book oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.Janiceharayda.com

July 9, 2007

Review of Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:57 am
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The former editor of Vanity Fair remembers when The King and I met Rebecca

The Diana Chronicles. By Tina Brown. Doubleday, 542 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where, Tina Brown tells us, she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” Her next school didn’t seem to do much more to develop her mind – the only admissions requirement was “neat handwriting.”

With sharp observations like these, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in this biography of the Princess Diana. She tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s overall character and motivations. And what she does say often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is miles better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but also because it finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography.

Each chapter reads like an article in Vanity Fair – sleek, glossy and full of higher gossip. Brown tends to focus on style instead of substance, even when writing about people like prime minister Tony Blair. In a typical passage she says that Cherie Blair hated the couple’s visits to the queen at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands and ascribes this to an allergy to “the fur and feathers of the stuffed animals and hunting trophies” on the castle walls. She doesn’t mention the larger reason why the prime minister’s wife may have loathed the visits: The Highlands are a hotbed of anti-Blair sentiment and a place where, even at the height of his popularity, her husband could be expect to be booed. Brown writes much more persuasively about the Diana’s relations with the press and shows that these were more complex and less worshipful than is generally assumed, especially after the princess worked with freelancer Morton on Diana: Her True Story instead of one of the newspaper reporters who had covered her regularly.

What did all of it mean to Britain? In her last chapter, Brown says that Tony Blair told her, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.” Brown agrees, calling the change a “gift” that reflected Diana’s “emotional intelligence.” But the rest of her book undercuts this conclusion. Again and again, Brown casts Diana as a woman who was at times warm and compassionate and at other times needy, dishonest, self-absorbed and so flaky that she was an easy mark for New Age charlatans with crystal balls and astrological charts.

No doubt there is truth in both images. But if Diana exemplified “a new way to be British,” it is hard to know which version of her the country absorbed. And it is easy to see why some people might long for the “old way” exemplified by women like Victoria Liddard, who died at the age of 102, just before the Waleses separated. After demonstrating for women’s suffrage in 1912, Liddard was sentenced to two months of hard labor and kept in a cell that contained only a straw mattress on a board. She was undaunted, according to an obituary in the Telegraph. “She kept her spirits up,” the newspaper said, “by singing at the top of her voice through a high cell window.”

Best line: “While the world was thrilling to the spectacle of Diana’s life as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, her home life was becoming more like something out of Hitchcock. Under a King and I façade lurked a Rebecca–like sinister melodrama.” The Diana Chronicles has many memorable phrases like this one that, given how things turned out, seem less overheated than they might in another biography.

Worst line: “Paul Burrell’s two memoirs, too, have much touching detail to commend them.” Entertainment Weekly summed up the most recent in five words — “smarmy butler dishes more dirt” – and named it one of the five worst books of 2006. And many things that Brown asserts as fact are neither believable nor supported by end notes that would have bolstered their credibility. One example: She tells us while discussing the birth of Prince Harry that the Windsors typically had first a boy and then a girl: “Diana was so reluctant to be different that, even though she knew after her amniocentesis test in 1984 that she was carrying a boy, she had failed to share that information with her husband.” She doesn’t offer a clue to how she knows this.

Editor: Phyllis Grann

Published: June 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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