18 July, 2013

Review: Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard

The opening chapters of Serving Victoria are a total slog. Hubbard seems unable to choose between too much background and too little. The reader skips between eras with abandon, as Hubbard references different points in Victoria's life without warning. By the time Serving Victoria rolls into the middle chapters the reader has adapted and is engrossed. Courtiers in Victoria's world had to deal with a mercurial and self centered monarch who saw herself as steadily benevolent. Court life was tedious at best, with those called into service treating it as a holy obligation meant to strengthen their spirit. Duty overrides the narrative as Victoria's servants find themselves in roles their station in life hasn't prepared them for. Her middle class members have an advantage here, as service to the queen conferred benefits to them they might not have otherwise achieved.

Seen through the prism of limited writings from a selection of her staff, Victoria emerges as a complex woman lacking self awareness. She seems fortunate in her support system and almost willfully obtuse in her daily life. Hubbard is forced to leave some questions for a true biographer of the queen while she illuminates what being by Victoria's side entailed. While the reader emerges with a clear picture of the almost suburban isolation of Victoria's world, one occasionally wishes for further insight. Why, after Albert's death, did Victoria so enjoy the drunken disrespect of the Brown brothers? Was it a personal fetish? A rejection of the rigid morality she demanded from others? Alternating between complimentary and condemning, this look at Victoria through the eyes of those serving her is ultimately a look at the business of monarchy. Victoria, for all her freedoms, is as imprisoned as her court.

I found Serving Victoria a rewarding read at the close. The disconnect between her true self and her public image informs the delicate dance still required of the British Monarchy today. Her rejection of her successor (the Prince couldn't win with his parents) and favoring of her daughter is played out in her shuffle of favored ministers. Victoria's court is one where those in waiting do just that for hour upon stultifying hour, dolls in a game of house with far reaching consequences.  I ended with a deeper appreciation for both Alberts and a respect for Victoria's attempts to bridge her idealized world with her actual one. No one in Serving Victoria seems truly happy save (perhaps) the Browns. Respect is a far easier emotion to grant than love or satisfaction.

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