My Victorian Summer: We Two by Gillian Gill and Armadale by Wilkie Collins + Reading Journal

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I never intended that my first post for My Victorian Summer would come a full month after the inauguration of my project, but I’ve found that with summer weather, long books, and family in town, my blogging is becoming less of a priority than before. To my surprise, I’m okay with this. I may continue to leave things rather “hands off” for the next little while. Maybe I’ll get back into a blogging groove at some point, but for now, I’m living my life.

The two Victorian-esque books I have finished this month are completely different.

We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, and Rivals by Gillian Gill is a non-fiction biography of the monarch and her husband. It was not, of course, written during the Victorian era, but I read it to get a sense of what made the Victorian Era a distinct era. I found the biography quite fascinating, even if the relationship between Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert was not quite as satisfyingly romantic as Hollywood made out in The Young Victoria.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins, on the other hand, was a fantastic sensation novel from the 1860s, complete with dual and mistaken identities, poison, attempted murder, and above all superstition. While the almost-700-page novel seemed a little slow to begin, the convoluted plots and depth of characters made it a satisfying and delicious book to devour.

I also share my current Reading Journal below.

We Two by Gillian Gill

I loved watching The Young Victoria, a recent Hollywood portrayal of Queen Victoria’s courtship and early marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. That movie prompted me to go on my “Victorian Summer” reading frenzy. Reading the true story of the couple’s life together was a bit disappointing after Hollywood, simply because theirs was rather a non-romantic and more practical relationship. We Two: Victoria and Albert, Rulers, Partners, and Rivals by Gillian Gill provided a biography of both Victoria and Albert’s youth and then a biography of their life together until Albert’s premature death at age 42 of typhoid fever.

Princess Victoria of Kent was just a few months past eighteen when her Uncle passed away, leaving her Queen of England. Her first eighteen years of life were sheltered by her overbearing mother and her mother’s power-hungry associate Sir John Conroy in Kensington Castle. So upon receiving sovereign authority, she was determined to rule her way. She did not want to marry. She wanted to make a difference for her nation, which she loved.

For the first three years of her reign, she worked closely with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, making mistakes but really putting her all in to her work. Yet, after a few years at court, she found that she longed for male companionship; her cousin, Prince Albert, had been groomed since childhood to be her husband, and so she consented to the marriage. It is evident that the two were quite fond of each other and certainly in love, but theirs was a convenient marriage: neither really seemed to have much choice about who they married.

Reading of Victoria’s and Albert’s life was somewhat of a tutorial in gender and family politics in England in the 1800s. The fact that Victoria was a married female altered her ability to rule England in part because of the Albert’s view of women; Albert was the one who made a political difference for much of their married life.

Had Queen Victoria not been quite so fertile (or as Gill points out, had they had any type of understanding of natural birth control), she may have dominated the political scene. She was prepared to lead and be a dominating force. As it was, she had pregnancy after pregnancy for the first two decades of her reign, left physically exhausted by the wear on her body. Also, Prince Albert was raised in a misogynistic environment and therefore seems to have stifled Victoria’s abilities somewhat.

Prince Albert, although not legally a monarch of England, was therefore the behind-the-scenes leader of England. So many of the things that seem definitively “Victorian” are really “Albertian.” His upbringing had been to prepare him to be consort to the isolated and virginal Princess Victoria, and since his family was known for their debauchery, he had been the family exception, raised to conform to a different morality than his brother and uncles. His arrival in the English court may have been what prompted the Victorian morality that we now think of. Further, Albert’s influence on the “Great Exhibition” is also an example of how he influenced England to think ahead. He was fascinated by developing technology, he had an interest in social innovation, and he was well trained in political discourse. He was, like Victoria, a born leader.

Gillian Gill’s biography of the two focused on their relationship, and the book was well researched and engagingly written. It was only a bit disappointing to read the truth, especially of how dominating Prince Albert was. (For example, it was Queen Victoria who always begged forgiveness when there was a disagreement between the two; in their relationship, Prince Albert expected her to see her place as a woman, which was of course below himself.) When their marriage came to an end with Albert’s early death, it was Queen Victoria who had succumbed to Albert’s position on women: no longer was she the strong teenaged queen, eager to make a difference in the world and unexcited about being tied down. When Albert died, she was the dutiful wife who proclaimed the goodness of her dead husband. Despite the fact that she was the sovereign ruler of England, Queen Victoria was also a wife as trapped in the familial duties just as many other women in Victorian England. She did have nannies and fine medical care, but she was still trapped in her role, with a domineering man at her head.

I’m glad I read about Albert and Victoria, even though it was rather disappointing to me. As I read the novels from the era, I think it may help to remember the influence of the queen and her consort. Since I love history, it was also fascinating to see how the family fit in to the international political picture.

I should note that Gill does not come to the same conclusions that I’ve mentioned above in so many words; that’s what I got from their story. At just under 400 pages (plus notes), We Two is not a comprehensive account, and much is left unsaid. Yet, if you are interested in reading the story of Queen Victoria and her husband, We Two is great place to start.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

And then we go to fiction.

Oh, Wilkie Collins. I love you so much! The Woman in White was delightful and may have been better written than Armadale (a reread is in order to determine if that is so). The Moonstone, as a mystery, was well developed but simply okay for me, a non-mystery person. But Armadale just topped them both in terms of suspense and emotional attachment. No one beats Lydia Gwilt as a complicated villain.

Twenty years ago, two boys named Allan Armadale vied for the attentions of a young woman. Now (in 1851), their two orphaned sons – each also called Allan Armadale – cross paths. The mysterious money-hungry redhead Miss Lydia Gwilt shows up and things get a little bit crazy.

Like the other Wilkie Collins novels I’ve read, Armadale dealt with the question of identity: people had multiple identities and multiple names. It also dealt with generational identity as the Allan Armadale that form the bulk of the action are the children of men of the same name. Armadale seemed to ask questions: Are these young men destined to be their father’s sons? Are they, by nature, destined to similar wrong choices, for example? Collins also drew heavily on superstition because the story keeps circling back to Allan Armadale’s mysterious dream. Do these characters have choices or are events destined?

Another theme that seemed central was the one I most enjoyed, the question of good and evil. The first two hundred pages of this chunkster seemed a bit slow, but once Lydia Gwilt began to interact with the men at Thorpe Ambrose, I did not want to put it down. Miss Gwilt is a villain through and through, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Wilkie Collins doesn’t quite excuse her actions but as we progressively learn more about her, the story truly becomes hers and we see a bit of where she is coming from. I liked her, ridiculous and bad as she was even on good days. I absolutely loved how Collins created her character, for she makes this story the fascinating page-turner that it is. She was captivating in a way no one else in the novel was. Collins gave us pages of her journal (progressively more throughout the book) so we’d see just what she was thinking and how she was developing. Though the book is called Armadale, I believe that Miss Gwilt is the main character within it.

Collins puts in plenty of excitement (poison, attempted murder, coincidence, and a lunatic asylum), yet it is utterly convincing and real. I feel I have barely touched on the main points and the depth that is in Armadale. Believe me when I say it is a fun ride.

For more insights into the novel, see Shelf Love, Bibliolatry, Novel Insights, Becky’s Book Reviews, and Savidge Reads.

Reading Journal (30 June)

I’m trying to let go of schedules a little bit more and just read what I want. I have so many Victorian reads on my radar I could just read Victorian for the rest of the year!

Recently Finished: The Audacity of Hope (audiobook, abridged) by Barack Obama

Recently Abandoned (for now): The Inferno by Dante, Hollander translation (I may have a post about this abandonment)

In Progress: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (for My Victorian Summer); Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (audiobook, for My Victorian Summer); Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (for Orbis Terrarum/Asia); Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader (for Imperial Russia Classics Circuit); I Am A Cat by Natsume Soseki (my personal JLit Challenge); Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose (for my other book club)

On Deck: The Art of Victorian Fiction (essays for My Victorian Summer); Great Expectations (for My Victorian Summer); The Stranger and The Plague by Camus (the former for my Classics Reading Group); The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee (for the Spotlight Series); whatever other books as please my fancy.

Reviewed on June 30, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • It sounds like Gill’s biography would actually be more to my liking than the Young Victoria film, of which I am deeply wary – I just can’t get behind romanticizing the love story of a pair of rulers who oppressed so many people. I mean, India? The Opium Wars? Anyway, I read Gill’s biography of the Nightingale family, which was interesting and well-done, and it sounds like this one was, too.

    I should really read more Collins. Loved The Woman in White and The Moonstone; sounds like Armadale would be an excellent follow-up!
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Moo Pak =-.

    • Emily, I am a romantic, so I admit I liked the movie’s story! I don’t know much about the politics and this book doesn’t go in to it. But it seems Albert had far more political influence than Elizabeth did and both of them were supposed to go through Parliament so would be interesting to see what influence they really had on, say, India or the Opium Wars. Certainly plenty, but not exclusive oppression rights….

      I really enjoyed Armadale and I’m excited to read more Collins!

  • I haven’t even started The Inferno yet for that read-along and I don’t think I am going to get to it. I have no reading motivation. I’m curious to see what you think of Camus. I read The Stranger last November and felt kind of “eh” about it.
    .-= Allie´s last post on blog ..Mono and Rejections =-.

    • Allie, I read The Stranger last year and was completely indifferent to it. This year I’m rereading it for a book club. Hoping discussion will help it sit better!

    • Aarti, See, I LOVED Miss Gwilt. Not as a person (I would not like to meet her) but I found her delightfully fascinating: her motives, her atttitudes, her way of expressing herself. I think that made the book so wonderful for me!

  • I’m so pleased that you enjoyed Armadale. I felt sure that you would. And I totally agree that Miss Gwilt makes the book. Yes, she’s wicked, but she’s so unapologetic about it–no excuses or self-justifications, just out and out selfishness. It’s oddly refreshing!

    • Teresa, thanks for your Classic Circ review last year — I think that’s what got me very excited about it…besides the fact that I am still just discovering Wilkie Collins. Such a great writer!

  • Can you believe I have NEVER read any Wilkie Collins?! Not even the famous Woman in White! The Gillian Gill book sounds intriguing, I may try to pick that up at some point. Thanks for the thorough review!

  • This was a great and informative read! I too am surprised by what Gill’s revealed, when I learned that Victoria and Albert’s was a great love (this was in the run-up to the film’s release) I was happy to have heard it, and it correlated with what I already knew. It seems I should read Gill’s book… And I didn’t know Barack Obama was the narrator of his books!

    • Charlie, which correlated with what you knew? That Victoria and Albert had a great love? Or that theirs was more a marriage of political convenience? I enjoyed seeing more of the truth, but I admit that I still like Hollywood’s portrayal quite a lot!

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