'We Two' A Story Of Marriage And Monarchy Queen Victoria's enduring partnership with Prince Albert is one of British history's great love stories. In We Two, Gillian Gill describes Victoria and Albert's tempestuous yet successful marriage, and the real story behind the powerful couple whom she describes as rulers, partners and rivals.
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'We Two' A Story Of Marriage And Monarchy

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'We Two' A Story Of Marriage And Monarchy

'We Two' A Story Of Marriage And Monarchy

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A new movie called "Young Victoria" tells the story of the legendary queen of England before she was a legend, when she was a teenage ruler treated as a political pawn.

(Soundbite of movie, "Young Victoria")

Ms. EMILY BLUNT (Actress): (As Young Victoria) Do you ever feel like a chess piece in a game being played against your will?

Mr. RUPERT FRIEND (Actor): (As Prince Albert) Do you?

Ms. BLUNT: (As Young Victoria) Constantly.

Mr. FRIEND: (As Prince Albert) Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.

Ms. BLUNT: (As Young Victoria) You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?

Mr. FRIEND: (As Prince Albert) Not for you, with you.

ROBERTS: That's Emily Blunt as Victoria, and Rupert Friend as her cousin Albert, the German prince she married. Their love affair was the stuff of song and story, many of those stories written by Victoria herself with the rosy glow of nostalgia and the sanitation of royal legacy.

But perhaps the definitive story of Victoria and Albert was written by Gillian Gill. Her book is called "We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals."

Gillian Gill joins me in just a minute, but we also want to invite your calls. What do you know or think you know about Victoria and Albert? And if you saw the movie "Young Victoria," do you have questions about what really happened? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With me now from member station WBUR in Boston if Gillian Gill, author of "We Two." Thank so much for being here.

Ms. GILLIAN GILL (Author, "We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals"): Lovely to be here.

ROBERTS: So have you seen the movie "Young Victoria"?

Ms. GILL: I've seen it three times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GILL: I like it better every time.

ROBERTS: And the historical variations from the actual record don't bother you too much?

Ms. GILL: Hey, I purport to be a historian but I think the key thing is to get the essence of their relationship, the romance of it, the difficulties of it, the political implications of it. I think Julian Fellowes' script captures that so brilliantly. And of course, it's beautiful to look at. I mean, Emily Blunt is, of course, a lot prettier - I hate to say this - than Queen Victoria was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GILL: On the other hand, I mean, Rupert Friend is probably less handsome than Prince Albert was. So we get an evening up of that. But, you know, it's a thrill for a historian to see the things that you have written down, suddenly, they're in glorious color. And as I say, even though there are clear historical inaccuracies, shall we say, in this movie, that's the way it has to be to really put something into a two-hour, or slightly less than two-hour slot - which was, you know, a lived reality for many years. So I can understand why they played a little with the actual events in order to show the intimacy, the love and the sex appeal of these two people.

ROBERTS: What is it about their story that first intrigued you?

Ms. GILL: You know, I was interested in successful Victorian marriages. I mean, we sort of get the impression of, you know, the dictatorial papa and the poor, mousy woman, and the children who are too frightened to put their noses up. And I wanted to look at a family and a relationship in the high Victorian period which wasn't like that. And surprisingly, I found it in the royal family.

And then, of course, you know, I'm sort of - I hate to say this - an old-fashioned, freaky feminist in many ways. And so, Queen Victoria, you know, she was probably the most famous and powerful woman in the 19th century.

Britain, at that time, was at the height of its power. So here she is, a woman - a tiny, you know, 4-foot-11, rather chubby, not very pretty woman -who nonetheless becomes queen at the age of 18 and two months, having been protected all her life, and makes a fabulous success out of this extraordinarily taxing part that she has to play not just for one year or two years, but for the whole of her life.

ROBERTS: Well, it's such an extreme conundrum within her own priorities because at the time, you know, marriage was not even a vaguely equal institution, right? I mean, the man's word went, the women couldn't even own property, they - you know? And yet, she is the monarch, he is the consort. And so, she wants this traditional sense of marriage that he is her lord and master. On the other hand, she's queen of England.

Ms. GILL: That is - and this is why I think Victoria now would have something to say to us today because now, as we know, more and more, there are women who have to reckon with their own power and yet at the same time, wish to have the glorious things that were the traditional womans treasures. Thats to say love, intimacy, children, a happy domestic life, a sense of support. So she, Victoria, wants to have those things knowing that within her royal caste, those things were infinitely rare, perhaps almost nonexistent.

So Albert and Victoria want to have what, you know, so many people in the world have, and at the same time they have these geopolitical ambitions. They want to be great. She wants to be a great queen like Elizabeth I, her distant ancestor. He wants to be a major player on the political scene within Britain, but most importantly within the European area of power.

So they both have, as it were, very, very involving jobs. They both have nine children to deal with - a complicated, to say the least, domestic set-up. The juggling of so many balls in the air and - this was so interesting to me - constantly observed. Everything that they do is noticed, written down, thought about. Nothing escapes those around them.

And so just like the media persons today, they are sort of living in a goldfish bowl. And their aim is to try and play those public roles and at the same time to keep some part of their lives when its just we two, he and I, in the bedroom together, partners, lovers, husband, wife and, you know, sharers of power.

ROBERTS: My guest is Gillian Gill. Her book is "We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals." And you can join us at 800-989-8255. Or send us email: talk@npr.org.

We have an email from Lily(ph) who says: I saw the movie, and I'm surprised at how passionate she was as a young woman. We - when we think of her today, we remember a stout woman with a serious face expanding her empire. We also think of the rigid Victorian values and repression. Did she have a dramatic change in personality?

Ms. GILL: You know, I would blame Albert for a lot of the rigidity, the pure -the extreme puritanical, strict Victorianism. He came over with a mandate to purge the British court of its immorality. And he succeeded, to a large extent. And then after his unfortunate death at the age of 42, Victoria decided to keep, and even make more stringent, those same rules for court life.

So Albert comes in from a court in Coburg, Germany. You know, his father and her mother are brother and sister. These are first cousins, OK?

So Coburg is in a way the family - the home of the family, this little tiny duchess - duchee in Germany, where sexual shenanigans and financial impropriety was sort of endemic. So Albert comes to Britain and intends to get away from everything he's known as a boy and institute a whole new regime. And he does it to some extent.

And rightly so, since the British monarchy also had had three extremely profligate and promiscuous kings. So they need to establish the monarchy on a new basis of morality and financial propriety. But at the same time, they sort of swing far too far in the other direction.

But Victoria herself, a young woman, was, of course, you know, her virginity was protected like a national treasure. There was no moment when she could have gone wrong. But at the same time, this is a frisky young woman, clearly full of libido. You know, and she doesnt get to marry Albert until she's 20, which is very old for a princess.

And so she's a mature woman. She knows what she wants. She sets her eyes on Albert. And she writes that very evening when she's seen him: Albert is beautiful. And three days later, she proposes to him.

And so, you know, there is - he is the object of her desire. And he knows it. And that sets off a very, very difficult but rich relationship between the two of them, where all kinds of hierarchies - sexual, political, financial - are all reversed in that case. And yet, as I say, they want to have a good marriage.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Nicole(ph) in Mountain View. Nicole, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NICOLE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. This is a really interesting topic. I understand that Queen Victoria blamed her heir, her son, for the premature death of her husband. He is the son, was a bit of louse - bit of a playboy. What sort of relationship did they have after that?

Ms. GILL: Queen Victoria had a very, very difficult relationship with the Prince of Wales, her eldest son. Basically, she never liked him from birth, which is sort of hard on any child, right?

Edward, who's called Bertie in his family, was the second child. And his older sister Vicky was a sort of paragon. She was totally brilliant. She was pretty. She was just like her father. She could do everything quickly, easily and better than everybody else.

Now, Bertie was just an average boy. But compared with his sister, he looked like a dolt. And then he had another little sister who was also very smart. And so poor Edward, on the one hand, he is the Prince of Wales. He's the important one in the family. But within the family's circle, he's looked upon as slow, stupid, stubborn and uninteresting, especially by his parents.

And the relationship with his father gets more fraught, shall we say. When Edward comes into sexual maturity, when he's a teenager, at this point Prince Albert, who as I said before had got increasingly, almost obsessively concerned with moral purity, decides that his son shall be kept a virgin until he marries. And so, he subjects poor Bertie to the most extraordinary discipline and surveillance.

Now, at one point, Bertie persuades his parents to let him go to Ireland for a Army training camp. And at the end of this, his fellow officers - he's not been allowed to live with his fellow officers in Ireland, but at this point they decide as a joke to bring a - as they call them, actress, to the Prince of Wales's bed. And subsequently Bertie, having been initiated into the joys of sex, takes the girl home with him. And at some point, Prince Albert becomes aware of this relationship, and he goes crazy with sorrow, anger, resentment, etc.

And I do think that it was wrong of Queen Victoria to blame Bertie for his father's death. But there's no doubt the shock of learning this news about Bertie's relationship with this woman did have an effect on a prince who was already, probably when he got the news, infected with typhoid - severely overworked, exhausted, emotionally distraught, and already contemplating the fact that if he gets a serious disease, he will not resist. He says to his wife: I do not cling to life. So...

ROBERTS: As you do.

Ms. GILL: As you do. And she did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You know, it's interesting reading about Albert as a character because, as you say very overtly in the book, it's hard to get historical accuracy about him because Victoria and her daughter, Vicky, sanitized his reputation so much and wrote this lovely allegory of his life.

Ms. GILL: That is a great way of putting it, because there was what I call a hagiography, you know...


Ms. GILL: He's made into a saint. But unfortunately, we don't actually like saints - male saints - to be chaste. We like male saints to be sort of reformed libertines. So Albert, you know, goody-goody two-shoes Albert, has gone down in history, thanks to the adoring efforts of his wife and daughter, as someone we can't get on with.

And in his life, he tried far too hard to keep the complexities of his nature, of his life, off the printed page. He wanted to sanitize his own record, and I fear he succeeded all too well. I mean, Queen Victoria, warts and all, is on paper. I mean, a lot of her stuff was also sanitized by her daughter Beatrice. But still, there's enough of it for us to say, well, we may not like this lady, but she's surely interesting.

Whereas Albert, it's the opposite. You say whoa, this guy, you know, wrote memoranda after memorandum after memorandum, but he doesn't say a single interesting thing, so nobody reads him. It's great tragedy for what was, I came to the conclusion, a very interesting, sensitive, weak man, trying to pretend to be the great patriarch.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Craig(ph) in Little Rock. Craig, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CRAIG (Caller): Thank you. I had read in the past that - I think it was Albert and Victoria's uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, helped facilitate the romance and also the education and elevation of Victoria. Could you speak to his part in that situation?

Ms. GILL: Yes. You know, the - King Leopold, who was the - each of their uncles, right? He was a brother to her mother and to his father. So King Leopold has been put on the Belgium throne by the English political establishment. And he seeks to influence English policy as far as he can. He himself almost became prince consort of England when he married Victoria's cousin Charlotte. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth, as did her child.

So in Albert and Victoria, Leopold sees another chance to inflect the whole course of British history in his favor, and to advance the fortunes of the Coburg family. So Leopold really does have a Machiavellian effect on their lives, particularly the life, particularly of Albert, because he is directly responsible for forming Albert into what - he and his great adviser, Baron Stockmar, believes to be the perfect man for Queen Victoria - I mean, for Princess Victoria and then when she becomes queen, for the queen. They understand that this young man has to be physically beautiful and pure.

That's to say, Victoria is such a character, has such willpower, I mean so much power - she does not want to share or have shared her husband with any other woman. And they find in Albert a young man who is willing to take that kind of training, a man who seems to be docile but in fact, has enormous ambition.

ROBERTS: Gillian Gill is the author of "We Two." She joined us from our member station in Boston, WBUR. You can read more about Queen Victoria and her cousin Princess Charlotte in an excerpt on our Web site, npr.org.

Gillian Gill, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. GILL: Thank you.

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