We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill. Ballantine Books, 2009.
Gillian Gill’s We Two is a biographical look at Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In it she presents the argument that their marriage was not a case of Victoria submitting to Albert, but a constant struggle for power. She begins with Victoria’s unhappy childhood as a virtual captive in her own home, forced to abide by a set of strict rules implemented by her mother and the household comptroller Sir John Conroy which came to be known as the Kensington System. She then examines Albert’s childhood in Germany before discussing their marriage and their family life including the nine royal children who would marry into Royal houses across Europe.
We Two gets off to a great start. While it includes historical detail, it is also very readable and Gill’s narrative style flows. Some interesting details are offered, including the fact that the morality for which the Victorian age is remembered was due to Albert’s influence rather than Victoria’s, and I loved the descriptions of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Royal Visit to France. These events are presented in such vivid detail that the reader can feel the enthusiasm Gill’s subjects must have felt during these events. The biography sets out to demonstrate that Victoria and Albert’s marriage was a constant power struggle but the strongest chapters are those dealing with Victoria’s youth and their family life together.
Unfortunately Gill is less effective when she writes about Albert and the early years of their marriage. Biographers must walk a fine line. They must be interested enough in their subjects to devote months or even years of study to them, but identifying too closely with the subject may cause the work to become a biased text that overlooks flaws and criticism in favour of undisguised adoration. This is not Gill’s problem. In fact she leans too far to the other side of the spectrum, making this reader wonder why she would bother writing on two subjects when she so clearly dislikes one of them!
Gill is extremely hard on Prince Albert, especially during the chapters chronicling the early years of his marriage to Victoria, so I can only imagine what reading Duff’s biography, which Gill cites as a “scathing indictment” of the Prince in her endnotes, would be like! Throughout We Two she complains about Albert’s excessive morality, his lack of humour and warmth with the general populace, and his desire for political and household control. These can be easily accepted as human flaws, but Gill goes one step further by using the label ‘misogynist’ for Albert.
Was the Prince Consort sexist by 21st century standards? Absolutely, as were most men of his time, but labeling him a misogynist, a term defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as a “man who hates women”, is completely unfounded. Feminist theory suggests that there is no difference between sexism and misogyny. I respectfully disagree.
Albert did hold sexist views. He was raised in Germany, where law forbid women from inheriting the throne, and was surrounded entirely by other men in the form of his father, brother Ernest, and uncle Leopold. His mother was exiled from court when he was six and passed away five years later. It’s hardly a surprise that the ambitious Albert doubted his wife’s ability to reign as a consequence; yet Albert loved his mother as a boy, showed affection for Victoria throughout their marriage, and doted on his eldest daughter Vicky, The Princess Royal. Certainly in the nineteenth century it was possible to hold sexist views, as Albert did, without hating women. The friction in Albert and Victoria’s relationship over power demonstrates that both had human flaws but it does not constitute misogyny and Gill’s labeling of it as such put me off her biography.
It is also worth mentioning that she not only uses the word in reference to Albert more than once but also uses it to label other male characters. Admittedly this is something that I found extremely off-putting personally but that might not influence other readers’ enjoyment of the work. If this mislabeling doesn’t bother you or if you choose to believe that misogyny and sexism are one and the same then you will likely enjoy this biography. It just wasn’t for me.
On an unrelated note, the choice of endnotes over footnotes might be more appealing for a popular history work, but it is distracting to have to flip back and forth to expand on sources.
Verdict: Your mileage may vary on this one. While I found Gillian Gill to be a capable writer, her obvious bias put me off and I can’t recommend this book. If you are interested in reading it borrow the book rather than buying it and take what she writes about the Prince Consort with a grain of salt.