The final month of Queen Victoria’s reign, told in minute detail and set square within the flux of fin-de-siècle Britain, from countryman Rennell.
When Queen Victoria retired to Osborne House in January 1901 to die, the sun still rose everywhere on an outpost of the British Empire. But it was also a country on the doorstep of change, writes the author, much more so than was suggested by the fanfare that had accompanied the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee just four years earlier. The aristocracy ruled, yet socialism was in the air—and trade unions boasted a membership in the millions. Republicanism was on the march, and Germany and the US were industrially ascendant. Concern over the health of Victoria was on everyone’s lips, but more so was fear over the end of an age, for the queen embodied stability and continuity amid all the change. Rennell chronicles the moment-by-moment dwindling of the Queen, the gathering of the family, the apprehension of the populace, the arrival of her grandson the Kaiser of Germany (along with the intrigues the strained relations between Germany and Britain had to offer despite all the familial ties), the every ministration of her personal doctor, the absence of Albert and John Brown (Rennell even speculates on their sexual relationship; he gives it a thumb’s down). Then, after the death, all the circumstance that attended the funeral, from the color of the draping on the buildings to the coffin snafu to the wreath sent by the King of Portugal, “lilies and orchids on a cushion of violets”—Rennell doesn’t let an iota of minutiae escape. He is also quick to point out that upon Edward’s becoming king, the court exhaled a great breath of air, loosened the corset strings, and enjoyed laughter for the first time in over 60 years. Pretenses dropped, and frivolity took root.
An admirable success at generating the sense of impending change that surrounded the death of Queen Victoria.