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Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria.

Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria. By Julia P. Gelardi. (New York, N.Y." St. Martin Press, 2005. Pp. xv, 457. $29.95.)

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria became known as the "Grandmother of Europe" because of the numerous marriages between her descendants and members of other European royal families. Victoria took an assiduous interest in the fortunes of her grandchildren, particularly when it came to ensuring an appropriate marriage. The matriarchal Queen-Empress was the epicenter of an ever-expanding royal network, head of a class of pan-European royalty whose familial connections were complicated by national allegiances into which they were either born or married. Letters flowed backwards and forwards between Victoria and other European courts, and there was a regular procession of grandchildren coming to stay at Windsor and Balmoral.

Julia P. Gelardi's well-researched book is a dynastic biography that provides an evocative insight into the turbulent personal and political fortunes of European royalty in the years between 1880 and 1930. She focuses on five granddaughters of Queen Victoria, all distinguished by the fact that they went on to become reigning consorts: Alexandra, tsarina of Russia; Marie, queen consort of King Ferdinand of Romania; Maud, queen consort of King Haakon VII of Norway; Sophie, queen consort of Constantine I of the Hellenes; and Victoria Eugenie, queen consort of King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

The strength of the book is not in the new details uncovered about the individual lives of these queens, but in the picture that emerges of a royal class. Gelardi connects the life stories by an analysis of the similar personal and political difficulties they faced. They each had to establish a footing for themselves in their new courts and countries, often without adequate preparation, as well as to produce the requisite male heir. Gelardi's eye for detail picks out the human dilemmas faced by her royal women, such as Alexandra's long-time refusal of the suit of Nicholas because of her strong Lutheran faith and unwillingness to convert to Orthodoxy.

Gelardi works hard to keep the various biographical narratives alive and distinct as the familial interrelationships, coupled with the dynastic and political maneuvering, are both complex and confusing. One significant aspect of the book, which prevents it from being a portrait of an introverted world of courts, privilege, and royal infidelities, is its portrayal of the tumultuous political events that kept breaking into the enclosed lives of its protagonists. At the wedding of King Alfonso and Victoria Eugenie in February 1906, for example, a bomb exploded just outside the carriage and the couple had to step around the dead and injured.

World War I and its aftermath were difficult years for European royalty. In addition to the execution of the tsar and his family, Constantine I and Sophia were driven into exile in 1917, only to return in 1920, before being forced to abdicate in 1922. Alfonso and Victoria Eugenie suffered a similar fate, going into exile in 1931. The ultimate impression of this book is that these queen consorts were the last generation to move in a world in which Europe was held together by the familial ties between royal houses.

John Plunkett

University of Exeter

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Author:Plunkett, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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