The Last Days of Glory by Tony Rennell gives us a detailed insight into events around the death of Queen Victoria, from Christmas 1900 until her magnificent funeral six weeks later.
It’s a book that’s been on my shelves for a long time; I spotted it in a bookshop just after it came out which is why I have this rather handsome little hardback copy. I’m slightly astonished (and also a bit ashamed) to say that means this has been in the stacks for close to twelve years. But it is one of those books which needs to be read at exactly the right time because of its level of detail. I can’t even remember why I picked it up when I did but I was soon absorbed and read it over a weekend.
I studied history at university and the past has always been of great interest to me, regardless of period, but I came late to the Victorians, probably being in my early thirties when I started to read up on the nineteenth century although the social history of her reign was very much a focus at school and so I knew enough to get by, I just wasn’t interested enough to become absorbed. I blame the Bloomsbury set a bit for that, probably unfairly, but it seems to make sense that I wasn’t interested in a period which some of my great literary heroes had written off. A number of books on social and cultural history and a bit of a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites had me wandering back, and the figure of Queen Victoria herself became increasingly fascinating to me.
So if you are at all interested in Victoria and her family and household then this is a really enjoyable book. Much of what is in it comes from the recollections of the doctor who attended her in her last weeks and months, and who assisted in preparing her body for burial. Rather than being slightly morbid as a topic, the whole issue around what she had instructed was to be placed in the coffin with her is a mini-drama in itself, and Rennell devotes a number of pages to it, giving a sense of how strong-willed and secretive the old Queen could be. There is a real insight into the complex relationships between her children and grandchildren and the figure of the Kaiser looms large. There is also a great deal about the planning of the funeral itself; she had been on the throne for so long that there was no-one alive who could remember the last time a monarch was buried and what the protocol should be, so much had to be reconstructed and quite a bit invented entirely.
It seems odd in some ways to consider the impact of her death, but for a great many of her subjects she was the only ruler they had ever known; it will be interesting to see if something similar happens when the present Queen dies (she came to the throne 10 years before I was born) although I’m not so sure in this day and age whether it will be seen in quite the same way as the end of an era.
This is a book full of rich anecdotal material and a really interesting and useful annex on the whole issue of the role of John Brown in Victoria’s life; it is well written and it gave me great pleasure to read. Recommended.