Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Back to the 19th century

I thought that today I should bring myself back to writing about the 19th century. I've just finished Paul Thomas Murphy's book, Shooting Victoria, which looks at Victoria's reign through the prism of the seven (yes, seven!) attempts on her life. This is the review I've posted on Amazon.

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Paul Thomas Murphy has set out to tell the story of the Victorian Age through the accounts of the seven attempts made on her life over her reign. Strictly speaking, some may not have been real attempts. It is not clear if all of those who shot at the Queen (six of the attempts involved firearms) had taken the trouble to load their weapons first, but all were dramatic events. Each was followed by widespread rejoicing that the Queen had survived.
The story of each of these seven occasions and their consequences for the would-be assassins would make interesting reading in itself, but Murphy uses these incidents as pegs on which to hang a much larger narrative. His central argument is that the Queen (who was not initially a popular monarch) achieved her popularity at least in part because of the sympathy she gained from the public after each unsuccessful attempt on her life. Nowadays the response of the Palace to Prince Charles's car being mobbed by rioters is to consider purchasing one of the most secure armoured vehicles in the world. Victoria's response to the earlier shootings was to ensure that she was, as soon as possible, seen driving out amongst the people in an open carriage. A naturally shy woman, Victoria forced herself to expose herself in this way with, according to Murphy, an almost instinctive understanding that only by being seen to be open to her subjects could she make monarchy an institution that would survive. Survive it did, and gloriously so. At a time when monarchies across Europe were falling, sometimes in circumstances of extreme violence, the British monarchy went from strength to strength. Victoria came to define an age and, although Murphy recounts ups and downs in her relationship with her subjects, by the time of her death she was so loved that the idea of any sane person trying to kill her was, to the Victorian mind, quite impossible.
Murphy's central argument is well presented. Around the story of the attempts on her life, Murphy weaves details of the political background to her reign, her relationship with Albert, the influence of new technologies such as photography, and the social background which framed the way her subjects saw her. It is a convincing argument, presented with lots of colourful detail which makes it an easy read for a non-specialist audience.
Murphy does not stop there, though. He looks at what happened to the men (they were all men) who threatened her and from their experiences he goes on to write about the development of the police force, 19th-century lunatic asylums, and the penal system. He describes hangings at Newgate, the horrors of Australian penal colonies, and the early development of forensic psychiatry. Much of this is fascinating, but it rambles away from the central theme of the book, which is often in danger of becoming simply a succession of fascinating but unconnected anecdotes about life in 19th-century London.
The last attempt on Victoria's life was made in 1882. She lived until 1901, which leaves Murphy with no attempts on her life to write about for a significant 19 years of her reign. Instead, he turns to plots that came to nothing, most notably a plan by Irish Republicans to bomb the Jubilee Thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey in 1887. Murphy details the story of an orchestrated plan, devised in the USA, to bring dynamite into Britain and blow up the crowned heads of Europe. Interesting as this is, it has little in common with the seven would-be assassins described in the previous chapters. It's as if we are now in a completely different book and, given that the plot fizzled out without dynamite being planted, let alone exploded, it's quite a dull book, too.
Overall, this is a pleasant read and an easy introduction to the world of Victorian England. However, its rambling style and somewhat loose construction makes it a book that is easy to put down and maybe never pick up again. It would benefit from a tighter structure and a more disciplined approach. One feels that either Murphy simply wanted to write about a period he clearly knows a lot about and chose to focus on "shooting Victoria" to make a commercial book, or that he wanted to write about the seven assassination attempts and then padded it out with other material because he felt that otherwise it would be too short. Despite this, it's a pleasant read and will inform and entertain those who persevere with it.

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