Pan | 2019 (30 May) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is August 1879 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria has gathered together all of her family for the annual commemoration of the birthday of her late beloved husband Prince Albert. There’s no denying it’s a chore to most but, while the Queen plots alliances and marriages for her grandchildren and their little cousins, those children run free and play in the grounds of the House. And it is there that three of those children make their own alliance: May of Teck, a cousin from a house tainted by scandal and disgrace; Alicky, the daughter of Alice, Victoria’s second daughter who only recently passed away and is so greatly missed; Willy, Victoria’s first grandchild and arguably her favourite. He is much older than May and Alicky but he knows what to say to Alicky who is grieving for her mother and to May who feels that she is an outsider. Willy, too, feels like an outsider due to the withered arm that makes his own mother ashamed of him. Together they form a bond. They take an oath to become Kindred Spirits – should their alliance be broken, calamity will follow.
These three grow up to become Queen Mary of England, Empress of India; Empress Alix of Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Germany. After many years, these Kindred Spirits will break their oath. War and revolution will tear Europe and Russia apart. Not all of them will survive.
For forty years, The Summer Queen follows the lives and changing fortunes of Queen Victoria’s family as they marry amongst themselves, falling hopelessly in love or, on occasion, into deep enmity. Their marriages and relationships form a web that spreads out across all of Europe and Russia, becoming increasingly entangled as the ‘Royal Mob’, as Victoria called them, multiplies. All of them have pet names, so rarely called by the grand names that they were born with – and, after all, there can be only one Victoria. Their blood relationships are difficult even for them to remember and yet they are impossibly important. Little matters more than royal blood, especially when it flows from Queen Victoria. And yet it carries with it a disease – haemophilia or the bleeding disease – and this takes the life of several and destroys the lives of more.
But while this family carries on its elaborate games, almost believing they’re a normal extended family, they can forget the cost, not just to themselves – heartbreak is the frequent result of forbidden alliances – but to their countries. These are the most powerful people of their time and yet they almost reduce themselves by their use of diminutive names, their parties and their gossip. But by 1914 there isn’t a frantic telegram between cousins that can prevent war or what will happen in Russia.
All of this is brought to life in Margaret Pemberton’s glorious royal saga. And what a wonderful job this author does with what is an extremely complicated tale covering forty years. There are so many people, not of whom use their real names, and it is a challenge at times to remember who is who. There’s a list at the beginning (thank heavens) and there are reminders throughout of relationships, which become ever more complex. But, as the novel progresses, we grow to care very deeply about some of these people, particularly as hindsight warns us what is in store for them. Even Willy is treated with some sympathy. But most of our attention is on May and Alicky. Alicky’s story is relatively well known but there is so much about May that isn’t known and it’s fascinating learning there was far more to her than the photos of a rigidly respectable and formal Queen Mary suggest. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.
When all’s said and done, this is a family, albeit a very privileged one. We see their loves and hopes, their jealousies and frustrations, and we feel their losses. This is, particularly in the first half, an often light and frivolous tale as these young people grow up, but there are moments of real sadness and I sobbed my heart out more than once.
I loved the mix of intimate family drama and grand international relations. The two don’t always go together and the conflict in these lives is vividly portrayed. This is a novel that can be enjoyed on several levels and, the more I read, the more I knew I could not put this book down.