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Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

Written by Gillian GillAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gillian Gill


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: May 19, 2009
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-345-51492-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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BONUS: This edition contains a reader's guide.

It was the most influential marriage of the nineteenth century–and one of history’ s most enduring love stories. Traditional biographies tell us that Queen Victoria inherited the throne as a naïve teenager, when the British Empire was at the height of its power, and seemed doomed to find failure as a monarch and misery as a woman until she married her German cousin Albert and accepted him as her lord and master. Now renowned chronicler Gillian Gill turns this familiar story on its head, revealing a strong, feisty queen and a brilliant, fragile prince working together to build a family based on support, trust, and fidelity, qualities neither had seen much of as children. The love affair that emerges is far more captivating, complex, and relevant than that depicted in any previous account.

The epic relationship began poorly. The cousins first met as teenagers for a few brief, awkward, chaperoned weeks in 1836. At seventeen, charming rather than beautiful, Victoria already “showed signs of wanting her own way.” Albert, the boy who had been groomed for her since birth, was chubby, self-absorbed, and showed no interest in girls, let alone this princess. So when they met again in 1839 as queen and presumed prince-consort-to-be, neither had particularly high hopes. But the queen was delighted to discover a grown man, refined, accomplished, and whiskered. “Albert is beautiful!” Victoria wrote, and she proposed just three days later.

As Gill reveals, Victoria and Albert entered their marriage longing for intimate companionship, yet each was determined to be the ruler. This dynamic would continue through the years–each spouse, headstrong and impassioned, eager to lead the marriage on his or her own terms. For two decades, Victoria and Albert engaged in a very public contest for dominance. Against all odds, the marriage succeeded, but it was always a work in progress. And in the end, it was Albert’s early death that set the Queen free to create the myth of her marriage as a peaceful idyll and her husband as Galahad, pure and perfect.

As Gill shows, the marriage of Victoria and Albert was great not because it was perfect but because it was passionate and complicated. Wonderfully nuanced, surprising, often acerbic–and informed by revealing excerpts from the pair’s journals and letters–We Two is a revolutionary portrait of a queen and her prince, a fascinating modern perspective on a couple who have become a legend.


Chapter One

Charlotte and Leopold

The folktales of charles perrault and the grimm brothers are surprisingly reliable about the lives of kings and queens in old Europe. Those tales are full of strange and dangerous royal courtships. Kings and queens are unable to conceive a normal child. Queens die in childbirth. Orphan princesses are sorely beset by uncaring fathers, wicked stepmothers, and villainous uncles, and only seven dwarfs or a magic donkey’s skin can save them.

The solutions are magical, but the problems were not fantasies. European kings and queens were in fact often neglected or abused in childhood. As adults they were plagued by the imperative to find a spouse and produce an heir. They then frequently repeated the cycle of neglect and abuse with their own children.

Before Princess Victoria of Kent was born, there lived a Princess Charlotte, her first cousin and very like her in character and ability. If Charlotte had lived and had children, a Saxe-Coburg dynasty would have taken hold in England in 1817, not 1840, and history books might well chronicle the joint reign of Charlotte and Leopold. But Charlotte was a princess that no fairy godmother came to save.

Charlotte’s parents, George, Prince of Wales (later prince regent, and then King George IV), and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, were first cousins. They had never seen one another before the eve of their wedding. George loathed Caroline on sight and consummated the marriage in a state of insulting inebriation. The two separated nine months before the birth of their only child and thereafter waged an increasingly ugly and public war on one another. He accused her, not unjustly, of being dirty, uncouth, and garrulous. She accused him, not unjustly, of promiscuity, malice, and neglect. Unloved and uncared for, Charlotte was a pawn in her parents’ acrimonious marital game.

Princess Charlotte emerged from this difficult childhood a woman of considerable abilities, if little education, and possessed of unusual courage and resolution. Wild, headstrong, opinionated, and self- absorbed, Charlotte yet longed for affection and intimacy. At eighteen she had few illusions and fewer friends, and longed to throw off the financial and social straitjacket of her life as an unmarried princess. She was anxious to avoid the fate of her royal aunts, the six talented and beautiful daughters of King George III who as young women were tethered to their dysfunctional parents and barred from marriage. Three in middle age finally escaped into the arms of grotesque bridegrooms, but frustration and boredom gnawed away at the lives of all these princesses.

Like the heroines of so many English novels of the period, Princess Charlotte saw marriage as the answer to her problems. She knew that, as second in line of succession to the English throne after her father, she was the most eligible partie in Europe. She also knew that her acceptable marital choices were limited to a handful of unknown foreigners. As two of her spinster aunts had discovered to their cost, tradition and the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 prevented the marriage of an English royal princess with any man, duke or drover, born in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was common practice for princesses to be married to men they had never met, so Charlotte would be lucky to get a glimpse of her suitors at a ball or state dinner.

Charlotte’s father the prince regent also saw marriage as the solution to the problems he had with his daughter. He doted on tiny, cute girls, but Charlotte resembled her large, loud, voluptuous mother, and he had never loved her. Worse, Charlotte was popular with the English people, while he was greeted by catcalls and averted faces when he made a rare public appearance. The regent planned to marry his daughter off to the Prince of Orange, a distant cousin and the heir to the throne of Holland, England’s most ancient ally. Orange was, admittedly, a drunken lout, but Charlotte’s aunts had been grateful to marry worse.

At first Charlotte agreed to the betrothal. Then, astonishingly, she broke off the engagement and tried to run away from home. Perhaps she had read some novels and believed that young women had a right to choose their husbands. More probably she had made a rational assessment of what a Dutch marriage would mean to her. As Princess of Orange, she would be obliged to spend at least half the year in Holland. While she was abroad, her father might finally obtain the divorce he wanted and then marry a young princess. If a healthy stepbrother were born, Charlotte would no longer be her father’s heir. Though she had little love and no respect for her mother, the princess considered it essential to remain in England to support her own and her mother’s interests.

Charlotte’s unexpected and stubborn refusal of the Dutch prince angered her father, and she found herself a virtual prisoner. Marriage became even more desirable. She was in a hurry to find an eligible European prince properly subservient to her needs and wishes and willing to live in England. Charlotte made a strong play for Prince Frederick of Prussia, whom she found attractive, but he proved unresponsive. Then, as if by magic, at a ball given by her aunt the Duchess of York, another foreign prince appeared before Charlotte. He was charming, and his bloodline was impeccable. He had served valiantly in the recent wars against Napoleon and looked magnificent in his Russian cavalry officer’s uniform. If she deigned to marry him, he would owe her everything. His name was Leopold of Saxe-Coburg- Saalfeld.

The seventh child and third son of a bankrupt German princeling, Leopold, ambitious, talented, and handsome, was a youngest son right out of a fairy tale. In 1815 he came to London in the tsar’s entourage. Officially he was celebrating the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Unofficially he was wooing the King of England’s only granddaughter. It was a bold move, supremely confident and coldly calculated by a man who had nothing to lose by aiming high. With the war over, Leopold was living from hand to mouth, since his private fortune amounted to some two hundred pounds a year. Sponsored by his imperial Russian friends, Leopold had uniforms made on credit, borrowed his brother-in-law Mensdorff’s dashing carriage, and set off for London. He was obliged to take rooms over a tradesman’s shop and still had trouble paying the rent. But he had an entrée to all the magnificent festivities organized by the prince regent and his brothers to celebrate the peace. Just as he had hoped, Princess Charlotte noticed him.

Now Leopold played a waiting game. He returned to the Continent and corresponded with Charlotte behind her father’s back. This correspondence was made possible through the good offices of Charlotte’s uncle the Duke of Kent, who was everlastingly at odds with his eldest brother, the regent. There followed a year of negotiations at a distance, during which Leopold aroused the princess’s passions by refusing to return to England. At last, wearied by his daughter’s intransigence, the prince regent agreed to accept Leopold as a son-in-law. Receiving this fabulous news from Lord Castlereagh, the English foreign secretary, Leopold wrapped himself in a long coat, a feather boa, and a fur muff, and posted full tilt across Europe. In the kind of proof of passion women find hard to resist, he arrived in London from Berlin, exhausted and ill, in the staggering time of three and a half weeks.

The wedding of Charlotte and Leopold was a fairy-tale affair for the whole nation, rather like the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, but with an interesting reversal of gender roles. Charlotte at nineteen, tall, gawky, and inclined to fat, played the part of Prince Charming, heir to the kingdom and untold wealth, while Leopold was a ravishing rags-to-riches Cinderella. The bride’s elaborate trousseau was the subject of long, reverent columns in the fashion press, and for her wedding she wore a gown of lace-trimmed silver lama and white satin designed by Mrs. Triaud of Bond Street. But at their wedding, the bride was eclipsed by the glory of the bridegroom. Leopold was reputed to be one of the handsomest men in Europe, and he now wore the scarlet wool uniform of a British general, decorated with his own orders and medals. His belt and sword blazed with diamonds, a gift from his bride’s grandmother and namesake, the Queen.

Reportedly the bride giggled when the bridegroom was asked to endow her with all his wordly goods. As everyone knew, Prince Leopold was heir to little and owned less. However, the members of parliament, in rapturous appreciation of their princess and salivating at the prospect of a new, shining line of kings, granted Leopold personally the magnificent annuity of fifty thousand pounds—about two million in today’s dollars.

Charlotte was not at all in love with Prince Leopold when she agreed to marry him. As she confided in a letter: “I have perfectly decided & made up my own mind to marry, & the person I have decidedly fixed on is Prince Leopold . . . I know that worse off, more unhappy and wretched I cannot be than I am now, & after all if I end by marrying Prince L.,. . . I marry the best of all those I have seen, & that is some satisfaction.” Leopold was not in love either. He was already a world-class Lothario and had enjoyed mistresses far more seductive than Charlotte. But if he did not love his bride for her looks and charm, he passionately adored her status as second in line of succession to the English throne. Hence, from the moment he arrived back in England, Leopold set out single-mindedly to win Charlotte’s love and become her indispensable counselor and helpmate. Twenty years later, he would train his handsome nephew Albert in the same strategies for the day when Albert would marry Victoria.

Leopold played the part of lover-husband to perfection. During the days of their brief engagement, to her surprise and delight, Charlotte found Leopold extremely beguiling, as indeed did London society. Within months of their marriage, she was ready to tell the world that he was the perfect husband and that she idolized him. Charlotte also quickly warmed to Leopold’s aide-de-camp and general factotum, the young German physician Christian Stockmar. The three were soon inseparable friends. Charlotte and Leopold settled down to married bliss at Claremont, a secluded house in magnificent grounds given to them by the nation at the time of their marriage. As its owners were well aware, Claremont, with its simple furnishings and healthy, happy, modest way of life, could not have posed a stronger contrast to the Royal Pavilion in the heart of the town of Brighton— the prince regent’s most expensive and unpopular architectural extravaganza to date.

When, after two miscarriages, Charlotte embarked upon what boded well to be a successful pregnancy, the Claremont idyll seemed complete. As he awaited the birth of his child, Leopold looked eagerly to the future. He was now rich, popular with the English nation, and adored at home, but all this was as nothing to the power, wealth, and status he foresaw for himself in the near future. Only the lives of mad old George III and the disease-raddled regent stood between Charlotte and the throne of England. And so passionately did Charlotte now adore him that she was ready to say: “I cannot reign over England except upon the condition that he [Leopold] shall reign over England and myself . . . Yes, he shall be King, or I will never be Queen.” Once a healthy child was born, Leopold saw his future assured, if not as King, then at least as prince consort and the sire of a new race of kings. Even were Charlotte to die young, as long as she left children, Leopold would be regent and rule in England.

As soon as the princess went into labor in the early evening of November 3, the Privy Councillors were summoned in haste from London to attend the birth, as protocol demanded. The regent and his mother, apprised of the situation at Claremont, went about their everyday lives quite unconcerned. The old queen, who in her time had given birth to fifteen babies with remarkable efficiency and speed, did not think it necessary to leave Bath, where she was taking a cure.

Prince Leopold sat by his wife’s side, holding her hand, murmuring love and encouragement, and Stockmar hovered anxiously in the background. From the beginning of the princess’s pregnancy, Stockmar had warned Prince Leopold that the approach taken by doctors attending his wife was ill advised. The English royal doctors subscribed to the doctrine that strong, choleric young women should follow a “lowering” regime when pregnant. Charlotte had been fed a liquid diet low in meat and vegetables, forbidden to exercise, and subjected to regular bloodlettings, which probably led to severe anemia. Stockmar recommended that Prince Leopold intervene in his wife’s care, but in the end both the prince and his adviser left Charlotte completely in the hands of English medical men.

The princess’s water broke over two weeks after her due date, so she went into labor tired and dispirited, fearing the worst. She continued in heavy labor through the night and the following day, and the baby did not come. Before her marriage, Charlotte had been a strong, athletic young woman, but the miscarriages and now the pregnancy had sapped her strength. Hence, though her cervix dilated, she did not have the strength to push the child out, and her doctors, though they had brought a set of the newly invented obstetrical forceps, did not dare to use them. At last, after some fifty hours of labor, a large and perfectly formed male child was born, dead and resisting all attempts at resuscitation.

The princess received the news of her child’s death with resignation. She had still to suffer the agony of having the doctor manually remove the placenta, which had failed to detach. Her abdomen was then wrapped tightly, and she took some light food. Leopold, sad and exhausted but assuming the worst was over, took an opiate and went to bed.

Suddenly the princess complained of terrible pain, went deathly cold, became confused, and had difficulty breathing. She was probably suffering a massive internal hemorrhage, caused by the tearing away of the placenta and concealed by the swaddling of her abdomen. Her doctors administered brandy and hot wine. Warm flannels and hot water bottles were pressed to her stomach. The patient became visibly worse. Horrified by the turn of events, the doctors finally invited Stockmar to examine the princess. He took Charlotte’s wrist to feel the pulse, and she murmured, “They have made me drunk, Stocky.” He said, quite correctly, that the heat being administered to the patient was counter-indicated. The doctors refused to take Stockmar’s advice, but in any case it came too late. Christian Stockmar was holding Charlotte’s hand when at two-thirty on the morning of November 6, she died in paroxysms.

From the Hardcover edition.
Gillian Gill|Author Q&A

About Gillian Gill

Gillian Gill - We Two

Photo © Linda Crosskey

Gillian Gill, who holds a PhD in modern French literature from Cambridge University, has taught at Northeastern, Wellesley, Yale, and Harvard. She is the author of Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale, Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries, and Mary Baker Eddy. She lives in suburban Boston.

Author Q&A

When I was growing up in South Wales, the part of Great Britain best known for coal mines, people like me did not write about royalty. We left that to “nobs” like Countess Longford (alias Elizabeth Longford) who were actually invited to coronations or to people like Cecil Woodham-Smith whose double-barrelled surname and weird given name proclaimed her membership of the elite public (i.e. private) school set. My family was the kind that lined the route on a rare royal visit to our provincial city, waving tiny union jacks.

Until my teens, my sister Rose and I were reared jointly by our mother and her mother. Mummy and Nana lived together all their lives, quarreled every day, but shared a passion for the British royal family. In our house, the pantheon of royals was worshipped with more fervor and regularity than we mustered at the plain little branch of the Church of Wales just around the corner. The royals were glamour and romance, items severely rationed in post-war Britain.

1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, was a banner year for our family. My mother bought a television set and invited her humbler relatives over to squint at the magnificent event on our twelve inch, black and white set. There followed a street party and my grandmother, who had once apprenticed as a milliner, contrived marvelous costumes for Rose and me. I was actually queen for the day with a long white dress, purple robe, and crown, orb, and scepter.

But once my father retired from the Merchant Navy and took his place in the family, his carefully informed left-wing politics took hold of me and my grandmother’s reverence for the royal family began to seem silly and ignorant. When I was about seventeen, I made some flip remark about the abdication of King Edward VIII which so infuriated Nana that she slapped my face. At the time I was shocked and wholly at a loss. Now I think I understand. A handsome and engaging young king had once come to South Wales and spoken movingly of the plight of the miners. Women of my grandmother’s generation had never forgotten it. Like the rest of the general public in Britain, she had been carefully shielded by the press from any knowledge of Edward VIII’s prenuptial dalliances and fascist opinions.

By 1965 I was a graduate of Cambridge University, the first of my family to attend university and a budding academic. When it was announced that the Queen Mother would come to New Hall, my Cambridge college, to open the new buildings, I was blasé to the point of disdain. But when I found myself curtseying and carefully shaking the tips of Her Majesty’s gloved fingers, I was swept away by the mystique of royalty. How delightful the Queen was in person and how proud my grandmother would be when she saw the photo of me with the Queen Mum.

All of which is to explain why my book about Queen Victoria is prefaced by the old English saying: “A cat may look at a king.”

Comments by Gillian Gill, author of We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals



“Gillian Gill has written a superbly accessible account of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg. She makes us understand that it was a union constantly pulled between two contradictory imperatives: the need for the Queen to be supreme head of state and Albert her subject, and the requirement that the nineteenth-century wife should be her husband's subordinate in every way. Gill grippingly recounts the tensions and negotiations between Victoria and Albert, both in politics and in intimate and domestic life, as they tried to reconcile this contradiction. She is particularly good on the couple's later life and their relationships with their many children. Her book is the story not just of a marriage and a family but also of the way in which Victoria appeared to grant Albert precedence but ultimately came to control the relationship. After Albert's early death Victoria set about creating an enduring legend of her marriage and inevitably emerged as both heroine and victor. Gill skillfully shows exactly how she did it.”—Stella Tillyard, author of A Royal Affair and The Aristocrats

"Every marriage is a balancing act. In this absorbing book, Gillian Gill shows how the royal couple counterpoised their partnership—and their passion—for twenty-one years while bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders."—Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

"Gillian Gill’s double biography, We Two, is intimate and delicious. Gill has a gift for finding the telling details which bring the royal couple to life, and she has created a fascinating study of a woman negotiating her supreme power in a male-dominated society and a traditional marriage. The push and pull between Albert, who is a complicated mixture of rigidity and softness, and Victoria, reluctant mother of nine and natural sovereign, makes a great story.”—Susan Quinn, author of Marie Curie: A Life

“This is a more compassionate look into the lives of Victoria and Albert, in which they become people to whom we can relate––the stuffed shirts get sent to the laundry and a much softer fabric is returned!”—Anne Perry, author of the series of Victorian mysteries

“Gill’s spirited reconstruction of Queen Victoria’s three-act drama of a life—as teen-age ruler, partner to her ambitious consort Prince Albert, and queen in her own right after his death—enjoins us to rethink the meaning of the word “Victorian,” too long a synonym for moral stuffiness. Perhaps now, with Gill’s timely book, we can revalue this much-maligned term to let it reflect Victoria’s courage in managing her long reign at a time when there were few opportunities for women of any rank, let alone for royals. A thought-provoking look at an era starting to grapple with issues that shed light on recent history.”—Carolyn Burke, author of Lee Miller, A Life

“What a whale of a wonderful read this is! Queen Victoria and Prince Albert jump forward from these pages in all their full, complex humanity—she, the besotted, emotional wife; and he, the reserved, cool, moralizing spouse. We Two shares a passionate, often frustrating relationship, one fraught with unconscious rivalries. Gillian Gill tells us the full story of a royal marriage that was to have profound effects upon European history—and she does so in a compelling, thoroughly engrossing way.”––Maggie Scarf, author of September Songs

From the Hardcover edition.

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