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Book Review: Queen Victoria's Secrets (by Adrienne Munich) : BH

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Queen Victoria's Secrets, by Adrienne Munich, published by Columbia University Press, 562 West 113th Street, New York, NY 10025. Tel: 800-944-8648 x6221. $16.50, paperback.

Queen Victoria's six-decade reign marked one of the most significant eras in British history. During this long period, the monarchy regained the respect of its subjects and Britain enjoyed political, social, and economic prosperity. Who was this woman who ruled over this golden age and why has her name been attached to a historical period known for its domestic tranquillity and excessive moral prudishness?

Queen Victoria's Secrets, a new book by Adrienne Munich, explores the fascinating life of this intriguing woman. Rather than taking the traditional chronological approach, Munich's biography addresses individual aspects of a Victorian woman's life. Each self-contained chapter provides a study of Victoria's 'secrets'–everything from fashion in 'Dressing the Body Politic' to her subservience to the men in her life in 'Domesticity; or, Her Life as a Dog' to her veiled but irrepressible sexuality in 'Petticoat Rule; or, Victoria in Furs'.

In addition to divulging Victoria's own 'secrets', Munich deconstructs the collective secrecy of the era that bears her name. The Victorians' obsessive desire for propriety hid–sometimes just barely–a bubbling torrent of repressed aggression and perversity. Munich draws from both classic and popular culture of the period, exploring Victorian morals and attitudes in everything from Dickens and Tennyson to Gilbert and Sullivan and street ballads.

Munich also discusses the incredible effect Victoria had not only on those of her subjects who surrounded her (most notably her servant, John Brown) but also others who had never met her, but whose devotion–even obsession–drove them to acts of desperation. Over a 42-year period from 1840 to 1882, seven men attempted to assassinate the queen. Munich, echoing psychiatrist Trevor Turner's theory that they did so out of an obsessive erotomania.

Munich's well-supported research makes for a fascinating read. Director of the Women's Studies Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she is more than qualified to tackle such a topic. More than 50 period photos and illustrations accompany the text and illuminate her arguments.

Leigh Ann Berry

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