Seducing the Princess
I admit that although I found this book to be reasonably enjoyable, I found it difficult to rate and review. It’s certainly a historical novel, but it’s neither straight Historical Romance nor Historical Fiction. In fact, in her foreword, the author states that “Although some of the characters were inspired by the lives of real people, the story itself is an invention of the author’s imagination.” What the book turns out to be is part romance, part thriller; a “what if?” story, taking as its principal character Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria.
The plot is simple. At the age of twenty-seven, and somewhat shy and downtrodden, Beatrice feels herself to be firmly on the shelf. Her siblings are all married and living their own lives, but she remains with her mother, acting as her companion and finding the constant solemnity of the court depressing. She despairs of ever having a life, husband, and family of her own until she meets the handsome Prince Henry of Battenburg. He is the first man ever to show an interest in her and they quickly become friends. It is not long before the pair are falling in love, but when Henry asks the queen’s permission to marry Beatrice, Victoria is furious, and promptly forbids him to set foot in England ever again.
In the meantime, Victoria’s grandson Wilhelm (later Kaiser Wilhelm II) hatches a plot to infiltrate Victoria’s court. His aspirations towards an Empire are well documented as being one of the major causes of the First World War, so the idea that he hates and distrusts the English establishment and people is certainly plausible. He plans to plant a spy within Victoria’s family circle by finding someone to seduce and marry his aunt Beatrice, and to this end recruits an old schoolmate, Gregory MacAlister, the handsome third son of an impoverished Scottish laird. Knowing of Victoria’s fondness for her former gillie, John Brown, Wilhelm reasons that a Scotsman will be likely to evoke memories of Brown and therefore have a head start in gaining the trust of the queen and her daughter.
MacAlister duly worms his way into a position working in the royal stables. Charming and handsome, he becomes Beatrice’s regular escort on her daily rides, and although she is heartbroken over her mother’s dismissal of Henry’s suit, she is nonetheless attracted to the new groom, and he becomes her confidante.
There is much to enjoy in the story. It’s generally well-written, although there were certain passages and turns of phrase that felt anachronistic – for example, I really can’t imagine Queen Victoria thinking that anything was “just fine” or picture her riding “on aways”. There was one very silly scene in which Beatrice’s maid confronts MacAlister – clearly, she hasn’t read the memo about what happens to characters who secretly meet the bad guy in order to tell him they want out!
Beatrice is probably the most well-rounded character in the book. Starting out as a rather dowdy old-maid type, she begins to question her mother’s actions, and to gain more confidence in herself and her right to have her own life. Unfortunately Henry is rather two-dimensional as dashing heroes go, and I have to say that both MacAlister and Wilhelm were stereotypical in their villainy.
Victoria is frequently presented as a selfish, domineering mother. She tells Beatrice that her refusal to allow Henry’s suit was to save her (Beatrice) from the indignities of the marriage bed and the trial of constant pregnancies, whereas of course, Beatrice believes it is because Victoria wants her to remain with her for the rest of her life, to be a companion to her in old age. Nonetheless, she is still torn between her duty to her mother who does, after all, have a country and an empire to govern (and a Prime Minister she doesn’t like in Mr Gladstone) and her desire for marriage and a life of her own.
The book references certain historical events, such as the unrest in India, and the massacre at Khartoum in the Sudan, so there is no doubt that the author has researched her setting thoroughly.
If, however, you are looking to read a piece of historical fiction based closely on the life of Princess Beatrice, this may not be the book for you. In most HF, authors have to invent some scenes because of a lack of evidence or documentation, assigning motivations to their characters and creating details like conversations which may or may not have taken place in order to propel the drama. This is not really the case here, as despite the use of actual historical figures in principal roles, the story presented iscompletely fictional. It’s true that Beatrice did indeed marry Henry Battenburg and after their marriage, they both lived and travelled with Victoria at her request. Wilhelm was certainly somewhat unhinged – jealous of the British Empire and the Navy; and, because of a physical disability, felt the need to prove himself at every turn. The author has cleverly integrated historical fact into her story, but the focus is the fictional plot rather than known events.
If you’re in the mood for a straightforward, well-told story that has plenty of period flavour and can accept the author’s disclaimer that this is a ‘made-up’ story about the British royals, then you could do a lot worse than read Seducing the Princess.