Not many English-speaking readers will have heard of Dona Maria II, Queen of Portugal – and to add her full title “Portugal and the Algarves, Here and Overseas in Africa, Lady of Guinea and the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India, etc. etc.” Her reign began when she was still a child, and living in Rio de Janeiro where her father, Dom Pedro, was Emperor of Brazil.
Through the Habsburg connections of her mother, Leopoldina, Maria was eventually sent to London, where she met Alexandrina Victoria, future queen of England. Their lifelong friendship was cemented by the fact that they married two cousins, Albert and Fernando of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Stilwell has brought Maria to life through letters, based on original correspondence, which tell her story through different voices. This is a major work of research, running to over 700 pages. It focuses on a period of Portuguese history, the first half of the 19th century, which is probably not familiar to many readers. We experience first-hand the court intrigues and the politics, but also the spectacle of Lisbon – and the palaces of Necessidades, the enormous complex of Mafra, the convent of Tomar, and many other settings – in all their splendor. Stilwell’s series of fictional biographies of Portuguese queens are a welcome addition to a genre that has been popular among readers, and this is no exception.