The Summer Queen
British and European royalty buffs will revel in this book, in which the lives of Queen Victoria’s large clan of descendants are retold as a sweeping family saga. The action spans from a large gathering at Osborne House, the royal summer retreat, in 1879, through the fall of the Romanovs in 1918. The principal viewpoints are May of Teck and her cousins Alicky of Hesse and Willy of Prussia—who, in later years, will be known respectively as Queen Mary, Empress Alexandra, and Kaiser Wilhelm. The story imagines that they form a pact that makes them kindred spirits, and the letters they exchange over the years (the women in particular) draw readers into their reflections, hopes, and fears.
Although all the characters are born to great privilege, Pemberton makes them relatable without ignoring their flaws. May, daughter of Victoria’s first cousin, grows up knowing that as a “Serene Highness”—a lesser pedigree than her royal relations—she can never aspire to marry the man she has a crush on: Eddy, the Prince of Wales’s heir. Although embarrassed by her parents’ financial problems, and their need to economize by moving to the Continent, May soaks up culture in Florence and returns to England a well-educated, level-headed young woman. Alicky, a shy, impressionable girl with a mystical bent, finds her soul mate in Nicky, the Romanov heir, but their religious differences seem insurmountable.
The plot emphasizes the personal over the political, with depictions of many courtships and attempted matches, from well-known pairings to the lesser-known and short-lived: like the scandalous second marriage of Alicky’s father, and the sexy affair between May’s brother and Maudie of Wales. Despite some instances of characters sharing facts for the reader’s benefit, it’s an addictive story, and Pemberton gets the relationships correct on their complicated family tree, too.