If Carlyle was right that the history of the world is but the biography of great men, then the history of England (and, after the incorporation of Scotland and Ireland, what we for the moment call the United Kingdom) is for several centuries the biography of its monarchs. These four new volumes in the Penguin Monarchs series illustrate what Jane Ridley, in her vivid portrait of Queen Victoria, terms the progression from power to merely influence. Victoria: Queen, Matriarch, Empress has its political dimension – there is an exceptionally sharp and fair account of her preference for the unctuous charlatan Disraeli over the upright and towering Gladstone – but is mainly about her marriage, her self-indulgent widowhood and what a ‘monster’ she was as a parent. In the three biographies of earlier monarchs we are in very different territory.
The biographies are short – between