Book: Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy

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IF you had been walking down Piccadilly one fine evening towards the end of June 1850, you might have seen an excited crowd gathering outside the mansion at number 94.

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem and the Modernisation of the Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy

Head of Zeus, 688pp, £25

Inside was Queen Victoria herself, paying a call on her dying uncle, the Duke of Cambridge. It was a surprise visit, and the police had not been warned; as the Queen’s carriage squeezed through the gates back onto the thoroughfare, towards the cheering and the applause, she was guarded only by a handful of outriders.

On the pavement the carriage halted for a second, and it was then that Robert Pate saw his chance. Pushing through the crowd towards the carriage, he raised his cane and brought it savagely down on the monarch’s head.

Victoria had been attacked before. As Paul Thomas Murphy explains in this rich, rollicking but sprawling narrative, Pate’s assault was in fact the fifth since she had become Queen. Never before, however, had an attacker actually struck her.

Later that evening, when the Queen’s doctor examined her, he found “a considerable tumour” as well as a little blood.

To her credit, though, Victoria went ahead with her engagements. After her appearance in her box at Covent Garden that night, the wound clearly visible on her head, one correspondent wrote that he had “never heard such shouting”. It was, he said, “the very madness of affection”.

For Murphy, Pate’s attempt on the Queen’s life – he was, incidentally, quite mad, and was eventually transported to Tasmania – was part of a pattern. Every time she was attacked, he explained, “Victoria, with unerring instinct and sheer gutsiness, converted each episode of near-tragedy into one of triumphant renewal for her monarchy”.

That is probably pushing it a bit; even so, there is no doubt that Victoria’s stoicism under fire endeared her to her people. Contrary to what we often imagine, the position of the monarchy in 19th-century Britain was probably more fragile than it is today. Precisely because Victoria was more involved in politics than her successors, being famously fond of Lord Melbourne and Benjamin Disraeli, and appalled by William Gladstone; she was more controversial. In a funny way, therefore, the fact that people kept trying to kill her worked in her favour.

Most of Victoria’s would-be assassins were spectacularly mad. Pate himself only decided to attack her after abandoning his bizarre daily ritual, which involved the same cab driver taking him on the same tour of the capital every afternoon, during which Pate would hurl himself around the cab like a monkey in a cage.

As for Victoria’s first assailant, a barman called Edward Oxford, he would burst into tears for no reason and liked to amuse himself by copying out passages from the Bible.

Probably the maddest of her attackers, though, was the last, Roderick Maclean, who fired a revolver at her in 1882. Maclean was under the impression that God had reserved the number four and the colour blue for him alone; as he warned his sister, if the British “don’t cease wearing blue, I will commit murder”. The irony, of course, is that Victoria herself, still mourning her late husband Albert, almost always wore black.

Although Murphy tries to use the stories of Victoria’s seven assailants to examine some of the great issues of the age, from the Queen’s role in politics to the development of contemporary ideas about insanity, his scattershot style means we never quite get our teeth into any of them. All the same, and despite its length, his book is enormously entertaining.