Shooting Victoria – Book Review
Shooting Victoria is author Paul Thomas Murphy’s latest offering on one of history’s most fascinating, forceful, and popular personalities—Queen Victoria. This book is a richly detailed history of the Victorian era told through the multiple assassination plots against Queen Victoria herself. Shooting Victoria is much more a study of British history during Victoria’s exceptionally long reign than a traditional biographical study. That said, the first chapters outline Victoria’s early years, her education via the infamous “Kensington system” and the strained relationship with her mother, through her eventual liberation via marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg.
Additionally, Murphy writes extensively on the backgrounds, motivation and trials of each failed assassin, but Shooting Victoria is much more than just a catalog of their efforts to murder the queen. Instead, Murphy uses each assassination attempt as a starting point to wander through the ever-fascinating world of the Victorian Era, beginning with the Irish famine of the 1840s (and renewed calls for Irish independence) through the rise of the European Anarchists in Victoria’s final years. Throughout this journey, readers will visit the pubs, courtrooms, poor houses, train stations, royal palaces and streets of Victorian England. They will examine changes in British social mores (particularly on mental illness), fashions, politics and world views. While Murphy generally keeps the book focused on Victoria and her would-be assassins, he routinely ventures into other topics associated with each attempt, such as the British legal system, mental health treatment and facilities—even obscure topics such as poetry. While these unexpected forays into more arcane British history make for a more interesting read, they do deviate from a straightforward central storyline.
Murphy devotes significant time describing the relationship between Queen Victoria and her subjects—a relationship that evolves and grows stronger in no small part due to the number of failed assassination plots. Prior to Victoria’s ascension to the throne, English kings and queens were quite distant from the people. The public outpouring of warmth and support for the queen, and her demonstrated trust in large public gatherings following each assassination attempt greatly changed that view. While Queen Victoria spent little time in London after Albert’s untimely death in 1861, she still played important political, ceremonial and symbolic roles. Every return to London and court life from her self-imposed isolation in Balmoral or Wales saw the public celebrate Victoria’s celebrity. Indeed, much of what we would recognize today as British royal duties, responsibilities and ceremonies stem from Victoria’s approach to monarchy.
Murphy also alludes to an incredible “what if” moment certain to generate discussion among Victoria-philes, historians and general readers alike. The so-called Jubilee Day plot, hatched by Irish separatist group Clan-na-Gael, was an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria at her Golden Jubilee in 1887. Unlike previous ventures, Clan-na-Gael eschewed firearms for a newer, far more deadly weapon—dynamite. Had the plot succeeded, it would have killed Queen Victoria, her extended family and many of the other crowned heads of Europe. The effects of such a brutal and rapid decapitation strike against so many national leaders are chilling to consider.
Shooting Victoria concludes with a short synopsis examining the life of each assassin after trial and eventual sentencing. Some of the men became model citizens, demonstrating the powers of rehabilitation, while others found less happy endings. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions on the rehabilitative merits of the British legal and mental health systems.
Mr. Murphy is a noted Victorian expert, college educator and a board member of the Victorian Interdisciplinary Studies Association of the Western United States. Shooting Victoria is quite obviously a well researched book with 147 pages of citations and cited works, including extensive use of Queen Victoria’s and other senior government officials’ private correspondence, period newspaper reports, eyewitness statements and courtroom proceedings. However, the extreme level of detail distracts from the central narrative and slows the book’s overall pace. This is particularly problematic when Murphy gives overly long “blow by blow” accounts of each assassin’s criminal trial when a more concise summation of key details would suffice. Murphy proves, however, that there is still much to be learned about the Victorian period of British history. Prospective readers must be prepared for a long read; this is no book to consume in a single sitting.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.