An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula, Weidenfeld pounds 20.
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An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick by Hannah Pakula, Weidenfeld pounds 20. The eldest child of Queen Victoria, Vicky, a sparky, imaginative child, could chatter away in German, French and English at the age of three. By 11, her parents had their eyes on a prospective son-in-law: Fritz, nine years her senior and the son of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. Brought up in the Neues Palais of Potsdam, Fritz had had a Spartan childhood: the decaying palace harboured vermin, moths chewed their way through the tapestries, and there were no baths or water-closets - a pump in the courtyard supplied all the palace's water.

Pakula's narrative is studded with fascinating details and observations. Victoria and Albert angled to bring Fritz to London with his parents on the pretext of a visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851. But only three years before, a wave of revolutions had swept Europe, and anxious crowned heads were staying at home. There were more bizarre objections: experts predicted that the Crystal Palace would collapse on opening day from the weight of bird droppings, or at the sound of the celebratory guns. Less dramatically, Victoria worried that her daughter, who resembled her round- faced, puddingy mother, would be too plain to attract the young prince.

Victoria, presented here as a bouncily enthusiastic sexual partner with her adored Albert, nevertheless did little to prepare Vicky for the wedding night. Years later she wrote: "that agonising thought ... of giving up your own child ... to a stranger to do unto her as he likes, is to me the most torturing thought in the world".

And off goes Vicky to married life in a series of grandiose German palaces, and motherhood (her troublesome eldest son, Willy, becomes Kaiser Wilhelm II). One of Pakula's well-chosen photographs shows mother and daughter swathed in mourning for poor, beloved Fritz, dead at 56 from throat cancer. Like Victoria, Vicky turned grief into a fetish, despite being virtually ostracised by the rest of the German royal family. Her attempts to rein in her autocratic son while keeping his father's memory alive were constantly thwarted; the account of withering power and influence is sombre and moving. The narrative copes briskly with the sheer weight of genealogy and politics needed to explain this turbulent era.

Suzi Feay