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Review: Shooting Victoria, By Paul Thomas Murphy. Head of Zeus, £25

 

"It is worth being shot at," the 62-year-old Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter after Roderick MacLean discharged a revolver in her direction, "to see how much one is loved."

In 1882, the Queen probably needed a little public adoration: she had survived the death of Albert and the years shut away from the people, when republicanism gained headway, to recapture their veneration.

Murphy's pleasingly meandering history is a partly psychological one, examining both the characters of the men who "shot" at the Queen, and that of Victoria herself. The majority of the "shooters" were considered insane, yet went on to live remarkably sane lives after they had served their sentences, telling us a great deal about the incipient science of psychiatry. Victoria simply wanted the men responsible for frightening her – most of whom discharged guns that had no ammunition – exiled or imprisoned for ever.

What led seven men to attack her during her reign may never be properly known. Many surmised it was the publicity. Her first would-be assassin was unstable Edward Oxford, leader of the fictitious "Young England" revolutionary brigade. Victoria was 21 and pregnant when Oxford fired at and missed her. He was found guilty, but "being at the time insane". This should have seen him acquitted but he was confined until 1867, when he departed for Australia and became a respectable married man in Melbourne. The staff at Bedlam "always considered him sane". The second shooter, John Francis, was another troubled soul. Hunchback John William Bean was charged with a new lesser crime of "High Misdemeanour" to try and take the celebrity factor out of attacking the Queen. He, too, would marry after serving his sentence but would end his days in an asylum.

These individuals were never part of a political conspiracy nor motivated by personal hatred but what can their mental instability tell us? Murphy fails to comment on whether the gender of the assailants has anything to do with it. For Victoria was a particular symbol of womanhood, as well as a Queen. It seems reasonable to suppose there might be something in that.

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