Tough Queen

Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort

by Cecil Woodham-Smith
Knopf, 486 pp., $10.00

Queen Victoria’s Little Wars

by Byron Farwell
Harper & Row, 256 pp., $8.95

Victoria and the Victorians

by Herbert Tingsten
Delacorte, 608 pp., $12.50

Victoria’s Heyday

by J.B. Priestley
Harper & Row, 296 pp., $15.00

When as a schoolboy I went to King’s College, Cambridge, to sit for the history scholarship exam, a blue-ribbon competition by which the English try to make higher education resemble the Turf as nearly as possible, I was asked at the end of my interview whether I thought the last sentence of Strachey’s Queen Victoria good history:

Perhaps her fading mind called up once more the shadows of the past to float before it, and retraced, for the last time, the vanished visions of that long history—passing back and back, through the cloud of years, to older, and ever older memories—to the spring woods at Osborne, so full of primroses for Lord Beaconsfield—to Lord Palmerston’s queer clothes and high demeanour, and Albert’s face under the green lamp, and Albert’s first stag at Balmoral, and Albert in his blue and silver uniform, and the Baron coming in through a doorway, and Lord M. dreaming at Windsor with the rooks cawing in the elm-trees, and the Archbishop of Canterbury on his knees in the dawn, and the old King’s turkeycock ejaculations, and Uncle Leopold’s soft voice at Claremont, and Lehzen with the globes, and her mother’s feathers sweeping down towards her, and a great old repeater-watch of her father’s in its tortoise-shell case, and a yellow rug, and some friendly flounces of sprigged muslin, and the trees and the grass at Kensington.

I was taken aback and, being enthusiastic rather than reflective, said that I thought it marvelous. As I uttered the words I saw from the faces of the dons that I had given the Wrong Answer. It is true, as Strachey himself might have said, that such speculations are vain and not the concern of the historian. But his book still reads splendidly and if you put by it Elizabeth Longford’s biography of the Queen, or the first volume of the latest life to appear by Cecil Woodham-Smith, you realize that it is almost impossible for anyone with some intelligence and sensitivity to write a bad life of the Queen.

She left so much of her personality behind her, and Mrs. Woodham-Smith has made excellent use of this. Her daughter piously and deplorably burned practically the whole of Victoria’s journal, but the volumes of letters and the records of her utterances are voluminous. Volume alone would not have made her memorable. Her character and personality do. If technically she was the first Victorian, she was also the last Hanoverian—though the Hanoverian strain persisted in her descendants: her grandson still talked with a gutteral accent and George VI could explode into a Hanoverian rage.

But Victoria had colossal vitality and high spirits; the old Regency roués who saw her crowned spoke of her as a little animal. Until her accession she was kept in a seclusion that today would have almost qualified for intervention by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Then, free …

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