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The Brass-Tacks Queen

Victoria: An Intimate Biography

by Stanley Weintraub
Dutton/Truman Talley Books, 704 pp., $26.95

The last British monarchs who gave their names to their times were Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. But whereas the word “Edwardian” merely defined a decade, the adjective “Victorian” conjured up an age—when God was an Englishman, when Britannia ruled the waves, and when the pound was indeed a sterling currency. Presiding over this era of providential and predestined progress was the queen-empress herself, whose life became the embodiment of her times. At her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, she was rapturously acclaimed as the bourgeois Gloriana, the fairy queen of a gaslit realm, whose reign had marked and moulded an era of unprecedented national improvement and unrivaled imperial expansion. Appropriately enough, nothing became the Victorian Age like the ending of it: no woman in history has ever been mourned by so many people as the “great white queen.” After her death, the British were never so certain of themselves or of their destiny again.

For the age did not long survive the passing of its eponymous empress. The Edwardian era was a flashy, hedonistic reaction against Victorian primness, and with the First World War, the old and easy nineteenth-century certainties vanished forever. In the cynical and disillusioned years that followed, the Victorians were roundly derided as vulgar, philistine, hypocritical, and middle-class, most memorably by Lytton Strachey, whose cynical studies of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon left their reputations in tatters. Since 1945, the professional historians have remorselessly exposed the contradictions that lay at the very heart of the Victorian era—of poverty and squalor in the midst of plenty, of anti-industrial values that gradually throttled an ostensibly commercial society, of aristocratic power that resourcefully thwarted the advent of democracy, and of economic and international anxieties that were the darker side of the cult of empire.

But until very recently, the queen herself has effectively escaped this critical scrutiny. While the Victorian Age now seems so diverse and contradictory that the phrase itself has been virtually robbed of all meaning, the queen herself remains regina intacta. The destruction of most of her papers and the discretion of most of her courtiers meant that many secrets went with her to the grave. The carefully vetted publication of selections from her letters and extracts from her journals between 1907 and 1932 only enhanced the popular picture of a woman formidable, tragic, yet winning. Even Lytton Strachey was overwhelmed by the most eminent Victorian of them all, and composed an adulatory biography which remains a classic. The scholarly revolution in Victorian studies since 1945 has also failed to dethrone the queen: in Elizabeth Longford’s sensitive and well-disposed biography, she still shines forth, resolved to be good, and on the whole succeeding.

The widening gap between our enhanced understanding of the Victorian era and our unchanging perception of the Victorian queen is in part owing to the separate ways in which academic scholars and royal biographers tend to work. No British sovereign since George I has received a full-scale study from a professional historian. Instead, most recent royal biographers have been gifted nonspecialists, who excel at the evocation of a personality but who largely ignore broader historical trends and meanings, and are often unaware of most recent scholarly work. But in addition, the very nature of the monarchy as a hereditary institution, and the conditions governing access to its archives, necessarily means that most royal biographies have to be deferential and discreet, more concerned to sustain the mythology and mystique of the institution than they are to question or examine it.

But in 1987, on the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the queen’s Golden Jubilee, it is surely time that some deliberate attempt was made to bridge the gap between the Victorian monarch and the Victorian Age. At first glance, Stanley Weintraub’s new book does nothing of the kind, but merely repeats and reworks the well-known biographical themes of headstrong schoolgirl, devoted wife, desolate widow, and apotheosized symbol, while leaving the broader historical context both vague and incomplete. His accounts of the central political episodes of the reign, from the Bedchamber Crisis to Home Rule, say nothing that is new, and the old myth that Albert created an impartial monarchy “above party” is repeated yet again. More generally, we are portentously informed that, during the course of her reign, Victoria “became England,” but this undoubted transformation is left unexplained, an anthropomorphic miracle.

But what redeems Weintraub’s book, and makes it a major contribution to royal biography despite its undeniable historical limitations, is that it does indeed offer a more candid, critical, and convincing interpretation of the queen herself, by using diaries, journals, and letters that have only recently become available, and by probing more carefully into the medical details of royal living. As the subtitle rightly announces, this is indeed an intimate portrait, more concerned with courtly intrigue than with party politics, more interested in doctors and physicians than in cabinet ministers, and more preoccupied with sex, pregnancies, and bereavements than with wars, elections, and acts of Parliament. And this subordination of the public to the private not only provides much new detail about the monarch and her court: it also suggests that it was these very basic facts of life, of “birth, copulation and death,” that actually mattered most to the queen. Victoria, on this reading, was much more the mother of her children than the mother of her people, not so much a national icon as a brass-tacks queen.

She was born in 1819, and within a year both her father (the indebted Duke of Kent) and her grandfather (the insane King George III) died. Her mother was a minor German princess who was penniless and friendless. Her only asset was her daughter, who might—but only might—one day become queen of England. Victoria’s unhappy early years were thus lived out against a background at once lonely and insecure, as her mother tried to barter her daughter’s uncertain succession prospects for an increased parliamentary grant, as the remaining sons of George III tried vainly to beget rival claimants, and as courtiers and governesses squabbled and intrigued for mastery of the child. But in 1837 she duly acceded to the throne, where her early years were far from happy: she was subject to fits of depression, sick headaches, nausea, and listlessness. Her infatuation with the prime minister Lord Melbourne was clearly a search for the father figure she had never known; and her ill-judged behavior over the Bedchamber Crisis and the Flora Hastings affair displayed to the world her naiveté and lack of judgment.

In 1840, she entered into an arranged match with Albert. He was a minor German princeling who could not possibly expect to do better; and she, although queen of England, was short, plain, and inclined toward plumpness. Although they came to love each other with strong physical passion, the dominant fact of this second phase of Victoria’s life was that in twenty years of marriage, she produced nine children. One consequence was that she had little time, energy, or inclination left for politics, and it was this that enabled Albert to step in and become the uncrowned king. Another was that as she became more fat and more plain, and as Albert, too, aged rapidly, they increasingly indulged their sensual natures by acquiring such un-Victorian artifacts as paintings and sculptures of nudes. Above all, it seems clear that Victoria hated pregnancy, hated childbirth, hated babies, and hated children. Despite the image—carefully projected in the paintings of Landseer and Winterhalter—of a gemütlich bourgeois family, the queen showed little warmth of feeling for her offspring, and it is hardly surprising that most of them became unhappy or delinquent or both.

During the third phase of her life, from 1861 to 1888, birth and copulation came to an abrupt end, and death established its preeminence in Victoria’s life. Her mother and her husband died within six months of each other, in Albert’s case probably from stomach cancer which may have afflicted him for four years. In 1871 the queen herself became dangerously ill with a severe throat inflammation and an underarm abscess, and in the same year the Prince of Wales nearly succumbed to typhoid. The first of her daughters died in 1878 and the first of her sons in 1884. And four years later, her son-in-law, who had reigned for only ninety-nine days as the German emperor, died of cancer of the throat. Victoria, meanwhile, abandoned herself to an orgy of grief so extreme and so reclusive that politicians found her almost impossible to deal with. Only Albert’s nightshirt and the company of her servant John Brown offered her consolation and, with the precedents of Hanoverian madness in mind, there were fears for her sanity. But Victoria retained her reason, and manipulated her children more unscrupulously than ever, driving away those she disliked, and doing her utmost to prevent the departure of those she disliked, and doing her utmost to prevent the departure of those she did not wish to lose.

By the last phase of her reign, the queen had become very fat, rather ugly, semi-invalid, and half-blind. Understandably, she was by now obsessed with her health, and when she traveled she took with her, in addition to her servants, courtiers, and available members of her family, a vast medical retinue of surgeons, physicians, oculists, and apothecaries. But her children and grandchildren continued to die like leaves in autumn. The only demise that gave relief bordering upon satisfaction was that of the Duke of Clarence, from pneumonia, in 1892. As the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, he was in direct line of succession to the throne. But he was backward, uneducable, bisexual, and reputedly afflicted with gonorrhea. Fortunately, after his death, his fiancée, Princess May of Teck, was persuaded to transfer her affections to his younger brother George, and the couple were duly married. How much of these machinations the queen actually knew about is unclear, for by then her health was conspicuously failing. She rarely spoke to her courtiers, and had to have letters read aloud to her. Almost every day of the year was by now the anniversary of a family death, to which she finally added her own in January 1901, succumbing to a combination of insomnia, nutritional deficiency, and several minor strokes.

The woman who emerges from the medical details of these pages is both less agreeable and more plausible than the icon of contemporary jubilees or the paragon of subsequent biographers. In general, she was insensitive, obstinate, outspoken, capricious, and bigoted (not for nothing is the book’s epigraph a quotation from the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass). In particular, this biography is the first to demonstrate the full extent of Victoria’s inordinate selfishness. No one was ever allowed to inconvenience her, and nothing could stand in the way of her regular migrations to Windsor, Osborne, and Balmoral. Successive governments were grandly informed that political crises and general elections must not take place at times she deemed unacceptable, and busy and overworked ministers were frequently obliged to travel long distances by land and sea to transact what was often the most trivial of business with her. Her tactless and unsympathetic treatment of people as varied as Lady Flora Hastings, Lord Derby, and Mr. Gladstone was inexcusable. When staying at Inverary Castle, she once refused to allow the Duke and Duchess of Argyll to dine with her at their own table; and she became so possessive of her long-suffering courtiers that she regarded any decision of theirs to marry or to leave as a personal affront which she rarely forgave.

Underlying this behavior was the bizarre and unreal nature of court life, and it is one of the great merits of this book that this is so vividly evoked. For the cardinal principle was that the queen must be obeyed, and it was this “long unchecked habit of self-indulgence” which effectively transformed the monarch into a monster and her courtiers into sycophantic ciphers. No topic could be raised in conversation except by the queen, and no one dared give her an opinion which she did not wish to hear, or tell her a truth she did not desire to know. The result was a court regimen at once tyrannical and tedious, unbearable and unreal. Royal children, court retainers, and members of the household were incarcerated for weeks in the seclusion of Osborne, the mausoleum of Windsor, and the chill and the snow of Balmoral. Although they often did not see the queen for days, they were not allowed to lead independent lives, but always had to be at her beck and call. The men took up chain smoking to relieve the boredom, while John Brown drank and the Munshi (her Indian servant) philandered. No wonder so many became obsessed with their health: there was little else to do.

The combination of temperament and environment inevitably meant that the queen’s political views were reactionary in the extreme. She hated London, never read a newspaper, and knew next to nothing of the lives of most of her subjects. She opposed factory legislation, army reform, and the introduction of examinations into the civil service. She disapproved of improved education for the working classes—especially women—because it might give them aspirations beyond their station. She constantly supported royal and reactionary regimes abroad, doing all she could to frustrate Palmerston’s more liberal policy; she loathed the Irish and did her utmost to thwart Gladstone’s more enlightened initiatives. In politics as in everything else, she was congenitally incapable of seeing any viewpoint other than her own, dismissing those with whom she disagreed as agitators, radicals, socialists, and communists, who sought to overturn the God-given order of society. In most books, these views are breezily excused as further evidence of the queen’s “character”: but we can now see them for what they really were, namely upper-class paranoia of an advanced kind, which was to erupt with such violence in England between 1910 and 1914.

Although Weintraub himself makes no real attempt to integrate this new version of the Victorian queen into our overall picture of the Victorian Age, he has certainly provided ample material with which others might try. For we can now place the queen much more precisely within her own world, not as the vague incarnation of her age, but as the powerful embodiment of its most conservative characteristics. In a civilization often acclaimed as improving and progressive, the queen—along with many others—was resolutely opposed to such developments. In a country frequently described as rational, capitalist, and democratic, the monarchy remained—along with many others—a secretive, unaccountable, self-perpetuating, and arguably corrupt institution. Indeed, by the end of Victoria’s reign, the gap between the popular perception and the private reality of the royal family had probably never been wider.

To put the implications of Weintraub’s book another way, we can now see the extent to which the monarchy both gratified and promoted the craving for escapism, fantasy, and make-believe which was itself so marked a feature of Victorian life. We hear much about Albert’s concern for business and technology (as in the Great Exhibition). But the anti-industrial values which the queen and prince projected—by the pastoral cult of Osborne and Balmoral, by their lack of interest in the process of creating wealth, and by their snobbish hostility to self-improvement—seem to have been a great deal more powerful. Those who believe that nineteenth-century Britain witnessed the destruction of the industrial spirit might begin their search for the culprit at the very top of the tree. In the same way, there is clearly some close connection, in the late nineteenth century, between the decline of Britain’s international position, the self-conscious expansion of empire, and the revived cult of the monarchy. The fact that the last hundred years have simultaneously seen the emasculation of British power and the apotheosis of the British crown is surely more than mere coincidence.

Now it may be objected that such speculation runs far ahead of the evidence; that it depends on the uncritical acceptance of a highly critical and unusual view of Queen Victoria; and that this in turn relies far too much on medical detail which needs the most careful handling and interpretation. But while these caveats must undoubtedly be borne in mind, they are hardly overwhelming. For Weintraub’s book convincingly establishes that the court was indeed an elemental world, where the facts of birth and death, the undisciplined eccentricities of temperament, and the clashes of personality and the crises of family life themselves provided the mainspring to the action. The result is a more candid and nuanced picture of the queen, which enables us to situate her in her age in a way that has hitherto not been possible. We can no more understand her without it than we can comprehend it without her. This book helps us to do both.

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