Victoria: An Intimate Biography
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 …