The Queen of Hearts

Queen Victoria's Early Letters

edited by John Raymond
Macmillan, 310 pp., $4.00

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria; drawing by David Levine

“You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign.” This is how a girl of twenty wrote to the young man she was about to marry. The candor is stunning. Some have found it disarming, but perhaps they also forget that Victoria remained the Sovereign for no less than sixty-four years, in much the same frame of mind. These letters, covering the first part of her reign up to the death of the Prince Consort, produce a chilling effect. The imperiousness of fat-cheeked Little Vic soon loses its charm. By 1862, she looks more like a little tyrant.

Today, the British Royal Family has become supercilious about other monarchs. Sinking gradually into attitudes more upper-middle-class than royal, Buckingham Palace seems to have accepted one of the most insular snobberles: that all foreign dynasties are fake ones. The smile which greets a visiting king is wary rather than cousinly. But for Queen Victoria, the crowned heads were a great big family, a crowned trades union, a royalist international. She winced and fussed when the least royal sparrow fell, when some syphilitic margrave was deposed for firing his butlers from cannons, when some rustic kinglet expired after a surfeit of cold rice pudding. They all belonged, and their eclipses all darkened her own light.

This was an unlucky feeling to have in the century of nationalism and republicanism. Yet it remained central in Victoria’s attitude to politics. She could even develop a housemaid’s crush on the senior king of all, Tsar Nicholas I. “Really, it seems like a dream when I think that we breakfast and walk out with this greatest of all earthly Potentates.” Goggling, she took the great tyrant round the grounds at Windsor. “How many different Princes have we not gone the same round with!!” Also present was “the dear good King of Saxony,” who pottered about dimly. Victoria’s references make him sound like an idiot child: “He is so unassuming. He is out sightseeing all day, and enchanted with everything.” Throughout the revolution of 1848, Victoria was “so anxious for the fate of the poor smaller Sovereigns, which it would be infamous to sacrifice.” One notices the patronizing “poor smaller Sovereigns,” as one notices her uncritical obsequiousness to the Tsar: between beggarly curates and the Archbishop, Queen Victoria was like the wife of a well-nourished dean in a senior cathedral close.

These were the years of her quarrel with Palmerston. A long and inconclusive dispute ended with the Queen coming to terms with her Minister, though never with his outlook. But the hero of the whole exchange was beyond doubt Lord John Russell.

Events assumed a pattern. Lord Palmerston, as foreign secretary, would draft a despatch saluting a new revolution or calling some unreconstructed foreign big-wig “a notorious defaulter to the amount of 200,000 drachms.” The Queen would accuse him of inconsistency and warmongering, and require him to change…

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