A Curious Queen

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria; drawing by David Levine

Very few biographies which have reached the public in recent years can have as good a claim to be called “definitive” as has Elizabeth Longford’s life of Queen Victoria, and this for several reasons. A biography, to be regarded as definitive, must be based on plentiful materials and very few lives could have been so abundantly documented as that of Queen Victoria. The Queen was an object of intense interest to herself and knew herself to be also of intense interest to her family, her subjects, her contemporaries, and posterity. Like so many of her contemporaries she loved writing as a form of activity and her letters and journals—the main sources of this biography—constitute an extraordinarily full record of her views, her actions and above all her feelings from day to day. The spontaneity of her writing is unmistakable; although she was consciously writing for posterity as well as for the day, she was so confident that posterity would agree with her about everything that this consideration did not inhibit her as it has inhibited other diarists. Other biographers—notably Lytton Strachey—have of course made use of much of this material, but Lady Longford seems to be the first to have been granted full access to all that is now preserved. As she says “a complete portrait of Queen Victoria was never possible without recourse to the copious material in the royal archives at Windsor Castle. By gracious permission of Her Majesty the Queen I have been given unhindered access to all the relevant papers.”

A less skillful biographer might well have been swamped—as the biographers of so many Victorian worthies were in fact swamped—by the sheer volume of the source material. Lady Longford, however, remains in firm control of this material throughout her long but nicely balanced and never tedious narrative. The secret of her success in this is not, I think, solely or even mainly her craftsmanship as a writer, considerable though that is, but above all her sustained interest in, and sympathy with, her subject. It is not primarily the official figure of the Queen which interests her but the daughter, the wife, the mother, the widow—and all these capabilities and predicaments heightened and illuminated by the special light of royalty. She likes Queen Victoria and although she is not likely to succeed in transmitting this affection in its entirety to all her readers, I can at least testify—as one who had previously found Queen Victoria extremely unsympathetic—that she does succeed in making one like her a little better than one did. Here her success comes from a certain alertness in her affection and from the fact that she never falls victim to any of the obvious forms of sentimentality. She is quite aware, for example, of that streak of hardness even vindictiveness, in the Queen’s character which showed itself in her dealings with her mother after her accession, in…

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