Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria; drawing by David Levine

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 at last, she burst out, and relished balls, receptions, riding, and her pets, human and animal.

She was swept off her feet by a fairy-tale prince of remarkable grace and beauty who looked as if he had come straight from a story by Grimm. He had in fact come most unwillingly from the university where he had sat at Fichte’s feet. Victoria was to sit at his: but not tranquilly. For the first time in this book we get new details of more than one of the prodigious scenes, the screams, sobs, and tears of reconciliation which rent the air when she went for Albert. The fact that she thought talk between ladies about pregnancies or miscarriages indelicate should not blind us to the fact that she was highly sexed and, after the fearful humiliations of the wedding night, adored bed, although she hated bearing children, and disliked them until they got beyond what she called the frog stage.

Nevertheless Albert tamed her. Her pregnancies meant that he got the domestic evenings with the State papers which he enjoyed, and the mild dissipations of Lord Melbourne’s days passed. Palmerston, who had amused her (and whose nickname for good reason was Cupid), now shocked her. Her passion was subdued by Albert’s reason. It was sublimated into language—the famous underlinings and invocations to flog or hang people she disliked, whom she called fiends, monsters, and wretches. As she grew to be more like him, she grew away from the Whig lords and indeed the greater part of London society, yet she was too uneducated to find solace in the company of sobersides such as Peel, Gladstone, or Shaftesbury.

Yet although she has become in retrospect the original Victorian lady, she remained as tough as nails. The head of her mother’s household, Sir John Conroy, was banished from her presence the day after her accession and nothing her mother could say would move her. She was insensitive to criticism and oblivious of her cruelty to Lady Flora Hastings: “It was disagreeable and painful to me to think there was a dying person in the house.” The stern unfeeling way in which she brought up her children amazed the politicians. She is a biographer’s dream: nothing gray or uncertain about her, and gifted with a vitality that overflows in odd places.


Then another recipe for success is the story itself. Mrs. Woodham-Smith is particularly successful in analyzing the family background. Victoria’s father was not hated as much as that ogre his brother, the Duke of Cumberland, but he had, after all, been removed from his army command because he had nearly caused a mutiny at Gibraltar by his merciless discipline. He was the greatest flogger in the army, but his debts finally made him jog himself out of his comfortably squalid life with an agreeable French mistress and marry a young German widowed princess as penniless as he. Seventeen months later he was dead, leaving Victoria his heir—and the most likely successor to the English throne.

The horrible Hanoverian princes; the fear that the little girl would die; the dubious life that the Duchess led, flanked by the sinister, swindling adventurer Conroy; the protective influence of Victoria’s governess Baroness Lehzen; the dawning realization of the child—“I will be good”—of her own destiny; the rows and recriminations between her mother and the ridiculous King William IV and dear Queen Adelaide; the growing attempts by the King—and independently by Conroy, who revolted her—to try to bring Victoria under their influence: all build up to the famous moment when at dawn the Archbishop and the Lord Chamberlain fell on their knees to tell her she was Queen. Mrs. Woodham-Smith tells the story admirably and is at her best at the moment of the accession and the Coronation. As a narrator she is beyond praise.

But if I were now sitting my entrance exam at Cambridge, I should not call her book good history. Every so often a biographer has to write a link passage explaining the background, for instance, of the Corn Laws, the 1848 revolution, Chartism, or the Crimean War. Quite apart from the fact that there are a number of tiresome stylistic repetitions in the text, so that one imagines the author was deprived of galley proofs, these link passages are of a lamentable banality and at times so brief as to be misleading—odd for someone who wrote so well about the Irish famine and The Reason Why. Mrs. Woodham-Smith seems to know and feel as little about the poverty of the times as Victoria herself. She seems not to have read any of the learned articles on the significance of that not very important episode the Bedchamber crisis, or to be acquainted with modern trends in nineteenth-century history. I rather doubt whether her book will be well received by that indispensable periodical Victorian Studies.

For instance, she suggests that Albert ended Victoria’s infatuation with the Whigs and was well on the way to making the Crown fully constitutional and above party. This is untrue. Victoria merely transferred her affections. She learned to respect Peel, whom she had formerly suspected. She could not, and never did, respect Palmerston, and therefore in the long years of his ascendancy she was indeed divorced from party, as none of the leading politicians appealed to her. But—beyond the scope of this volume—her antipathy to Gladstone and her delight in Disraeli made her a Tory for the rest of her days.

The Crown in England is never neutral. It must inevitably incline to the Tories if only because their style of life even to this day more closely resembles that of the monarch than their opponents’ lives do. But in fact, as much as class solidarity, what determines the affection of the sovereign for his ministers is simply length of service. A new prime minister is at first suspect; and then the sovereign is persuaded that over the years he has been taught the ropes (by the sovereign), and becomes, like a faithful collie, a loyal old servant. George VI thought the forced resignation of Chamberlain in 1940 a deplorable betrayal and was suspicious of Churchill. Five years later he was inconsolable at Winston’s defeat.

This biography, therefore, is difficult to put down but, light on analysis and thought, not very heavy to pick up. Mrs. Woodham-Smith believes that the vogue of books about Victoria and the Victorians is due to the fact that the English now associate the age with their heyday of power and look back on the times with affection. It may be so, but what is odd is how little those who write popular books about these times forget the contradictions. For every typical “Victorian” you can find “other Victorians” such as Disraeli or Bagehot, Browning or Rossetti, Clough or Burton. It is true that Britain was at the zenith of her power but her influence in Europe was rarely decisive: she was in fact an isolationist and at the same time an imperialist power.


The unostentatious wars by which she picked up her empire are well described by Mr. Farwell in a useful if unadventurous book. He shows how the British deployed very small units of their army in China, Afghanistan, Zululand, Ashanti, Sudan, South Africa, and, most notably, throughout India, and acquired some skill in the not-so-gentle art of “pacification.” Militarily the problem was how to confront a force of natives vastly superior in numbers but with little military training, out-of-date firearms, and obsolete artillery. To do so successfully required steady, well-disciplined troops who were not afraid to die, and in consequence remarkably few ever were killed. It was this kind of warfare that made the British army quite unfit to fight a war in Europe, where it would be again outnumbered and faced by highly skilled troops commanded by officers whose staffwork made that of the British look primitive.

I suspect that this is a book either for connoisseurs of the British army, of Kipling, or of the schoolboy novelist G. A. Henty. It tells all the old stories of imperial heroism con brio and takes the political and moral argument of imperialism for granted. I had a personal disappointment. When I was drafted in 1940 to do my tenweeks induction as a private soldier at Reading, I found myself in a barrack room built in Victorian times and called Tofrek. Next to it was one named Maiwand. They were battles in Afghanistan unknown to me and long forgotten; but not forgotten by that regiment, and although none of my fellow recruits was ever likely to serve in it, we were taught regimental history by the sergeants, and what had happened at the places after which the barrack rooms were called, as Hitler was overrunning Europe. But, although Mr. Farwell repeats the story of the sensational defeat of Maiwand, I can find no mention of Tofrek.

Herbert Tingsten’s book is unfortunately of no account whatsoever. It is a “popular” book on the Victorians by a Swedish editor-in-chief who was once a professor: he knows his subject, quotes a few of the most recent works of scholarship, and, devoid of vulgarity, makes an honorable attempt to cover the ground. If someone has never read anything about England in the nineteenth century, it will do as a beginning, but although it may be a useful introduction for the Swedes, their descendants in Wisconsin would expect something considerably more advanced. On the other hand J. B. Priestley’s coffee table book on the decade of the 1850s is delightful. Good sense, marvelous and well-chosen pictures, just judgments, and a readable text. An excellent Christmas present—and a present that should cause uncomfortable reflections by New Year’s Day.

For the achievement of that decade seems in retrospect spectacular. It began with the death of Peel and ended with the death of Macaulay, with the man who saw England through the specter of the Corn Law and Chartist agitations and with the man who put forward the most convincing case for Victorian progress. It began with Wordsworth’s posthumous Prelude and with In Memoriam. It ended with the Origin of Species. Dickens’s greatest novels appeared during it, Thackeray, Patmore, Arnold, Ruskin, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Kingsley, Trollope, Charlotte Yonge, Meredith—and Samuel Smiles—were all publishing. Herbert Spencer in 1851 and Mill on Liberty in 1859 confronted Mansel’s Limits of Religious Thought Examined. Landseer, Frith, Millais, and the Pre-Raphaelites were at their height; Dicky, Doyle, Cruikshank, and Phiz were drawing; Gilbert Scott and Brandon were building churches; and the Houses of Parliament and the Crystal Palace enshrined the new architecture and technology of the age. Jowett, Buckle, de Quincey, Layard, George Henry Lewes, Freeman were all making their names. The first and greatest of public school novels was written. The pace is tremendous.

Only in home affairs is there that curious hiatus which one associates with Palmerston and the last days of Whig rule. The most important piece of legislation passed in the decade (not mentioned by Mr. Priestley) was the Limited Liability Act, which effectively severed the capitalist’s liability for his entrepreneurial functions from his family and domestic situation. The act not merely gave him personal protection from the financial ruin of his enterprise, it freed capital for investment in a way hitherto unknown. Beside this the Crimean War and even the Indian mutiny pale in importance.

Why should all this splendor and energy make us queasy and uneasy? It could have been matched at that time by what was occurring in France or in what we now call Germany and Austria. But is there a single decade since the First World War in any country, America and Russia included, in which such a remarkable contribution to art, science, technology, living standards, and liberty has been made? It may be so: but the heartburn that will accompany the reading of Mr. Priestley’s book may not be entirely that of overindulgence at Christmas.

This Issue

November 30, 1972