Paula Bartley's biography of Queen Victoria, based on the monarch's letters and journals, brings out surprising contradictions
There have been many good biographies of Victoria: by Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth Longford, Cecil Woodham Smith, Christopher Hibbert, A.N. Wilson, and more than 500 others. How is this one different?
Paula Bartley approaches her through the letters she wrote, mainly to her ministers, and the journals that she kept daily throughout her life, from the age of 13. In doing so she questions many of the assumptions and myths that have built up around Victoria, not least about her withdrawal from public life and politics after the death of Prince Albert, and about her character.
The picture that emerges is of a surprising, somewhat contradictiory figure: obstinate and wilful; sexual and sentimental; self-indulgent, but hard-working; reactionary but, on some issues, liberal; not racist; sometimes a grump, sometimes susceptible to flirtation and flattery.
She emerges as a monarch with strong prejudices (against Roman Catholicism, against Ireland), but also as someone capable of occasional, surprising pragmatism.
She was brought up by her mother as a fervent Whig, and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, became a father figure: they rode together every day and discussed everything.
Her journals show that she dismissed the Chartists’ case for electoral reform, although she was not unsympathetic to reforms of industry — despite Melbourne’s belief that the conditions in factories were “greatly exaggerated . . . it’s better children should work,” he maintained, “than be idle and starve”.
In foreign affairs she never found it possible to distinguish between the interests of her family and those of the country — she was related to the royal families of France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Austria and Hungary, Mexico, Russia and Germany. “The idea of my country being at war with that of my dearest relations and friends would be a terrible grief to me,” she wrote in 1844.
But family considerations didn’t arise in the case of Ireland where she found the rise of Daniel O’Connell “very alarming” and she deplored the reduction of his prison sentence for leading the campaign for Irish independence as “too bad!”. Nevertheless she saw that “governing Ireland by Troops” would be “dreadful and cannot last”.
She identified the influence of the Catholic clergy as being at the root of the problem and supported, and financed, a better educated and informed clergy. Not that such prescience could prevent her being dubbed “The Famine Queen” before she, belatedly, supported Peel’s reform of the Corn Laws that were keeping the price of corn artificially high.
Gradually she learned to interfere less with ministers, although that didn’t apply to Palmerston. She feared revolutions and, despite her Whig instincts, was essentially an autocrat. “Obedience to the laws and to the Sovereign is obedience to a Higher Power,” she wrote in 1848. “Divinely instituted for the good of the people, not of the Sovereign who has equally duties and obligations.”
She deplored Palmerston’s “blustering” and considered his successor as Prime Minister, Russell, “weak and miserable”. But she ended by recognising that Palmerston’s handling of the Crimean War had been effective. She was very proud of “Her Navy” and reviewed her returning, victorious troops majestically, in a scarlet jacket with gold braid, in Bartley’s words, with “pomp and splendour”. She initiated the Victoria Cross, giving it to 47 men, and, never one to bear grudges, gave Palmerston the Order of the Garter.
But Albert’s death in December 1861 changed everything. Without his support and guidance she fell back into what was dubbed the “luxury of woe”. She refused to appear in public, wouldn’t open Parliament and insisted on wearing black at all times, losing the sympathy of the public.
She had relied on strong influences — first Melbourne, then Albert. Now, after 1861, she was alone, the Great Matriarch.
Initially she disliked Disraeli, considering him obnoxious and detestable, “thoroughly Jewish”. Yet he befriended her, indeed flirted with her. She found his parliamentary reports gossipy, “his curious notes were just like his novels, highly coloured”. Her dislike she kept for Gladstone who treated her as an intellectual equal, “lost [her] in the fog of [his] long and far from lucid sentences” and so failed to gain her support on the Irish Question or on many of his radical reforms.
Bartley’s book is far from being a hagiography. It provides a frank and refreshing view of Victoria. By allowing her to speak for herself through her letters and journals she confirms many of the criticisms expressed by Dilke and later by Charles Trevelyan. But it is hard not to be charmed by her vulnerability and impressed by the way she applied herself to her role as monarch for 60 years, steering Britain through a century in which it could easily have fallen apart.