Quirks of a Great Queen

An excellent new biography on Queen Victoria shows she remains a profound paradox

Books History
The paradoxical Queen, photographed by J.J.E. Mayall in 1860: Victoria was both Empress and a "little old lady in a bonnet"

As A.N. Wilson shows in his wonderful biography, Queen Victoria remains “an historical figure of profound paradox”. This “little old woman in a bonnet” did not demur when told by one admirer that she exercised “a personal and domestic influence over the thrones of Europe absolutely without precedent in the history of Christendom”. Although at times she seemingly personified the prudishness associated with her name, decreeing it “not proper” for her newly-married eldest daughter to tell her siblings she was pregnant, she could also display compassion for female inmates of Parkhurst prison who “from shame & desertion have destroyed their newly-born children”. Despite her avowed abhorrence for the emancipation of women, she declared it “always sticks in my throat” that even in happy marriages, “the poor woman is bodily and morally the husband’s slave”. For much of her reign she shut herself away from her people, and yet retained what Wilson identifies as her “peculiar intuitive sense of national mood and feeling”.

Victoria’s marriage to her cousin Prince Albert was an enduring love-match, but in many respects they were temperamentally unsuited. Albert lamented that their life together was periodically “embittered by ‘scenes'”, blaming Victoria’s “fidgety nature” as “the cause of much unpleasantness”. While Victoria insisted that Albert in his turn could be “hasty and harsh”, he maintained, after one upsetting flare-up, “There was nothing in what I said to excite a healthy person to such an outburst”. Victoria herself could be contrite about her failure to control her temper. On his last New Year’s morning Albert found a note on his pillow begging forgiveness; after his death she acknowledged, “Dear Darling, I fear I tried him sadly.”

Not only did she love Albert passionately, but she was completely dependent on him. Besides drafting all her official correspondence, he worked tirelessly to establish the monarchy as a modern political institution.  His manifold achievements, such as his part in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851, prompt Wilson to hail him as probably the only genius in the Royal Family’s history. When he died in 1861 she was plunged into overwhelming grief, groaning that “Without him, Life is utter darkness.” She nevertheless promised that out of respect to the memory of “that adored and perfect Being”, she would never fail in her duty. In fact, for much of her widowhood, she hardly conducted herself as Albert would have wished. For more than a decade she stubbornly secluded herself, deaf to warnings that her refusal to carry out her ceremonial functions was endangering the monarchy.

Victoria claimed that having “always disliked politics”, she had only taken an interest in them because Albert had “forced her” to do so. Yet after his death she remained politically engaged — too much so, indeed, in the view of some of her ministers. As she grew older, she made little effort to maintain a pose of political neutrality, ignoring Albert’s dictum that the Crown must be above party. She was shamelessly partisan towards Tory imperialists such as Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, while not hiding her loathing for her longest-serving Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone.

Post-natal depression and the strain of motherhood partly accounted for what Albert called her “nervousness”, which others considered akin to mental instability. After her eighth delivery she told her doctor that “if she had another child she would sink under it”, but within a few months was pregnant again. Noting that her store of maternal devotion was insufficient to stretch to all nine children, Wilson says she carried the Hanoverian tradition of enmity towards her eldest son to “operatic heights”. In 1863, Victoria was so disgusted by the louche behaviour of the Prince of Wales and his younger brother Affie that she declared she found the near-fatal sufferings of her ten-year-old haemophiliac son Prince Leopold “far less trying”, as “death in purity is so far preferable to life in sin and degradation”. Even “Beloved Baby”, her youngest child Princess Beatrice, whom her mother proclaimed “the apple of my eye”, incurred Victoria’s fury when she expressed a wish to marry. Her mother ostracised her completely, and for seven months communicated exclusively through curt notes. Only then did the Queen relent, and welcome Beatrice’s fiancé into the family circle.

While writing this biography, Wilson was constantly asked about the widowed Victoria’s relations with her Highland servant John Brown. He admits that he cannot make up his mind on the matter, but contends that many of her entourage believed the worst. It is difficult to accept that someone as obsessively truthful as Queen Victoria, who felt no compunction decreeing that the unsuitable second marriage of a widowed son-in-law should be instantly annulled, could have sustained such a gross deception as to contract a secret union with Brown. Yet Wilson attaches weight to the report that the Presbyterian Minister of Crathie Kirk told his sister on his deathbed that he regretted having married the pair. At her death Victoria left instructions that she was to be buried wearing a wedding ring bequeathed to Brown (who predeceased her by 18 years) by his mother. Wilson impishly points out that since she also stipulated that a sprig of Balmoral heather and photograph of “my faithful wardrobe maid Annie Macdonald” should be placed in the coffin, perhaps this signified nothing more than a compulsive need to carry clutter to the grave.

Besides his masterly focus on the Queen’s private life, Wilson illuminates more serious matters such as the causes of the Crimean and Boer Wars, and succinctly charts shifts in the European balance of power. With so many of Victoria’s children and grandchildren married to continental rulers, foreign policy inevitably acquired a personal dimension for Victoria, and wars between European nations distressed her all the more because they frequently entailed inter-familial conflict.

Wilson can be severe on his subject, but does highlight her lovable side. With its acute pen portraits of innumerable supporting characters jostling next to hilarious asides and piquant observations, this delightful addition to Victoria’s biographies brilliantly captures what Wilson calls “the rich comedy of her character”.