Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson

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Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A new biography of the Queen, based partly on previously unseen sources, and providing some fresh assessments of her character.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 642 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 9781848879560

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Every few years, it seems, we are presented with another generously-sized biography of Queen Victoria. How many times can another author follow Elizabeth Longford, Stanley Weintraub, or Christopher Hibbert to name but three, produce 500 pages or more and still say something new about her? Can the blurb’s claim that this shows us the sovereign ‘as she’s never been seen before’ really be justified? Fortunately it can, for even more than a century after her death, there is still new material from previously unseen sources to add to what we already know about her.

To anybody familiar with her life and times, the basic story is a familiar one. She was the only child of an arranged marriage whose father died when she was only eight months old, the over-protected adolescent who had the good fortune to ascend the throne at the age of eighteen so a regency presided over in all but name by the unscrupulous John Conroy would not be necessary, the doting wife of her cousin Albert whose unexpected illness and death allegedly drove her to within inches of losing her reason, the employer and devoted friend of her Highland servant John Brown and later the controversial Indian Abdul Karim (‘the Munshi’). Much of this is already as well-known as the story of her relationships with her family and her prime ministers.

However Wilson whets our appetite with more facets that were previously little explored, if at all, as well as emphasising certain points that have too often been ignored. He reminds us that her father Edward, Duke of Kent, was a strange, contradictory personality – a martinet who had been notorious for his harsh discipline as an army commander, and a lavish spendthrift, yet a friend of the factory owner and radical Robert Owen, and one who supported his views on socialism’s ‘levelling tendencies’ as being in the interests of mankind. He considers, and convincingly dismisses, Conroy’s claim that his wife Elizabeth was the Duke’s daughter, a claim that if correct would have made him the young Queen’s brother-in-law. He shows how the Reform Act of 1867 had spelt the end of the power of the monarchy, which was thereafter definitely under the control of elected governments, be they liberal or Tory. He notes and shows how her private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby, a liberal with an endearing lack of pomposity, a finely-tuned sense of humour, and a gift for managing the moods of his unpredictable mistress wisely, played a crucial role in the survival of the monarchy through the difficult early 1870s when her seclusion and the behaviour of the philandering, self-indulgent Prince of Wales had made the institution unpopular and boosted the republican cause.

Above all, he has some interesting things to say about her relationship with John Brown, weighing up the assertions of those who claimed that they were certain she had secretly married him, and those who dismissed it as stuff and nonsense. Without the friendship of Brown, or the soothing peace of Balmoral, would she have gone mad? (And at the risk of veering slightly off-topic, as a passionate lover of all things Scottish, how would she have dealt with the prospect, nay threat, of an independent Scotland?)

Throughout the book, Wilson’s admiration for the Queen is evident, yet not hopelessly uncritical. He reminds us that many of those who served at court found life utterly monotonous, that she could be astonishingly tactless as proved when she staged small exhibition of trophies won by the victorious British army at the Crimea in 1855 for the benefit of two of her guests at Balmoral in 1896, namely the Emperor and Empress of Russia. He suggests that the depth of her grief in early widowhood verged on mental illness, and hints that her passion for ‘a little whisky with her milk’ (or was it the other way round?) sometimes left her incapable of rational thought or behaviour, as borne out by the erratic variations in her handwriting when scribbling missives to family, servants and ministers. Other biographers have made much of her legendary toleration of tipsy servants, but nobody else has previously suggested that, like her notoriously hard-drinking second son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, she sometimes imbibed more well than wisely. He states that she could be haughtily conscious of the dignity of her office, but paradoxically she was neither pompous nor proud. His examination of the relationships with her Prime Ministers, be it her early mentor Lord Melbourne, her beloved Disraeli or her bête noire Gladstone, is never less than thorough. Moreover he makes the very valid point that, contrary to what her often exasperated ministers sometimes believed, there were very few months when she was not politically engaged, or taking a keen interest in political affairs, even during the worst of her grief and depression in early widowhood.

I would take issue with his comments on her antipathy to the Prince of Wales, and think he overplays her antipathy to him somewhat; and even more with his statement that her eldest daughter, the Empress Frederick, gave strict instructions that her body was to be wrapped in the Union Jack after death and buried according to the rites of the Church of England. This last assertion has long since been exposed as a lie put about by her German detractors. Such minor issues notwithstanding, this is a generous and thorough account. The story of Queen Victoria’s life and times combine to produce a broad canvas, and he paints the picture well.

Like her uncle King George IV, to borrow the Duke of Wellington’s words, she was ‘a great medley of opposite qualities’. As Wilson notes in his closing paragraph, she was a personality ‘of great kindliness, someone of a far sharper intelligence than you would quite have guessed’, and one who remains of perennial interest. That interest is amply served by this volume.

We can also recommend the following books about Victoria:

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

Editor's note:

John Van der Kiste is an author as well as a reviewer. You might care to look at our review of Sons, Servants and Statesmen: The Men in Queen Victoria's Life

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