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In this surprising new life of Victoria, Christopher Hibbert, master of the telling anecdote and peerless biographer of England's great leaders, paints a fresh and intimate portrait of the woman who shaped a century. His Victoria is not only the formidable, demanding, capricious queen of popular imagination?she is also often shy, diffident, and vulnerable, prone to giggling fits and crying jags. Often censorious when confronted with her mother's moral lapses, she herself could be passionately sensual, emotional, ...
In this surprising new life of Victoria, Christopher Hibbert, master of the telling anecdote and peerless biographer of England's great leaders, paints a fresh and intimate portrait of the woman who shaped a century. His Victoria is not only the formidable, demanding, capricious queen of popular imagination—she is also often shy, diffident, and vulnerable, prone to giggling fits and crying jags. Often censorious when confronted with her mother's moral lapses, she herself could be passionately sensual, emotional, and deeply sentimental. Ascending to the throne at age eighteen, Victoria ruled for sixty-four years—an astounding length for any world leader. During her reign, she dealt with conflicts ranging from royal quarrels to war in Crimea and rebellion in India. She saw monarchs fall, empires crumble, new continents explored, and England grow into a dominant global and industrial power. This personal history is a compelling look at the complex woman whom, until now, we only thought we knew.
Sitting at his breakfast table in his rented house in Brussels in December 1817, Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III, carelessly threw across the Morning Chronicle to his attractive mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and began to open his letters. 'I had not done so but a very short time,' he told Thomas Creevey, the witty, gossipy politician who was then also living in Brussels for reasons of economy, 'when my attention was called to an extraordinary noise and a strong convulsive movement in Madame St Laurent's throat. For a short time I entertained serious apprehensions for her safety; and when, upon her recovery, I enquired into the occasion of this attack, she pointed to [an] article in the Morning Chronicle.
This article -- adverting to the death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, the only legitimate child of his eldest brother, the Prince Regent -- called upon the Duke of Kent and the other bachelor royal dukes to marry for the sake of the family succession. For, although it was later calculated that King George III had no fewer than fifty-six grandchildren, at this time not one of these grandchildren was legitimate.
The Prince Regent, who was to become King George IV on his father's death in 1820, was now fifty-five years old, separated from a detested wife and living languorously in sumptuous grandeur at Carlton House in London and the exotic Marine Pavilion at Brighton. The King's second son, the Duke of York, was also married and also separated from a wife who, childless, lived an eccentric life at Oatlands House in Surrey where, surrounded by numerous pet dogs, monkeys and parrots, she was to die in 1820. The Regent's next brother, the Duke of Clarence, who, following the Duke of York's death, was to succeed to the throne as William IV in 1830, had lived contentedly for several years with the actress Dora Jordan, who had given birth to ten little FitzClarences, before dying the year before the death of Princess Charlotte. To be sure, the Duke of Clarence might marry now; and, indeed, after unsuccessfully pursuing various heiresses both foreign and domestic, in the hope of paying off debts amounting to £56,000, he at last did find a bride in Princess Adelaide, the home-loving, good-natured but far from prepossessing eldest daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Meiningen. But she was not to prove so successful a mother as Mrs. Jordan had been: her two daughters both died as babies.
Of the Duke of Kent's three younger brothers only one as yet had children. This was the asthmatic Duke of Sussex, a man whom Thomas Creevey described as 'civil and obliging' but about whom 'there was a nothingness that was to the last degree fatiguing'. He had been married in Rome in 1793 to a rather bossy lady some years older than himself, Lady Augusta Murray, daughter of the Earl of Dunmore, by whom he had had two children; but since the marriage had been contracted in breach of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which made it illegal for any member of the Royal Family to marry without the previous consent of the Crown, the King had declared the marriage void and the Sussex children were accordingly illegitimate. The Duke of Sussex's elder brother, the sardonic, much-feared, widely disliked, reactionary and fiercely Protestant Duke of Cumberland, whose face had been given an alarmingly ugly cast by a head wound suffered while he was serving with the Hanoverian cavalry in the Low Countries, had managed to obtain permission to marry Princess Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the niece of his mother, Queen Charlotte. But the marriage had not been easy to arrange since Queen Charlotte was bitterly opposed to it, having heard scandalous reports of the past behaviour of the Princess who had been married twice before and was widely rumoured to have murdered one of, if not both, her former husbands. She and the Duke had had a child but she was stillborn.
The youngest duke, the Duke of Cambridge, a man more respectable and financially responsible than his brothers, was not yet married; and when he did marry Princess Augusta of Hesse-Cassel in August 1818 the children of this marriage were so far down the line of succession that they could be dismissed by the Duke of Kent in his determined efforts to become the father of the future King or Queen of England.
The Duke of Kent was a disappointed man. Trained for a military career in Germany, he had not achieved the distinction or recognition which he believed he deserved. He had served in Gibraltar, in Canada and in the West Indies, and in all these places he had gained a reputation both for wild extravagance and the most strict and severe attention to military discipline: he would insist that the men under his command be roused at dawn and appear on the parade ground in impeccable condition and would punish infringements of his draconian rules by occasional executions and regular floggings of hundreds of lashes, as many as 400 being given for 'trifling faults in dress' and 999, the maximum permitted, for desertion. He left Canada accused of 'bestial severity'; and, upon his recall from Gibraltar in disgrace, he was accused by his elder brother the Duke of York -- who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army -- of provoking a mutiny by his conduct which 'from first to last was marked by cruelty and oppression'. He was given to understand that there would be no more military commands for him.
Charles Greville, the diarist and Clerk to the Privy Council, contended that the Duke of Kent was 'the greatest rascal that ever went unhung', while the Duke of Wellington, to whom Thomas Creevey related the story of the contretemps at Kent's breakfast table, regarded him as a figure of fun. At a ball in Brussels, where Wellington was serving as commander of the allied forces on the Continent after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Creevey was approached by the great Duke who said to him, 'Well Creevey, what has passed between you and the Corporal since you have met this time?' Creevey then told Wellington of a conversation he had recently had with the Duke of Kent 'Upon which,' so Creevey recorded, 'the Duke of Wellington laid hold of my button and said, "God damme! D'ye know what his sisters call him? By God! They call him Joseph Surface [the shameless hypocrite in Sheridan's School for Scandal]!" and then sent out one of his hearty laughs, that made every one turn about to the right and left to see what was the matter.'
Yet the Duke of Kent had his good points as well as his bad, as Wellington conceded: he was a good and intelligent, if rather garrulous, conversationalist with a gift for mimicry, and an even better after-dinner speaker; he was also a conscientious correspondent, keeping three or four secretaries busy at their desks. He was fond of music and, when in funds, employed the services of a large band.
However, like all his brothers except the Duke of Cambridge, he was more or less constantly entangled in debt. The several charities to which he lent his name were supported by money which, as often as not, had been borrowed from men who were not always repaid. It was a perennial grievance with him that he was not provided with an allowance adequate to his high position as a prince of the blood.
Yet for all his faults, the Duke was capable of affection and this affection had been returned not only by Mme de St Laurent but also by Princess Charlotte, whose favourite uncle he had been, and by Mrs Maria Fitzherbert, the Roman Catholic widow whom the Prince Regent had illegally married and with whom the Duke conducted a correspondence of easy and intimate friendship. For nearly thirty years the Duke had lived contentedly with Mme de St Laurent, and he did what he could to soften the blow when he declared that duty to his family forced him to send her away to live in Paris with her sister, 'You may well imagine, Mr. Creevey, the pang it will occasion me to part with her,' he said to the Whig politician. 'I protest I don't know what is to become of her...But before anything is proceeded with in this matter, I shall hope and expect to see justice done to her by the Nation and the Ministers...Her disinterestedness has been equal to her fidelity.' He saw to it that she was provided with a generous allowance -- which before long was much reduced -- and he asked friends to go and see her to ensure that she was comfortable in Paris where she lived as the Comtesse de Montgenet, a courtesy title granted to her by King Louis XVIII. 'Our unexpected separation arose from the imperative duty I owed to obey the call of my family and Country to marry,' the Duke explained, 'and not from the least diminution in an attachment which had stood the test of 28 years and which, but for that circumstance' would have been kept up until one or the other of them died. He later thanked Creevey and his wife for their kind attentions to the 'dear Countess' and earnestly asked him to give him his 'opinion of her health, her looks and her spirits very particularly'.
The Duke at this time was forty-nine years old. He was tall and fat and stately in a ponderous way, with luxuriant whiskers dyed dark brown and a head without much hair. His breath smelled of garlic and his clothes of tobacco. He was attentive to women and very polite. He had the fleshy lips and rather protuberant eyes of the Hanoverians but he was handsome enough and carried himself like the soldier he was proud to have been.
He was of most regular habits, getting up at five o'clock, even earlier than his father, and eating and drinking sparingly. He had good reason to suppose that, if he found a suitable wife, he would soon be the father of children as healthy as he was himself. Already, before Princess Charlotte's death, he had begun the search for a wife, in the hope that Parliament would grant him a decent allowance to support one in the same way that his brother, the Regent, had been helped financially upon his disastrous marriage to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Edward considered that the £25,000 a year settled upon the Duke of York after his marriage ought 'to be considered the precedent'. Having borrowed £1,000 from the Tsar for the cost of his journey, he had travelled to Germany to inspect the Tsarina's sister, Princess Katherine Amelia of Baden, but he had not liked the look of the 'old maiden' of forty-one whom he had found at Darmstadt; and his thoughts had later turned to Princess Victoire -- sister of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who had married the Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte.
The Regent had been against the marriage of his daughter to Prince Leopold at first. He had conceded that Leopold was a good-looking, gifted fellow, charming in a rather solemn kind of way, and that he would probably treat Charlotte well. But there was something in the ingratiating suavity of his manner which was decidedly distasteful, and the ponderousness of his cautious approach to life was rather irritating. Adept at choosing nicknames, the Regent called him 'le Marquis peu à peu'. The less inventive Lord Frederick FitzClarence dismissed him as a 'damned humbug'; and Princess Lieven, the Russian Ambassador's wife, found him 'wearing and...with his slow speech and bad reasoning, a jesuit and a bore. He had his supporters and admirers, however. Lady Ilchester, for example, told a friend that he was 'enchanting as far as appearance and manner' were concerned. He was 'like an Englishman in all but the ease, elegance and deference of his manners'. Having discouraged the match, the Regent had learned with annoyance that his brother, the Duke of Kent, was promoting it and allowing correspondence between the young couple to pass through his hands.
Princess Charlotte herself had not at first been much taken with her suitor,'Prince Humbug'. If she were to marry him, she had said, it would be 'with the most calm and perfect indifference'. But, as she had grown to know him better, she had fallen in love with him. He was, she decided, 'the only being in the world who would have suited me and who could have made me happy and a good woman'. He, in turn, had been devoted to her; their short marriage spent mostly at Claremont Park, the handsome house built in 1771 for the first Lord Clive and bought for them on the outskirts of Esher, had been a very happy one, and Leopold had been distraught by her death, kneeling by her bed and kissing her lifeless hands for over an hour. He had not, however, been too upset to write to his sister at Amorbach, urging her to give an encouraging answer to the proposal of marriage which she had received from the Duke of Kent.
This proposal, conveyed precipitately in an extremely long letter soon after the Duke's arrival at Amorbach, had not at first been favourably received. Although she was only thirty-one, Princess Victoire had been married before to the grumpy, gouty Prince of Leiningen and had two children by him, Prince Charles, who was eleven years old, and Princess Feodora, aged ten; she was concerned about these children's future, about her son's succession, as well as by warnings about the Duke from certain members of her late husband's court. Besides, she had no wish to give up her independence, having been married at seventeen and not having enjoyed the experience much. But gradually the Dowager Princess was induced to change her mind. She spoke no English and was slow to learn it: later in England she was to have her speeches written out for her phonetically -- 'Ei hoeve tu regrétt, biing aes yiett so littl cônversent in thie Inglisch, lenguetsch, uitsch obleitches miy tu seh, in averi fiu words, theat ei em möhst grêtful for yor congratuleschen' -- but she was assured she would be well received in England where her brother, Prince Leopold, had made himself well liked since his wife's death.
Excerpted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Hibbert.
Posted June 1, 2004
If you are interested in surface facts about the life of Queen Victoria this is the book for you. C. Hilbert does not develop any of the story. He just throws facts out at you without any background or outcoming results. He does not tell you anything about England, what the Victorian age was all about or how England got into the Boer War. He only tells you that the queen felt bad that her solders were involved in a war. No dates or duration of the war. And this is an example of how he deals with all the important facets of Victoria's life. If you are interested in a good developed factual book, DO NOT READ THIS ONE. VERY DISAPPOINTING !!!!!
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