Queen Victoria is Britain's queen of contradictions. In her combination of deep sentimentality and bombast; cultural imperialism and imperial compassion; fear of intellectualism and excitement at technology; romanticism and prudishness, she became a spirit of the age to which she gave her name.
Victoria embraced photography, railway travel and modern art; she resisted compulsory education for the working classes, recommended for a leading women's rights campaigner ‘a good whipping' and detested smoking. She may or may not have been amused.
Meanwhile she reinvented the monarchy and wrestled with personal reinvention. She lived in the shadow of her mother and then under the tutelage of her husband; finally she embraced self-reliance during her long widowhood. Fresh, witty and accessible, Matthew Dennison's Queen Victoria is a compelling assessment of Victoria's mercurial character and impact, written with the irony, flourish and insight that this Queen and her rule so richly deserve.
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About the Author
MATTHEW DENNISON is the author of the critically acclaimed The Last Princess and Livia, Empress of Rome. As a journalist, he contributes to The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Country Life, and The Spectator. He is married and lives in London and North Wales.
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A Life of Contradictions
By Matthew Dennison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Matthew Dennison
All rights reserved.
In the spring of 1819, Britain's royal family lacked heirs in the third generation. None denied the fecundity of the geriatric King and his recently deceased queen. George III – mad, irascible, tearful and, to a host of unglimpsed imaginary listeners, still talkative despite his deafness – and red-nosed, snuff-sniffing, cricket-loving Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (plain-featured even in likenesses by Gainsborough and Allan Ramsay) had produced fifteen children and a template of royal domesticity which, with dire consequences, discounted cosiness or intimacy between parents and children. Their vigorous momentum had not been maintained. Too many of those children remained unmarried – or sloppily embroiled in the rouged embrace of middle-aged mistresses, childless or giving birth only to bastards and ill repute; the babble and patter of grandchildren scarcely touched the sovereigns' dotage. So easily did bad parenting come close to extinguishing a dynasty.
The Prince Regent, future George IV, was the eldest of the fifteen: in his late fifties balloon-faced, extravagant and quick to pique. Married at the wish of his parents and Parliament, he was father to a single daughter. Like the Regent's mother another Charlotte, she ought in time to have become Queen of England. Instead she died in 1817 giving birth to a stillborn son. Her short life had been one of shoddy rambunctiousness. Her loathsome parents loathed one another. Neither scrupled to shield their daughter from their differences. In the circumstances this apple-cheeked girl of novelettish instincts might have turned out worse – born of the loveless coupling of a prodigal sybarite and a hoydenish German princess slapdash in the cleanliness of her undergarments and afterwards, it was claimed, over-generous with her favours. In retrospect Charlotte appears a quintessentially Regency figure.
The unnecessary death of the King's granddaughter and only heiress presumptive, attributed to obstetric malpractice, had provoked nationwide grief and a crisis in the monarchy. 'In the dust/ the fair-haired daughter of the isles is laid,/ the love of millions,' Byron lamented. Commemorative cups and saucers, cream jugs, even printed handkerchiefs echoed the strain. With incontinent capitalisation, one broadsheet implored the nation to, 'Reflect upon the Uncertainty of HUMAN LIFE, So strikingly exemplified in THE DEATH Of your amiable and much lamented PRINCESS', a didactic imperative which anticipates the lugubrious piety of the remainder of the century. Politician Henry Brougham described public reaction 'as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child'. Belatedly remorseful – and too late for Charlotte, of course – the hapless obstetrician Sir Richard Croft shot himself. The princess's death did not inspire her woebegone father once more unto the breach: at forty-nine, the vilified Princess of Wales would not produce a second heir.
That task fell instead to the Regent's six surviving younger brothers: Frederick, William, Edward, Ernest, Augustus and Adolphus, in Shelley's estimation the 'dregs of their dull race'. Mired in debt and bawdy, these flaunting adulterers were lethargic in matters of duty, slatternly and discreditable, tarnished to the extent of accusations of incest and murder – a boon to caricaturists: with their wigs, pockmarks, gluttony and gout not even ornamental. With hindsight they would be regarded as a nadir for Britain's monarchy, 'a race of small German breastbestarred wanderers', as anti-monarchist MP Charles Bradlaugh later described the Hanoverians. For the high-minded if alarmist Prince Albert, they would provide an enduring cautionary tale.
Of the seven possible progenitors in the aftermath of Charlotte's death, William, Edward and Adolphus responded to the siren call of a regal vacancy and an anxious Parliament prepared to barter their debts for an heir (Frederick and Ernest were already married). Hastily they allied themselves to a trio of uninspiring Protestant German princesses: all lacked even the misplaced high spirits of the Regent's estranged wife. In April 1819, it was Adolphus's wife, Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge, who gave birth to a healthy son. He was christened George. For seven weeks this infant prince of Cambridge was alone eligible in his generation to inherit the throne of England. But Adolphus was the youngest of the married brothers. Senior in precedence were William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV), described after his death as 'not ... a prince of brilliant and commanding talents'; Edward, Duke of Kent, of martinet stiffness, black-dyed hair, surprising philanthropy and tenderhearted devotion to his bride; and Ernest, Duke of Cumberland: emaciated, charmless and acerbic, but more sensitive than history has allowed to his status as England's most hated man.
And so from the outset Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was a person of consequence. Born as dawn broke over the southeast corner of Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, in a room whose costly refurbishment her fifty-one-year-old father had completed only two days previously, she immediately displaced her Cambridge cousin in the line of succession. Sources disagree on when she herself first learnt it. An aura of consequence – occasionally cultivated, occasionally insisted upon – was an attribute she would never lose.
She would become one of England's most vigorous monarchs. As a baby, her father described her as 'a model of strength': 'more of a pocket Hercules, than a pocket Venus'. Perhaps something of the urgency and precariousness of that scramble which preceded her birth remained with her life long. It is discernible in her later conviction of her own eminence, her retreat behind that impenetrable shield, 'Queen of England': she may not have forgotten that her queenship was so nearly that of her older cousin, Charlotte, or indeed young George. At different levels, hers is the response of the lottery-winning poor relation and, at the same time, simply one manifestation of a remarkably forceful nature. Over time much of her public life, with its parade of accessible virtues, represented a deliberate revision of the indignity of her pre-history and the tattered record of her immediate forebears. Fanciful to claim that she was born to right the record: her selfishness and sense of entitlement were equal to those of any of her father's siblings. But guided by those nearest to her, and prompted by the memory of uncles and aunts set on lives of eighteenth-century excess, as well as her own impulsive if inconsistent craving to exploit her position for good, she would redefine the face and function of British monarchy. She embraced an outlook some have labelled middle class and did so with wholehearted sincerity, as much a stranger to real middle-class mores as she was to those of the aristocracy she mistrusted or the Highland tenantry she determinedly idealised. Victoria's reign reasserted – and successfully bequeathed to her successors – what her contemporary Mrs Oliphant described as 'that tradition of humdrum virtue' established by her grandfather George III: in that respect she became in fact as well as appearance, as Lady Granville described her in her infancy, 'le roi Georges in petticoats'.
'Plump as a partridge', this child whom J. M. Barrie memorialised in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens as 'the most celebrated baby of the Gardens' emerged into a world of confinement. That too would persist life long. Although as queen, Victoria flexed her muscles constitutionally and unconstitutionally and was not averse to threatening abdication when it suited her, she never with any conviction sought to escape her restrictive destiny. Her status as queen defined her in her own eyes: it was she who bandied the title 'doyenne of sovereigns', its unnuanced orotundity indicative of her later complacency. Sovereignty was in two senses her legacy from her father, for the Duke of Kent was not only royal but romantic too. He had accepted without question the gypsy prophecy told to him on Malta that his unborn child would become a great queen. History has frequently agreed.
* * *
For all his dreaming, her father was injudicious. His frequent good intentions – his scheme to educate the sons of the military and his support for Catholic emancipation, for example – could not outweigh that half-crazy disciplinarianism which caused gossiping diarist and Clerk to the Privy Council, Charles Greville, to dismiss him as 'the greatest rascal that ever went unhung'. His duchess too was not clever. Society labelled her a stupid foreigner, 'the most mediocre person it would be possible to meet'. Ditto the woman who in 1824 became Victoria's governess, a caraway seed-chewing Hanoverian Lutheran of sharp features and sharper self-estimation called Louise Lehzen. Both women were singularly determined, invested in good measure with the instinct for survival, the one spikily conscious of rank, the other given to jaundice, headaches and nervous debilitation; equal in their firmness and jealously exacting. Determination and adamantine self-will became enduring characteristics of their charge, successfully checked by neither. Lehzen at least made Victoria's wellbeing her lodestar. Her reward was love and, for an interlude, a front row seat in her pupil's unfolding drama.
Victoire, Duchess of Kent was a striking-looking widow of assured if showy dress sense, pink-cheeked and garrulous, but slow to master English with confidence. Until his death in 1814, her unappealing first husband, Charles Emich of Leiningen, had ruled without distinction, or the appearance of common sense, a territory in Lower Franconia much depleted by Napoleon. Leiningen's dark-haired widow, allied to Edward, Duke of Kent in 1818, as England still reeled from Princess Charlotte's death, quitted Germany with a son and daughter of pleasing aspect, Charles and Feodore; she took with her too the memory of financial hardship and emotional neglect. Her second marriage offered no respite from the former and so acquired a peripatetic character, husband and wife constantly travelling in the interests of economy. Happily the Duke of Kent, whose governorship of Gibraltar in 1802, described as a 'reign of terror', included sentencing a man to a flogging of 900 lashes, regarded his duchess unequivocally as 'a young and charming Princess' and implored her quite sincerely to 'love me as I love you'. For just this happiness had he set aside his kind and comfortable mistress of three decades, Julie de St Laurent – that and the hope that Parliament would increase his allowance handsomely. (Parliament decided otherwise, happy to act shabbily.) Since the Duke died of pneumonia, reputedly caught from wet boots, on 23 January 1820 – on an extended sojourn to the seaside at Sidmouth, which offered bracing sea breezes at modest rates – Alexandrina Victoria cannot have remembered her parents' wedded bliss: she was eight months old. Their happiness found reflections in her own spectacularly loving marriage. In the meantime, she grew up to share the sentiments of her aunt, Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg, that her parents' 'domestic comfort ... broke up' was 'a very sad, sad thing'.
Infancy prevented her from recognising that atmosphere of petty contentiousness which hung, like the odour of penury, about the large apartment in Kensington Palace. No public rejoicing greeted her birth: like his brothers, her father was not popular. Superstitious and in the throes of a late-in-life infatuation with his much younger wife, the Duke of Kent may have been convinced that his daughter was a sovereign-in-waiting – as Edith Sitwell described her, 'conceived, born and bred ... to mount the summits of greatness'; he was wise enough mostly to disguise that hope. 'I should deem it the height of presumption to believe it probable that a future heir to the Crown of England would spring from me,' he asserted with questionable frankness. More sober counsels, the Regent among them, anticipated an heir from the Duke of Clarence and his whey-faced young bride Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, whose first child had died only two months earlier within hours of her birth (the first of four disappointments for the long-suffering Clarences). Like the Clarences themselves, they would be thwarted in that expectation. The Regent feigned boredom at the princess's birth, but true to his nature of petulant caprice, the following month roused himself to sufficient rancour to spoil her christening. He changed her parents' preferred name of Victoire Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta to Alexandrina Victoria: the unwieldy, foreign-sounding 'Alexandrina' was a tribute to the baby's most powerful sponsor, Alexander I of Russia, who would play no part in her upbringing. By striking out Charlotte and the feminine form of his own name, the Regent symbolically denied the baby's connection to himself and any claim to the throne. He also held at arm's length the niece in whom he took no interest. The Duchess of Clarence, by contrast, wrote to her affectionately on her third birthday as 'dear little Xandrina Victoria': abbreviation came quickly. For much of her childhood she was simply 'Drina'. On her accession 'Alexandrina' would be dropped entirely, although a bill of 1831 to change the child's name by Act of Parliament to Charlotte Victoria had proved unsuccessful. It was a matter in which the twelve-year-old Victoria had no say: later she was grateful for its outcome, which freed her somewhat from the shadow of her cousin and her grandmother. Victoria assuredly owed her crown to her cousin's death: an egotist in terms of her royal role (if not in all matters), she sought to cast her reign in no one's image but her own. Besides, she felt, her mother reported, a 'great attachment' to her second name, notwithstanding that unEnglishness and lack of British royal precedent which so troubled her uncle William. Later she would castigate Charlotte – alongside Elizabeth – as one of 'the ugliest "housemaids" names I ever knew'.
Foolish she may have been, unfortunate too in the mortality of her husbands: Victoria's mother possessed another significant attribute. She had been born Princess Marie Louise Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Charlotte's tragedy thus touched the Duchess of Kent closely for the women were sisters-in-law, Charlotte's husband Victoire's younger brother Leopold. Like parvenus in pursuit of ton, the ambitious and good-looking Coburgs were a family eager for greatness, none more so than Leopold. In coming decades Coburgers would colonise the palaces of Europe: their winning formula was a combination of dashing sex appeal, force of will and a self-serving phlegmatism in matters religious and political. Not without reason did Bismarck later vilify them as the 'stud-farm of Europe' or a Habsburg archduke complain that 'the Coburgs gain throne after throne and spread their growing power abroad over the whole earth'. With Charlotte and her baby dead, and Leopold's dream of kingship by proxy in shreds, their second bite of the cherry fell to Victoire. It was Leopold who, as early as 1816, had drawn to the Duke of Kent's attention his lovely, lonely sister; Leopold who afterwards with renewed zeal encouraged Kent's hopes through a protracted courtship; Leopold who, metaphorically at least, hovered at his sister's shoulder. Kent's death was not the disaster Charlotte's had been, since his daughter survived him. It was Leopold who steadied Victoire's resolve as she grappled with her second bereavement.
Leopold also assisted his sister financially (though hardly to the top of his considerable means) and inspired her with dreams of glittering prizes and heavy-duty good advice; he insisted that she and the child live in Britain, albeit isolated and virtually friendless. As time would show, her compliance was enthusiastic. As keenly aware of the value of her trump card as any hard-bitten gamester, chary of her prerogatives and fully set upon the exercise of power, Victoire of Kent would prove tenacious in pursuit of the Coburg usurpation. But she played her hand badly. The Coburger who ruled England was neither Leopold nor his sister Victoire, who spent long years at variance with her daughter, but their nephew Albert, a case of third time lucky. In Albert's case, the Coburg will to power was balanced by a contradictory impulse, the 'Coburg melancholy'; both would leave their imprint.
Excerpted from Queen Victoria by Matthew Dennison. Copyright © 2013 Matthew Dennison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Queen Victoria's Family Tree: A Simplified Version x
List of Illustrations xiii
Chapter 1 'Pocket Hercules' 5
Chapter 2 'Fresh and innocent as the flowers in her own garden' 19
Chapter 3 'Constant amusements, flattery, excitements and mere politics' 31
Chapter 4 'Every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy' 45
Chapter 5 'The cares of Royalty pressed comparatively lightly' 57
Chapter 6 'The pain of parting' 75
Chapter 7 'Unavailing regrets' 89
Chapter 8 'A Highland Widow' 105
Chapter 9 'Wisest counsellors' 117
Chapter 10 'Mother of many nations' 131
Chapter 11 'All that magnificence' 145