When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she had ruled for nearly sixty-four years. She was the mother of nine and grandmother of forty-two and the matriarch of royal Europe through her children’s marriages. To many, Queen Victoria is a ruler shrouded in myth and mystique, an aging, stiff widow paraded as the figurehead to an all-male imperial enterprise. But in truth, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch was one of the most passionate, expressive, humorous, and unconventional women who ever lived, and the story of her life continues to fascinate.
A. N. Wilson’s exhaustively researched and definitive biography includes a wealth of new material from previously unseen sources to show us Queen Victoria as she’s never been seen before. Wilson explores the curious set of circumstances that led to Victoria’s coronation, her strange and isolated childhood, her passionate marriage to Prince Albert and his pivotal influence even after death, and her widowhood and subsequent intimate friendship with her Highland servant John Brown, all set against the backdrop of this momentous epoch in Britain’s history—and the world’s.
Born at the very moment of the expansion of British political and commercial power across the globe, Victoria went on to chart a unique course for her country even as she became the matriarch of nearly every great dynasty of Europe. Her destiny was thus interwoven with those of millions of people—not just in Europe but in the ever-expanding empire that Britain was becoming throughout the nineteenth century. The famed queen had a face that adorned postage stamps, banners, statues, and busts all over the known world.
Wilson’s Victoria is a towering achievement, a masterpiece of biography by a writer at the height of his powers.
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One gusty April day in 1838, Thomas Carlyle was walking in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace in London. Forty-two years old, the Scotsman had been living in the English capital for a little over three years, and he had lately soared to literary fame. His study of The French Revolution had been published in the previous year – the year in which Victoria was crowned the Queen of England – and the popularity of the two events were not disconnected. Carlyle had made what his first biographer, Froude, called a “vast phantasmagoria”culminating in the French people getting rid of their monarchy.
The English were not minded, in any very organized sense, to do the same, but Victoria became Queen in hungry times. The monarchy had not been popular in the first decades of the nineteenth century. J.A.Froude noted that “the hungry and injured millions will rise up and bring to justice their guilty rulers, themselves little better than those whom they throw down”.
Britain in those days was very far from being a democracy. It was governed by an oligarchy of aristocratic, landowning families. Its stability, as a state depended upon the functioning of the Law, the workings of two Houses of Parliament, the efficiency of the army and navy, the balance of trade. Parliament was representative, not democratic. That is, the members of the Commons were not elected by the People, but by a small number of men of property. In the reign previous to Victoria’s, that of her uncle William IV, the Reform Bill of 1832 had done a little to extend the franchise, and to abolish the more grotesque of the electoral anomalies – the so-called Rotten Boroughs, in which there were only a handful of electors. But the members of the Commons were not elected by more than a tiny handful of those whom they represented. Checking and approving the deliberations of the Commons was the function of the Upper House, the Lords, some hundred or so rich men who owned most of the land, and exercised most of the power, in Britain.
There had, as yet, been no French-style Revolution to overthrow these arrangements. And it was to be the care and concern of the British Governing classes to make sure that no such revolution occurred. The previous old King, William IV, having had a dissolute life, and fathered ten children out of wedlock, died legitimately married and reconciled to God, murmuring the words, “The Church, the Church”.
The twin institutions, of the Church of England, and the Monarchy, clearly played a vital role in the delicate balance of the British Constitution. The Victorians liked to tell one another that the monarch was simply a figurehead, kept in place by the Whig landowners, a figure who signed state papers and gave the nod to the deliberations of the House of Lords. This was not really the case. The monarch still occupied a position of real power in Britain, and if that power were to be exercised recklessly, or if the monarchy were hated by a hungry populace, there was no knowing what anarchy would ensue. The monarch depended upon the peerage; the peerage depended upon economic prosperity, and upon the rising commercial classes who could provide it; the shared powers of Trade, Land, the Law and the Church were all delicately, and not always obviously, interwoven in the destinies of that young woman glimpsed in the park by the historian. It was essential for her future that the other institutions should continue to support her; it was essential for all of them, that she should maintain the status quo, that she should not fail.
Victoria’s grandfather, King George III, a monarch who was politically active, and who had played a pivotal role in the shaping of British political history, was blind for the last ten years of his life, and at sporadic intervals in the last twenty years of his long reign (1760-1820) he had been raving mad. The fear that the royal madness was hereditary was ever-present in the British governing class, and the young Queen’s ministers watched every one of her tantrums, each emotional display, every instance of irrational behaviour, with anxiety.
George III’s son, who ruled as Regent during the times of blindness and madness, had been extremely unpopular, not least because of the sordid and cruel way in which he had divorced his queen, Caroline of Brunswick. By the time he was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Clarence (William IV) in 1830, it had looked very much as if the supply of possible heirs to the throne had all but dwindled. It was mere luck that William had not, in turn, been succeeded by his extremely unpopular brother Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, a scar-faced brute who was widely believed to have murdered his valet and married a woman who had killed her previous two husbands, and whose extreme Toryism made him hated by the masses. Had the young Victoria not existed, Ernest would have been the King of England, and Britain might well have made a second decision to become a Republic.
Carlyle himself, the historian who saw Victoria in her carriage on that April day, was by way of being a republican, certainly one deeply read in the era of the first Republic in the seventeenth century, and a hero-worshipping biographer of Oliver Cromwell. Carlyle was a sardonic and amusing man, whose stock in trade was a refusal to be impressed – by the English, who to his Scottish soul were ever alien, by the Establishment, which he found laughable, by the class hierarchy, very near the bottom of which he had been born. His hero was the German poet Goethe, and Carlyle sought, in the confused state of modern England, with its great social injustices, its teeming poor, its disease-ridden industrial cities, its Philistinism, some means of returning, with that poet, a positive attitude, to life, an Everlasting Yea. Carlyle on that breezy April day, was passed by a carriage: the Queen, taking, as he said in his Scottish way, “her bit departure for Windsor. I had seen her another day at Hyde Park Corner, coming in from the daily ride. She is decidedly a pretty-looking little creature: health, clearness, graceful timidity, looking out from her young face....One could not help some interest in her, situated as mortal seldom was...”
Carlyle, who went on to write one of the most magisterial royal biographies in the literature of the world – the Life of Frederick the Great – was peculiarly well-placed to see the strangeness of Victoria’s position as she swept past him in the carriage. (They would not meet until years later, when, both widowed and old, they exchanged small talk at the Deanery of Westminster Abbey).
She was indeed situated as mortal seldom was. This makes her story of abiding fascination. Her father and mother might so easily not have had a child at all. Once born, Victoria’s often solitary childhood was the strangest of preparations for what she was to become: not merely the mother of nine and the grandmother of forty-two children, but the matriarch of Royal Europe. She was either the actual ancestor of, or she was connected by marriage to, nearly all the great dynasties of Europe, and in almost each of those crowned or coroneted figureheads, there was bound up a political story. Her destiny was thus interwoven with that of millions of peoples – not just in Europe, but in the ever-expanding Empire which Britain was becoming throughout the nineteenth century. One day to be named the Empress of India, the “pretty-looking little creature” had a face which would adorn postage-stamps, banners, statues and busts all over the known world. And this came about, as the Germanophile Thomas Carlyle would have been the first to recognize, because of the combination of two peculiar factors: first, that Victoria was born at the very moment of the expansion of British political and commercial power throughout the world; and secondly that she was born from that stock of (nearly all German) families who tended to supply the crowned heads for the monarchies of the post-Napoleonic world.
The moment in the park, when two stars in the Victorian galaxy passed one another, is one of those little conjunctions which happen in capital cities. This was the era when Britain rose, for a few decades, to be supremely the most powerful nation on earth: richer and more powerful than any of its European rivals, even than Russia. Thereafter, another power would emerge, formed from the coalescence of the German states, the development of German heavy industry, the building up of German military and naval power. Carlyle and Queen Victoria, like so many figures who shape a new and vibrant civilization, were outsiders, who had seemingly come from nowhere. One of the things which marked them out was an acute consciousness of Germany, and its importance in the scheme of things. Mr Casaubon, the inadequate scholar married to the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, wrote worthlessly because he had not absorbed developments in German scholarship, and this was a period when it was said that only three of the dons at Oxford could so much as speak German. (It was said that the whole story if religion in the nineteenth century would have been different if the future Cardinal Newman had known German). Yet the story of Germany, and the story of Britain, and their tragic failure to understand one another, lay at the heart of nineteenth century history, being destined to explode on the battlefields of the First World War.
There was something else about the young Queen which, had he known it, would have made Carlyle – historian, journalist, biographer – all the more interested in her. Whether or not Benjamin Disraeli, novelist and Prime Minister, really buttered up his Queen by using the phrase, “we authors,Ma’am”, it would not have been flattery alone. Disraeli’s words are always quoted as a joke, but she really was an author. Disraeli’s alleged flannel referred to her published work, Leaves from the Journal of my Life in the Highlands, published in 1868. But this publication and its sequel were but a tiny fragment of her pen’s outpouring. Her often solitary childhood made it natural for her to express her feelings in writing. There was often no one but herself to talk to. She kept journals from infancy to old age. She was one of the most prolific letter-writers of the nineteenth century, that letter-writing age, and, whether she was conducting State business, or emoting about family crises, or worrying about her health, or noting the passing season, it was her custom to put her feelings and thoughts into writing. She must have written literally millions of letters. Her diaries were those of a compulsive recorder, and she sometimes would write as many as 2,500 words of her journal in one day.
When she died, she left many volumes of Journals, an historical record of political events, conversations, impressions, of the entire cast-list of nineteenth century public life. There was scarcely a Head of State, or a Bishop, or an aristocrat, or a famous writer or composer or painter whom she had not either met (reclusive as she was for much of the time) or of whom she had not formed some impression. Her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, took it upon herself to decide that the journals were unsuitable for public perusal, and she destroyed nearly all of them.
Princess Beatrice was not alone in wishing to obliterate her mother’s writings. Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, left instructions in his will that all his private and personal correspondence, especially those letters between himself and his wife, and himself and his mother, should be destroyed. He also gathered up as much as possible of Queen Victoria’s extensive correspondence with Disraeli and consigned that to oblivion.
The compulsion felt by Victoria’s children to expunge her writings from our view leads immediately to the thought that she must have had something to hide. The reader of any modern biography of Queen Victoria is instinctively hopeful that some of the indiscretions, so diligently veiled by Princess Beatrice, can be finally unmasked. Here a word of caution must be sounded. Queen Victoria was an instinctively indiscreet person. Much as she would have hated our contemporary habits of prurience, and dismissive as she would have been of a modern writer picking over the details of her private life, she was nevertheless almost compulsive in her need to share that private life with a wider public. To this extent, though she was not an “author” in the sense that Disraeli might have half-mockingly implied; she was much more like Dickens and Ruskin and Proust than she was like the majority of royal personages who have a quite simple desire for privacy. Victoria was much more complex. On the one hand, she considered any intrusion into the Royal Family by the press to be an abominable impertinence. On the other hand, she was only prevented with the greatest difficulty by courtiers and by her children, from publishing her version of her relationship with her Highland servant John Brown.
In our lifetime, the whole convention of discretion about the lives of royal personages has been blown apart by a succession of factors – including the willingness of some members of the royal family to tell all, or nearly all, to newspaper and television journalists. Clearly such behaviour would have been unimaginable, indeed horrifying, to Queen Victoria.
In December 1890, for example, she erupted with anger at The Times printing a mild story (as it happened, it turned out to be untrue) about a proposed visit to England by the Duke and Duchess of Sparta . [i.e the Crown Prince of the Hellenes, Constantine, and his wife Princess Sophie of Prussia]. All the newspaper had said was that the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, rather than accompanying the Queen and Court to Osborne the previous day, would wait behind in London for the Duke and Duchess of Sparta. An indignant Victoria instructed her Prime Minister to remonstrate with that newspaper’s editor for “the exuberant fancy of his fashionable correspondent, who makes announcements about the Queen and Royal Family at variance with the plain unvarnished Court Circular”. Her Private Secretary, General Ponsonby “told the Queen the newspapers put in the Royal news because they thought it pleased the Royal Family and they knew it pleased the public. Her Majesty replied with some asperity that these notes were most interfering and annoying to the Royal Personages who wish to be left in peace and do not desire their movements to be announced, and that the public were informed of all particulars in the Court Circular & could not be pleased at being misled by erroneous notices”.
So, there could be no doubt that the Queen would have deplored anything in the nature of an intrusive journalism, or history, which pried upon her. And yet – for with interesting personalities there is always an “and yet”, and Queen Victoria was among the most fascinating and self-contradictory of all English monarchs – she also had a desire to write about her life for publication. Her children might cringe, but she was unselfconscious about describing the pleasures of her Highland picnics, her watercolouring expeditions, and her love of the Highlanders themselves. Of course, her published books were not confessional or revelatory in the manner of modern journalism, but her own freedom of expression and lack of caution was closer to the “modern” approach than were the instincts of her children. When, in the 1920s the ex- Prime Minister’s wife, Margot Asquith began to publish indiscreet volumes of autobiography, a step had been taken in the direction of modern “kiss and tell” conventions. Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise (Duchess of Argyll) expressed amazement that her friend Lady Battersea was also going to publish some completely anodyne reminiscences. “I have been rather taken aback, for your letter says, what you assured me would not be the case, that you would publish your reminiscences. I confess I thought them charming and entertaining, for just your personal belongings and friends, but not the public. This Margo [sic] fever to me is such a pitty [sic]!” In another letter to the same friend, Louise wrote, “This letter need[sic] the flames after you have read it as I do so dislike any letters being kept these days, you will not wonder?”
It is easy to understand the reluctance of King Edward VII to have all the details of his private life recorded. He had only narrowly avoided being cited in divorce courts as a correspondent on more than one occasion, and the king who was nicknamed Edward the Caresser was a by-word for raffish behaviour. Princess Louise, herself trapped in an unhappy marriage to a homosexual, her name “linked”, as journalists say, to several men not her husband, and desperately lonely in her widowhood, was understandably touchy about vulgar publicity. But it would be a mistake to attribute her views to a fear of scandal. There was a sense, in the pre-1914 world, which extended in most English circles until the Second World War, of two sets of information: things which everyone “knew” but which were not written down; and matters which were printable. It was not so much that the laws of libel prevented newspapers from printing stories. It was more a matter of what was and was not “done”. Strong conventions prevented the British public from being told, until a few days before it happened, that their King was on the verge of abdication in 1936.
This atmosphere of discretion which surrounds the Royal Family has done Queen Victoria a disservice. By destroying nearly all her journals, Princess Beatrice makes us suspicious that she was covering up details which would satisfy the eyes of the salacious. Certainly, it is hard to see why King Edward VII would have been so anxious to buy letters from a blackmailer, “some of them most compromising” about his mother’s relationship with John Brown had he not himself believed that they would be scandalous. These matters will be discussed in their due chronological place. They are mentioned here at the outset, however, to alert the reader to the fact that there is a certain amount of the story which has been systematically censored by the Queen’s children. At the same time, it is necessary at the outset to realize that just because a letter or a diary has been burned does not mean it was either sinister or even especially interesting. On the contrary, as Princess Louise’s reaction to her old friend’s memoirs showed, the habits of discretion, the desire to burn perfectly harmless letters in order to cover their traces, might not conceal the garish secrets which the imaginations of a later generation wish to supply. The modern biographer, or the reader of modern biographies, might be so anxious to find the few hidden, or irrecoverably lost “secrets” of Queen Victoria’s life that they miss the one very obvious reason why her children would have wanted to destroy as much of her archive as possible.
To judge from the surviving letters, one feature of Queen Victoria’s written life which must have been especially painful to her family is the free and ungoverned manner in which she criticized her children – both to them directly and behind their backs. Their physical appearance, their dress sense, their capacity to procreate, the frequency with which they did so, the names they gave their children, the manner in which they brought them up were all subjected to a ceaseless and frequently far from complimentary commentary. For her son the Prince of Wales she reserved especially uncompromising vilificiations, and it was hardly surprising, when he had the power to do so, that Bertie, having become Edward VII, took matters into his own destructive hands.
The fact that Princess Beatrice destroyed so large a proportion of her mother’s journals is not, therefore, a fact which demands only one interpretation: namely, a cover-up of scandals. The Queen expressed herself so forcefully, so freely, so often, that it could be this fact alone, and not any particular “secret” which Princess Beatrice wished to obliterate from the history books. Luckily for us, an abundance of the Queen’s letters still survive, as do the reminiscences, diaries and correspondence of those who knew her. And it is from this primary material in general that the following pages will, wherever possible, derive, as we revisit the story of that “pretty looking little creature” glimpsed by Carlyle in the Park; for we would echo his instinctual judgement, “one could not help some interest in her”....
J.A.Froude (1885) Vol 1, p. 90
J.A.Froude (1885) Vol 1., p. 90
Roger Fulford, Royal Dukes, pp. 226 ff.
J.A.Froude (1885) Vol. I., p.135
“Did he really say, ‘We authors,Ma’am?’ The story has never been authenticated, but it deserves to be true”.Robert Blake, Disraeli,n p. 493
The Times, December 19th, 1890
Hatfield, Sir Henry Ponsony to Lord Salisbury, December 22, 1890
BL Additional MS 47,909 – Battersea Papers, April 24th, 1922
Ibid., February 29, 1931
Excerpted from "Victoria"
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Table of Contents
Monarchs of the United Kingdom, 1760 to the present day xii
List of Illustrations xiv
1 Authors 3
2 Zoology 14
3 'It is one step' 42
4 'White little slavey' 55
5 'The ignorant little child' 79
6 'Too hasty and passionate for me' 99
7 I Puritani 124
8 Hallelujah Chorus 144
9 'Godlike men' 162
10 At war 185
11 'Scolder and scolded' 205
12 Nerve damage 220
13 'Arme Frau' 232
14 'The Queens grief still sobs' 259
15 'I could die for ye' 290
16 'Mein guter treuer Brown 311
17 A people detached from their sovereign 331
18 'You have it, Madam' 356
19 'Prostrate though devoted' 386
20 'Gracious confidences so frankly given' 407
21 'An inflammatory atmosphere' 436
22 'You English' 458
23 'Her excellent young Munshi' 483
24 'What a funny little woman' 504
25 Diamond Jubilee 527
26 'This England' 557
27 'Vale desideratissime!' 566
What People are Saying About This
The Washington Post:
“Wilson’s [biography of Queen Victoria] may be the best I have read…This volume is surely the capstone of his career so far as that particular subject is concerned, not merely a persuasive, unsentimental but admiring and engaging portrait of the great woman herself, but a vivid account of the world in which she lived and to which she contributed so much.”
The Wall Street Journal:
“[An] engaging biography…Mr. Wilson takes on the long journey of the queen’s life with an assured, affectionate portrait written in accessible prose. His Victoria is a vivid personality, kindly, combative and impetuous by turns, deeply conscious of the dignity of her office and, for all her faults, ‘loveable.'"
“Masterful…Wilson has crafted a thoughtful… often deliciously entertaining tale of a unique monarch and a woman of unexpected quirk and charm…Wilson, one of those rare biographers who knows something of wit…smoothly takes us through Victoria’s long journey: her love match with her beloved Prince Albert, her ‘operatic’ mourning after his early death, her up-and-down relationships with a caravan of prime ministers, her transformation in her later years into a figure whose influence was felt far beyond Britain, her complex feelings toward her children, her ultimate embrace by her subjects.”
“What to call [A. N. Wilson] now? 'Eminent Victorianist' seems appropriate. Lytton Strachey, the acerbic author of Eminent Victorians as well as a biography of Victoria far less good than this, is never far away when Wilson writes about a period that, in several books, he has made very much his own... Wilson is an excellent history teacher. He orders and narrates the hugely complex socio-political events and party infighting of the 19th century with a rare clarity... Wilson sums up his feelings about Victoria in a single word: 'Awe'. His own achievement, sustained by a lifetime’s scholarly fascination with the Victorian era, is also, in its way, awesome.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Stately…[Wilson is] a superb biographer… [It is his] great achievement is that he has liberated Victoria from the protective raiment of her family and the British establishment.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“A shimmering portrait of a tempestuous monarch…[Wilson] lends a lively expertise to his portrayal of the forthright, formidable, still-enigmatic sovereign…During her long reign, Victoria had come to embody the experience of an entire age, overseeing great reform and the strengthening of ties between India and the British Empire. A robust, immensely entertaining portrait from a master biographer.”
“Few if any previous biographers have viewed [Queen Victoria] as incisively and absorbingly as Wilson does in his lengthy but smoothly flowing treatment of the queen’s long life. The considerable detail he brings to his greatly balanced portrait not only strengthens his estimation of the significance of the queen in British governmental history but also successfully conveys for the general reader all the nuances of character that Wilson so carefully shares.”
Library Journal (starred):
“[A] comprehensive, highly accessible work…rooted in the complex political and international details of the era… Wilson is most successful in identifying and highlighting the monarch’s paradoxes: the contrasts between the ‘little woman in a bonnet’ and the queen who proudly controlled the British empire. Highly recommended for readers fascinated by the lives of notable individuals and British royalty.”
“More than a Victoria biography, Wilson skillfully weaves the vast narrative of the Victorian landscape.”
The Guardian (UK):
“Subtle, thoughtful…Wilson picks up the pieces and puts the jigsaw back together again, creating in the process a Victoria for our own times…[A] shimmering and rather wonderful biography.”
The Spectator (UK):
“Superb…The book that [Wilson] was born to write…Wilson clearly loves and admires his subject, but this is a critical biography—funny, insightful, original, and authoritative. At last Victoria has been rescued from her widow’s weeds.”
The Sunday Times (UK):
“A.N. Wilson brings his novelist’s perception and immense knowledge of the era to his effervescent biography of the tiny woman (4ft 11in) who ruled Britain for 61 years...This won’t be the last biography of Victoria but it is certainly the most interesting and original in a long time.”
The Times (UK):
"A.N. Wilson has written a sympathetic but by no means hagiographic biography of her that will probably overturn many people’s prejudiced conception of her... Wilson’s picture of her is a rounded one, with her vices and virtues."
The Evening Standard (UK):
“[A] splendid biography–this book is a gem: thoughtful, witty, insightful, striking a balance between political commentary and personal gossip ... As this terrific biography shows, there really was a human being behind the gloomy portraits.”
The Daily Telegraph (UK):
“As Hamlet is to actors, Victoria is to writers. The Queen Empress is the ultimate biographical challenge, a role to be taken on only at the apex of a literary career. Ninety-five years ago, the standard was set by Lytton Strachey’s lucid and moving Queen Victoria, but A. N. Wilson has now raised the bar…What a pity [Victoria] never met A. N. Wilson: she shines in his company…[An] expansive and victorious book.”