Victoria the Queen

JULIA BAIRD Victoria the Queen: An intimate biography of the woman who changed the world. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

Tags: / / / / / / / / / / /

This immensely satisfying biography of Queen Victoria humanises its subject.

The final words of Julia’s Baird’s biography of 493 pages are ‘Victoria endured’.

Victoria endured to the age of 81 years when the average life span of her subjects was 46 and only one in 20 Britons passed the age of 65. Victoria reigned as queen for 63 years, seven months and two days, the longest reign of any English monarch until surpassed by the present incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II. Victoria endured while giving birth to nine children over 16 years, almost double the average number of births for women of her time. Victoria did not succumb to death in childbirth but suffered the agony of losing three of her children – second daughter Alice, second son Alfred, and fourth son Leopold – as well as a grandson, ‘Eddy’ (Albert Victor), the elder son of Edward (Bertie), Prince of Wales, who would succeed her as Edward VII. Victoria endured through 20 administrations of ten prime ministers. Victoria loved two men – her husband Prince Albert and her ‘intimate friend’ John Brown – and endured the loss of both.

An enduring image of Victoria is taken from photographs: a frumpy woman wearing black clothes and a stern expression. The enduring phrase which rings from her lips is ‘We are not amused’.

We should forgive all photographic subjects of the 19th century forced to hold a pose for long exposure times, often with their necks clasped in place to prevent blurring. However, when Victoria did allow publication of a picture of her smiling at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it was her daughters, Helena and Beatrice, who were not amused and thought her behaviour somehow unbecoming.

Victoria could be unbecoming.

She was a lover and a hater: she was wilful, stubborn, forthright and dependent. Growing up she was supported by her German governess, Baroness Louise Lezhen, against critics and opponents including her mother, Marie Louise Victoire, Duchess of Kent, and Sir John Conroy, the equerry to her father, advisor, rumoured lover of the Duchess, and aspirant to become her private secretary when she became queen. When she attained the crown at 18 Conroy was banished and her mother excluded from influence.

Victoria continued to rely on Lezhen in domestic affairs, although when this later drew complaints from Albert, she had to go. Victoria’s political mentor was Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne, a Whig, but a do-nothing leader, who frequently spent six hours a day tutoring the young queen and precious little time running the country. As Baird notes, quoting the political diarist Charles Greville:

‘He is certainly a queer fellow to be prime minister. He had no agenda for reform, no vision for a new, improved country, and no policies he wished to see made law.’

Victoria’s loyalty to Melbourne certainly passed its use-by date and was an early example of her inappropriate behaviour, playing favourites with Conservative prime ministers Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury, and her open hostility to the greatest statesman of the age, Liberal leader William Gladstone.

Baird introduces a new Victoria, a young woman with a high libido – ‘some kind of sexual predator who devoured a tolerant but exhausted husband’ – at a time when women were troubled by sexual feelings; a woman who loves being married but rages at her pregnancies and gives birth to four children in the first five years; a woman who, despite the burdens of motherhood, sees herself first and foremost as the leader of her country. Marriage to Albert brings happiness and contentment although there are also strains: initially on his side when he is seen as ‘only the husband and not the master in the house’; and then on hers when she defers to him as Lord and Master. They work together as a political couple but his greater intellect and wider appreciation of policy issues cause her to lose confidence.

Albert’s early death in 1861 is a major turning point in her life and her long bereavement and withdrawal from the public sphere (which might today be described as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder and a social phobia) is viewed as selfish, and eventually leads to a souring of public sympathy. Certainly her behaviour was morbid, as Baird relates:

Albert’s belongings and rooms were preserved exactly as they were when he was alive. Victoria hung his photo above his side of the bed. Each day, servants carefully laid out his ironed shirts and pants in the Blue Room and provided clean towels and hot water for shaving, which grew cold as his clock ticked and blotting paper sat unmarked. His remains were interred in a burial site on the Windsor grounds, and Victoria arranged for a sculptor, Baron Carlo Marochetti, to model effigies of Albert and herself, at the same age, to be placed on their tombs. It was as though she, too, had died at age forty-two. At Windsor she went to the mausoleum every day to pray and gaze at his statue and she visited the Blue Room every night.

Victoria’s will to live returns on 7 October 1863 following the overturning of a carriage in which she is travelling in the Scottish highlands. It is her servant John Brown who gets her back on her feet, metaphorically as well as physically. Victoria’s relationship with Brown, which spans the next 20 years, has, of course, been the subject of the 1997 feature film Mrs Brown, starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, and this relationship is explored courageously here:

Victoria never hid her relationship with Brown … They spent many hours on the moors, drinking whisky – or what John Brown called ‘sperruts’ – and stayed in remote locations with rooms near each other. It is difficult to imagine that such a passionate, lonely woman could have been immune to the attraction of a rugged Scot. We will never know what actually occurred; whether he held her hand, or put his arms around her as they sat, isolated and miles away from human eyes in the mountains near Balmoral. There are a thousand possibilities for intimacy on the spectrum between lover and friend …

What is certain is that Queen Victoria was in love with John Brown … It was not a love she had known with Albert, in which she was the devoted inferior who worked on ‘improving herself’ under the guidance of a man she saw as a god, not an equal … Her love for John Brown was unique … The thought that a marriage could occur between a woman who ruled the world and a man who tended her horses was absurd to her and would violate her basic conception of the relationship. But she loved him, as a woman who loves the man who protects and adores her.

Brown was despised by Victoria’s children and palace courtiers as ‘the Queen’s Stallion’ and has largely been edited out of Victoria’s story by the royal family and Royal Archives, both when she was alive and even to the present time.

Baird’s revisionist history is subtitled an ‘intimate biography’ of a woman but it has much to say about her family, the children she doted on, delighted in, was sometimes bored by, and married off, not always happily, into European royal families in the hope of making strategic alliances, although frequently these resulted in conflict. As with her prime ministers, she favoured some children more than others: she was fond of Helena, Alice and her haemophiliac son, Leopold, but clearly liked Beatrice (her youngest daughter), Vicky (her first-born child) and Alfred the best. Edward, the man who would be king, was dull and a disappointment to both his parents.

The book also has much to say about the great issues of the 19th century: reform, revolution, imperialism, war; individual conflicts – Ireland (the Great Potato Famine and the quest for Home Rule), the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War; and movements, particularly the greater emancipation of women in the home, in the workplace and finally in the political sphere.

Victoria is a contradiction in many respects. Tolerant of religious, race and class differences at times, she had a compassion for individuals rather than movements and thus ignored the plight of the Irish during the famine, the victims of imperialist wars, and the struggles of her own sex. She had no sympathy for suffragettes. In Baird’s words:

The deceptive part of being queen was that, while the job was the same as that of king, it sounded like a female position and therefore seemed appropriate. Victoria supported women’s being ‘sensibly educated’ and ‘employed whenever they can be usefully’, but not their entering into serious professions or voting. Throughout her life, Victoria was a paradox: a model of female authority in a culture preoccupied with female domesticity.

This is a big story and one marvels at how much material is packed into a densely written yet highly readable text and endnotes. In another age I would have cried ‘Hats off to Julia Baird’. I’ll raise a glass instead.

Julia Baird Victoria the Queen: An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire Harper Collins 2016 PB 752pp $49.99

Bernard Whimpress is a republican who takes special delight in being able to list all English monarchs (including the dates of their reigns) back to the Plantagenets.

Harold Oliver’s Manslaughter Charge, 1925 (2017)

HAROLD OLIVER

Harold Oliver was the most spectacular footballer of his era from 1910 to 1922 and a man admired not only for his skill but also for his gentlemanly conduct. Without doubt the worst time of his life followed an affray with spectator John Purcell during a ‘friendly’ Riverland match on 20 June 1925 resulting in Purcell’s death two days later. This story presents detailed evidence from the coronial inquest held in Renmark from 30 June to 1 July and Oliver’s evidence at his criminal trial before judgment was passed on 3 September that year.

The Great Wrestling Match (2017)

GREAT WRESTLING MATCH.

On Boxing Day, 1885 Donald Dinnie and William Miller took part in a wrestling match at Adelaide Oval. Dinnie and Miller could each lay claim to being the greatest athlete of the 19th century and among the most important sporting figures to appear at the ground.

In His Own Words

BOB ELLIS In His Own Words (compiled by Anne Brooksbank). Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

This anthology of Ellis’s writing reflects his wide range of interests and concerns.

Scene 1: A man came up to me in a pub. I was reading Goodbye Jerusalem or Goodbye Babylon – one of the big books. ‘He’s an angry man, Ellis,’ he said. ‘He’s much to be angry about,’ I replied.

Scene 2: I was drinking coffee at Café Bravo, Norwood (an inner-city Adelaide eastern suburb) and reading either Goodbye Jerusalem or Goodbye Babylon – one of the big books – when I spotted Ellis at an adjacent table. I approached him to say how much I was enjoying it. ‘How far have you got?’ ‘Page 606.’ ‘You’re sticking with it then,’ he said. We spoke for half an hour.

Scene 3: An actor friend was appearing in Ellis’s play, Shakespeare in Italy, which he was also directing in a small back-street theatre in Hindmarsh, an inner-west former industrial suburb of Adelaide, now mainly consisting of derelict warehouses, a soccer stadium and a cemetery. Ellis greeted patrons in the foyer when they arrived. I reminded him of our earlier meeting. When the play began Ellis positioned himself to the centre and rear of the small auditorium and laughed at his own jokes in the script. I’m told he often did this.

Scene 4: After Ellis died in April last year I met with the actor friend and a few others whereupon a toast was raised to him as the ‘Falstaff of Australia’. I have a feeling Ellis might have approved, in part as a man who frequently played court to the mighty, and could sometimes be perceived as a jester or fool; conversely he was a man of great wisdom, fearlessly expressed.

Ellis’s body may have deteriorated over time but as the back jacket picture and interior photographs of In His Own Words reveal, he was handsome in his youth and even in middle age. There was certainly no evidence of a mind having gone to seed, and in compiling this impressive anthology Ellis’s widow, Anne Brooksbank, has included material written as recently as eight days before his death.

I was glad to see the rich praise in a jacket note from Guy Rundle: ‘Bob Ellis is not merely the finest prose writer Australia has produced, he is probably the finest three or four of them.’ When people have asked me about why I read Ellis I have often said that in a 600-page book there is a great sentence on every page. I can think of some writers who don’t produce a single great sentence in a book or even a career.

The text is divided into 10 sections, some chronological and others thematic: Childhood, Growing Up, In the Midst of Life, Politics, War, Thoughts and Ideas, Saying Sorry, The Wider World, People, On Time Passing and Endings. The material is drawn from newspaper and magazine articles, from previous books, speeches – published and unpublished, and his final words from blogs. Most of the writing is prose although there are a few rhyming poems and excerpts from play and film scripts.

Politics and Labor Party history were central to his being and we are fortunate that Ellis was present at Parliament House when the Whitlam Government was sacked on 11 November 1975. He remembers the end of that bruising day as a world going mad:

And then it was late, and by lamplight we were singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ on the steps, and it was Labor and it was a fuck-up and we were history. Soon we were all drunk as shit, and people driving home were running into trees and rooting total strangers, and that was it, the end of an era. The end of hope. The beginning of a new professionalism, the Wran Rethink, the Richo machine. (Goodbye Jerusalem, 1997)

Hope springs afresh and 24 November 2007 spells the likely end of the Howard Government. Coincidentally, Ellis’s son Jack is being married that afternoon in a Kirribilli park and Ellis hasn’t written his speech. In the morning he despairs while doing poll duty in Cremorne in Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney:

Voters are coming past in their hundreds, all of them Liberals, scorning our leaflets. Where do these people come from? There’s so many of them. The clam-faced bearers of haemorrhoids, I call them. They sit in their rocking chairs behind their green shutters and come out once every three years to vote for John Howard and they all look just like him, the men and women, and go back home for three years. Put on their cardigans, eat Vegemite sandwiches and play Kamahl’s Greatest Hits … We’re going to lose this. (And So It Went, 2009)

No one can quite unload on Liberals like Ellis.

However, he taps his typewriter with more than vitriol. He summons up great sensitivity when writing about love in So It Goes (1999). It might seem odd that the best definition he finds is in The Readers Digest of 1955 – ‘fullness of response’, but he enlarges on young love. ‘It’s a measure of what fruitfulness comes with unconsummation, what sweet sorrow.’ He further suggests:

Love is a word that covers too many meanings … and it were best for us if we had more different words for different loves and none for the generality … A great unspoken fact of love … is its situationality – its proneness and vulnerability to geography.

Many people (perhaps on both sides of the political divide) might regard Ellis as a ratbag. But no mere ratbag could write this. Only a poet, a lover, a family man could do so.

The subjects in this selection are various: speeches on turning 40, 50 and 70; ancestors, friends, childhood, death and losing the family house; writing a love letter for a friend; seeking work – a letter to a prospective editor; the Sydney of the early 1960s; overseas travel – USA 1968, UK 1974, USSR 1988, Eritrea and Nepal 1994, Vietnam 1995; as witnesss to key events – Maralinga 1985, the waterfront dispute of 1998, the Olympic Games of 2000, Tasmanian wood-chipping, Tampa and 9/11, the Walk Across the Bridge of 2000, the death of Saddam Hussein, the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster of 2006, Sorry Day 2008; black and white versus colour film, the state of the language, the free market and the national anthem; politicians – Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Turnbull, Bronwyn Bishop, Mike Rann, Beazley, Abbott, Costello, Howard, Carr, Dunstan; and people – Les Murray, Don Bradman, Barry Humphries, Lindy Chamberlain and Francis James.

Above all, however, the charm of Ellis lies in his passionate argument and deft phrasing: sometimes running on for pages, at others providing minor gems.

Who else could write of Bradman in the week of his death?

Strange that an artist whose art was never seen – apart from the six or seven sweeps and late cuts caught by the newsreels – could be so beloved by so many for his art. A Michelangelo whose Sistine Chapel was never viewed. A Shakespeare whose Hamlet was never acted. A Dickens never read. A Caruso never heard … He defied the rules of the universe … And he crossed as heroes did … the line between fact and fiction.

Or encapsulate the spirit of the Sydney Olympics as ‘a kind of two-week national honeymoon, or a protracted Mexican wave, that enriched and pleasured all our memories’ or convey a grittier resolve at Beaconsfield:

I looked around the faces in the pub. They were big, burly, mild, self-mocking, no-bullshit blokes with Bob Mitchum and John Meillon faces, like my father’s generation – it’s September 1951, I thought, and all’s well – a time capsule, like most of the rest of Tasmania, of family men, shooters, weekend sailors and fishermen, shotgun-wed a few of them, I guessed, and copping sweet the decades of mortgage, skrimp and grind that followed. My father, Keith, was a coalminer for a while in Maitland, an Anglo-Celtic monoculture like this one, and I felt at home. (The Australian Worker, July 2006)

In addition to Ellis’s own words are heartfelt tributes in Anne Brooksbank’s Foreword, the Introduction by his son, Jack, and a poem by his long-time friend, Les Murray.

For readers familiar with Ellis this collection is a book to be treasured. For new readers let us hope it leads them back to his previous works, the big books and the small. If I can make a recommendation for one or the other it would be to start small with The Ellis Laws published as a Penguin Special in 2014. Almost an alternative Ten Commandments, it can be read in an hour and benefits from constant rereading and discussion.

Adelaide Oval: A photo-document 2009 (2017)

adelaide-oval-2009

The new Adelaide Oval has many admirers. ‘Graceful’, ‘charming’, ‘refined’, ‘modest’, ‘an exquisite jewel’ were words and a phrase used to describe the old ground. When it became evident that the old western stands were due for demolition in 2009 I took several hundred photographs (116 of which are reproduced here) to provide a record of a lost place and time.

Critics might argue that the Oval could not be left in a time-warp, that bricks and mortar don’t matter, that real history is what occurs on the ground. However spectator experience stretches further than this to social occasions on the mounds (north and south), in and behind the grandstands, as well as to the parks outside.

People are largely absent because I want the viewer to experience the ground in repose, to reflect, to feel a gentler place. Captions are few because I do not want to direct the viewer to specific objects and places but rather to create an impression of an enchanting whole. The result, I trust, is something like a poetic tribute to a grand old ground.

The book is published in two forms: as an ebook for $4.99 and as a hardback for $90.

E book from au.blurb.com/ebooks/590948

Hard copies from au.blurb.com/b/7714031

Sport in Adelaide 1855-80 (2016)

sport-in-adelaide

The subject is Adelaide sport beginning less than 20 years after colonial settlement. It is a time of rapid transition as cricket, football, horse racing, swimming, hunting and many other sports establish clubs and associations to promote the wider interests of therir members and competitors.

South Australian Cricket Reminiscences (2016)

sa-cricket-reminiscences

I have just republished Clarence Moody’s 1898 book in a limited edition of 80 copies. The book is a little gem drawing on the memories of old-timers as well as the author’s own observations from the end of the century. It deals with the foundations of club cricket, the formation of the SA Cricket Association, the establishment of Adelaide Oval as well as early intercolonial and international contests.