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