Back in the sixties when I was a mini skirted young thing, I worked in Highgate Library. Bliss for me as it meant I had access to as many books as I wanted. While I was working there a biography of Queen Victoria by Elizabeth Longford was published, we had three copies and a waiting list a mile long. It was the first major biography of the Queen for some forty years and Lady Longford, who was pretty well connected, had access to archives and papers that nobody had seen for decades. It was a huge best seller and once it was off the reservations list I brought it home with me and read it.
And that was it. I was hooked on this marvellous woman and I wanted to find out more. On my shelves as I write this I can see biographies of both Victoria and Albert by Stanley Weintraub, David Duff, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Christopher Hibbert et al. Other related works, Victoria on the Riviera, Becoming Queen, Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport and several battered old volumes of letters between the Queen and her eldest daughter, Vicky who became Empress of Prussia also take pride of place.
A fascinating and amazing woman. A woman whose reign was only eclipsed in longevity by our own Queen Elizabeth II this year. A woman who seems to subsume her entire personality into that of her Beloved Albert, who produced nine children, who suffered the most appalling grief and heartbreak when Albert died and yet who endured, who came through, whose strength of character and love of live was irrepressible even in the depths of despair – in short, a tough, feisty woman who I have come to love and admire the more I read about her.
I have not read a full biography of her for some time and, freely admit, that I wondered if there was anything more to learn about Victoria and did we really need yet another tome to add to the shelves? Well, after reading this book the answer is yes. From page one this biography by Julia Baird gripped me and I could not put it down. In the end I forced myself to take a break and I stopped reading for a day or two after Albert’s Death. I cannot read of his passing without a lump in my throat and feel for the Queen in her loss. The most heart breaking thing of all is her saying ‘there is nobody to call me Victoria any more’. That sentence encapsulates her loneliness and distance from everyone even her children.
Her love and adoration for Albert and total giving of self must surely hark back to her miserably unhappy childhood when she was hedged and confined and badly treated by her mother and her comptroller, John Conroy, who were plotting for power and hoped to run the country as a Regency. But King William, who was determined to live until Victoria reached the age of eighteen managed it, and from that moment Victoria took control. She rejoiced in her freedom and her ability to do exactly what she wanted ‘from the first she showed a disposition to conform strictly to her own standard of conduct rather than adapt herself to expected standards’. This attitude vanished as soon as she fell in love with Albert and married him. She only regained her self-reliance and self-confidence when she was single again.
I have always admired Albert for his hard work, for his intellectual mind and the enormous breadth of his interests, and all in such a young man who was only twenty one when he married Victoria. But as the years have passed and I have read more I find myself less and less sympathetic towards him. Albert wanted power, he had been trained for it. This is an extract from a letter from Albert to the Duke of Wellington:
He believed it was his duty to “fill up every gap which, as a woman, the Queen would naturally leave in the exercise of her regal function, continually and anxiously to watch every part of public business, in order to be able to advise and assist her in any moment in any of the difficult questions brought before her, personal or social, to place all his time and powers at her command as the natural head of the family (my emphasis on natural), superintendent of her household, manager of her private affairs, her sole confidential adviser in politics and the only assistant in her communications with the officers of the government, her private secretary and her permanent visitor”
In other words he wanted total control and as Victoria produced child after child and was happy to hand over all this to Albert, he got it.
Julia Baird makes it clear that there was also plenty of support for Albert as major intellectuals of the time agreed with him that a woman’s natural state was ‘wifely subjection’. Albert encouraged her into thinking her education and abilities were lesser than his and her confidence, shattered after years of childbearing and comparison with Albert’s knowledge, gradually wore away . I cannot help wondering what would have happened if Albert had not died as young as he did leaving the Queen to find herself and her confidence once more.
And thought she was Dubbed the Widow of Windsor and people got cross and angry with the Queen they never saw, she never stopped working. She was nervous of being seen in public, she claimed her nerves would not allow her to be seen and refused to open parliament and show herself. This feeling grew stronger over the years but her grasp of politics and world affairs never faltered.
This is a wonderful book and my copy is bristling with yellow post it notes and underlinings to remind me of my thoughts as I read it, but I simply cannot write about every single item else this review will be pages long. I just wanted to capture the essence of Queen Victoria and how much I love and admire her.
Forget this awful view of her being humourless and disliking her children. It is simply not true.
In a letter to Charlotte Canning Victoria says 'I have so much to thank God for. Such a husband - such affectionate children that I will not murmur at what I have lost'.
Charlotte described the Queen's letter as 'simple and true' and says that the Queen 'has had credit for qualities not hers and that nobody knew what real softness and feelings she has in some ways'.
Yes, she and the future Edward VII had a combative relationship to say the least, but she never failed him in times of scandal and trouble and supported him throughout. She found some of her children annoying and irritating at times – well with nine of them it would be incredible if she didn’t. She was a doting grandmother who allowed them much more leeway than she did her own children. As a grandmother myself, I can understand that.
She could be demanding and selfish and thoughtless, but knew when she was wrong. In a book I read a few years ago by Kate Hubbard Serving Queen Victoria, she was humble enough to admit her faults. After a particularly wearing and difficult time her doctor James Reid had to take time off as he was suffering from exhaustion. A letter from Her Majesty greatly distressed at his becoming ill 'from the worry I caused you the last few months and especially the last week which might all have been prevented but for my senselessness and want of thought'.
And her people loved her. She connected with them and knew it. Albert may have had the intellect and the brains but he lacked the common touch which the Queen had in spades.
At the time of her Jubilee in 1887 the Queen sat in her carriage outside Westminster Abbey listening to a thanksgiving service for her long reign. She sat, her eyes full of tears. Before her were her rows of her royal men, sons and sons in law and grandchildren.
“A mob of workmen ran alongside Victoria’s carriage cheering and shouting as loudly as they could ‘You go it old girl! You done it well! You done it well!”
She had indeed.
A wonderful book.