Victoria of England

by Edith Sitwell
[Houghton Mifflin, $3.50]
IT was inevitable that Miss Sitwell — though there never were such Georgians as the Sitwells — should eventually find herself on the threshold of the Victorian era. A biography of the Queen falls into logical sequence, picking up the threads where brother Osbert dropped them in Brighton, which book followed directly on Miss Sitwell’s own Bath. It was equally inevitable that her Victoria of England should be compared with Mr. Stracbey’s Queen Victoria—not from the community of subject alone, but because both employ the same method. His biography, like Miss Sitwell’s, was an evaluation of character in which events were of secondary interest, important only to the extent in which they assisted in the study of the subject.
Miss Sitwell, however, is the less conjectural, and generally her statements arc of faultless pedigree. But she too is inclined to ascribe mental processes, actual thoughts and sentiments, to her victims without precise authority. For instance, there is her description of Mr. Greville’s boredom at the tedium of Windsor just after the accession. We know that he found it tiresome because he said so. Miss Sitwell felt that she must be even more convincing. Greville was a Holland Houser. (This was probably the most entertaining house of the day.) Let us introduce a co-frequenter: therefore Greville is the more bored because he is ‘used to the conversation of Mr. Macaulay.’ But by 1837 Mr. Greville should have accustomed himself to doing without Macaulay ’s brilliance, for Macaulay had been in India since February 1834 and was not to return until midsummer of 1838.
Miss Sitwell’s Victoria is a strong woman, entirely competent, rather appealing, and of great dignity. Her most obvious faults were due to a superabundant emotionalism — but then it was a superabundant age, vigorous and prolific materially, mentally, and morally. The outstanding quality which the Queen has impressed on all her many biographers is her greatness. Mr. Strachey found it inescapable, although it was apparent that he had intended to hold the portly though strangely impressive little figure up to ridicule. But ridicule of the Queen soon becomes rather poor taste — as poking fun at the married life and domestic concerns of any old lady must be. Miss Sitwell is sympathetic rather than iconoclastic. Her admiration is genuine.
Part is properly reserved for the Prince Consort, who in her hands becomes an able and courageous figure. Others come off less well. ‘Pam’ is pure black, in spite of the fact that after Albert’s death he was able to earn his Queen’s cordial approval. Nor does Melbourne escape. Kindly, intellectual, a little cynical, he achieved the great work of his life as confidential adviser to the young girl who became queen — at whose disposal he placed his intellect and knowledge of the world. He should not be judged too harshly by the fate of Tolpuddle martyrs. By the standards of the day his conduct was not particularly inhuman. One’s heart refuses to be suitably wrung by the treatment of Tolpuddlers when to-day we are faced with the far more depressing picture of steel-puddlers having to renew the battle for century-old Tolpuddle principles.
The gloom of Miss Sitwell’s dismal picture of early Victorian industrial England is somewhat relieved by our knowledge that the Reform Bills, the Factory Acts, the repeal of the Corn Laws, — unheard-of legislative philanthropies, — were imminent. England was just beginning to be aware of her duty toward her neighbor — a process which is not by any means complete.
It is probably not fair to treat Miss Sitwell’s book as pure history. It was never intended to be, nor can one suspect her of any desire to be instructive. It is stimulating, but, like any stimulant, it deserves to be treated with some caution. Above all, however, it is entertainment of the very first class.