Queen of the Nineteenth Century

byChristopher Hibbert.
FRANKCYN BARNABAS, a character in Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, makes a bold Shavian statement that may be true. He says that nineteenth-century Britain was governed ‟by a little woman who knew her own mind—Queen Victoria, to whom Prime Ministers stood in the relation of naughty children whose heads she knocked together when their tempers and quarrels became intolerable. Within thirteen years of her death Europe became a hell.” This last is certainly true; whether Victoria held Europe together from 1837 until 1901 is debatable, unless you admit the value of dynastic marriages. That she held Britain together during her long reign is almost certain. The British are not naturally averse to republicanism: they tried it under Cromwell, and some of them were ready for it in the early days of Victoria. The Hanoverians had not been popular, and one of them had wantonly thrown away the American colonies; there was a tough and dissatisfied proletariat; there was a sybaritic and decadent aristocracy; Marx and Engels were at work. Victoria had her problems and survived several assassination attempts, but she could not doubt, hearing the cheers on her Diamond Jubilee, that the British monarchy was safe. It is still safe, and she was the chief engineer of its safety.
The value of a constitutional monarchy is made clear only by a reign as long as Victoria’s. Presidents come and go, and once they have learned how to preside, it is time for their replacement. They are tied to party; they are sweatily into the business of politics. A monarch has plenty of time to learn and is above party. Prime ministers come and go: she (it is usually she) stays. There is, however, the unresolved question of how much executive power a constitutional monarch possesses. The British have no written constitution, and every monarch since William III has grappled with his ministers to see how far he could go without rebuke or revolt. Victoria went pretty far: she had inherited a fair measure of Teutonic stubbornness. Here it is on display, in a letter quoted in this anthology:
I said I dreaded the thought of marrying; that I was so accustomed to have my own way, that I thought it was 10 to 1 that I shouldn’t agree with any body. Lord M. said, ‘Oh! but you would have it still’ (my own way).
Lord M. was Lord Melbourne, the first of her ministers, a very dear man and sterling friend despite his tendency to drop off and snore after dinner. He is the hero of Victoria’s early journals. The young Queen having her own way was rather charming, as any pretty, bossy young miss must be. The triple and quadruple underlinings of words (their reproduction would have swollen Mr. Hibbert’s volume to twice its size) were an excitable girl’s body language, tiny fists beating an obdurate male chest, dainty foot stamping the parquet. Her favorite modifier was “excessively.”
Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist; my heart is quite going.... It is quite a pleasure to look at Albert when he gallops and valses, he does it so beautifully, holds himself so well with that beautiful figure of his.
Having her own way meant marrying Albert—“it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me); we embraced each other over and over”—but she did not have her ow n way over the prince’s allowance, which Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister, reduced from £50,000 a year to a mere £30,000.
At near 11 Lord M. received a note saying that he had been beat by 104; that it had been made quite a party question (vile, confounded, infernal Tories), that Peel had spoken and voted against the 50,000 (nasty wretch) ... As long as I live, I’ll never forgive these infernal scoundrels, with Peel at their head, as long as I live for this act of personal spite!!
Here is the temper coming out, and here a Whiggism that had more to do with loving Lord M. than any genuinely political conviction. The monarch is supposed to be Tory, meaning of the land-owning class in excelsis, and inescapably (since he or she is the head of it) Church of England. When Victoria learned to like Peel she became Tory enough; by the time she learned to adore Benjamin Disraeli, whom she showered with honors while he showered an empire on her, Whiggism had turned into Liberalism under William Gladstone, whom she distrusted so intensely that she identified his mild progressive cause with Britain’s ruin:
The great alarm in the country is Mr. Gladstone, the Queen perceives, and she will sooner abdicate than send for or have any communication with that half-mad firebrand who will soon ruin everything and be a Dictator.
Others but herself may submit to his democratic rule, but not the Queen.
She thinks he himself don’t wish for or expect it.
That is in a letter to Sir Henry Ponsonby. To the crown princess of Prussia she speaks of “Mr. Gladstone’s mad, unpatriotic ravings and the sad want of patriotism of the Opposition” and the “strange, ungrateful love of change” which is a disease of the electorate. And that is what the royal political position amounted to—keeping things as they were when her beloved Albert was alive.
Whatever Victoria was, she was not Victorian. A beer-drinker, dancing till four in the morning, a hater of dull Sundays, a reader of Jane Eyre and the novels of Mr. Dickens, a wholehearted lover of the marital erotic life (“When day dawned [for we did not sleep much] and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express! He does look so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen”), she had little time for conventional piety or the anthems of Handel. She did not even like babies very much, though this she denied:
I admire pretty ones—especially peasant children—immensely but I can’t bear their being idolised and made too great objects of—or having a number of them about me, making a great noise.
Of her latest grandchild she said:
A mere little red lump was all I saw; and I fear the seventh grand-daughter and fourteenth grand-child becomes a very uninteresting thing—for it seems to me to go on like the rabbits in Windsor Park!
If Victorian means, among other things, hypocritical, the Queen was so un-Victorian as to appear positively subversive. If she dissembled, that is a woman’s way, and her supreme act of dissembling consisted in letting Albert seem to be in charge while wearing the trousers herself. It was an act long and well sustained. On the other hand, Albert may have been skillful in dissembling: we shall never know how far a princeling of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha brought England out of the Georgian into the Victorian age. Was the Great Exhibition of 1851 merely a toy to amuse the Prince Consort, or was it an inspired unveiling of the possibilities of scientific modernity and cooperative internationalism?
We dread arriving at Albert’s death— hastened by Edward Prince of Wales’s habit of indiscreet fornication—because we know that we are in for many pages of weeping disconsolateness prolonged into what looks perilously like a theatrical posture (my grandfather swore that he had heard from a court source about Victoria’s meeting with a lowly widow in Lancashire who had told her: “I’ve been crying all morning, and as soon as I’ve finished this treacle pudding I’m going to start crying again.” The Queen would not have been amused). It must have made her a bore to her ministers, but in the long run it did her no harm with her people, a violent but sentimental race. Theatrical and literary agents warn their clients of the dangers of “overexposure”: the withdrawn widow at Windsor became a veiled sybil as at the command of some divine agent, who permitted her to make rare public appearances that brought the house down (and the guntoting Fenians out). Meanwhile, the courage and the iron will held during a bad epoch of wars in which Britain was involved, not always victoriously, and revolutions that Britain had become monarchical enough to shudder at. The diaries were kept, the letters went out, the ghost of Albert the Good was at her shoulder. She wrote to Mrs. Lincoln:
No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly brokenhearted by the loss of my own beloved husband, who was the light of my life, my stay, my all, what your sufferings must be; and I earnestly pray that you may be supported by Him to Whom alone the sorely stricken can look for comfort, in this hour of heavy affliction!
The tone of Victoria’s letters is always right within the epistolary conventions she set herself. She was the first of the Hanoverians to handle English with the ease appropriate to a mother tongue. Even her earliest writings seem not to belong to the Georgian age: she teases Lord M. for his archaic pronunciation— “goold” for gold, the Shakespearian stress in revenue. What her English accent was like we do not know, but, remembering the Germanic vowels of her grandchild George V, I fear that there must have been a Continental quality in it. She was, after all, a European, and she spoke three European tongues fluently. In old age, with the help of an Indian munshi, she began to learn Hindustani. The importance of knowing foreign tongues is something that presidents never learn: monarchs are more serious about it but also have more time (and, let us admit it, a sounder education). Certainly Victoria’s ability to write letters in German to the refractory grandson who became the Kaiser was a huge diplomatic asset, as Disraeli’s ignorance of French led very nearly to international disaster.
We are concerned in this volume only with what she wrote in English. It is estimated that she produced about 2,500 words every day, making a total of 60 million in the course of her reign—the equivalent of a full-length novel every month, 700 all told. When Disraeli, a very considerable novelist, appeared to be flattering her with his “we authors, ma’am,” he was in fact admitting her publishability. Nor even a monarch can get into print by royal flat, bur Victoria’s two Highland diaries were, and still are, books of permanent value, which take their lowly place beside the work of the Victorian professionals whom she met:
Mr. Carlyle, the historian, a strangelooking eccentric old Scotchman, who holds forth, in a drawling melancholy voice, with a broad Scotch accent, upon Scotland and upon the utter degeneration of everything; . . . Mr. Browning, the poet, a very agreeable man. It was, at first, very shy work speaking to them . . . but afterwards, when tea was being drunk . . . they were very agreeable and talked very entertainingly.
What the British monarchy has lost since 1901 is an interest in any literature outside The Winning Post and Cope’s Guide to the Turf. The Queen met Dickens and told Tennyson how much In Memoriam moved her in her great sorrow. Nor, while we are on the art of literature, should we forget her concern with the other arts. Mendelssohn thought her piano-playing pretty good; she was eager to get hold of the scores of Wagner; her drawings, some of which Mr. Hibbert reproduces here, are competent. If she adored Winterhalter and Landseer, she was merely limited to the taste of her time. We do not learn what she thought of Gilbert and Sullivan or Whistler. She was a small, unprogressive artist in her own right, and her writings may be considered genuine if limited art—diplomatic, utilitarian, sometimes highly personal, and very moving. Whatever she was, she was no prig and no fool.
Mr. Hibbert has done admirable work in selecting from the vast mound of material available. In his introduction he stresses the clarity and honesty of her expression and the “outspoken forthrightness of her nature.” He is right to point to “an inner insecurity and awareness of her own limitations” protected by a “stubborn imperiousness.” Well, the imperiousness was in order for an empress, and the stubbornness was all too often the right response to the shifting tides of an age of radical change. That the Victorian epoch seems to so many of us to be one of large stability is a tribute to the stability of its monarch. That little woman indeed knew her own mind. Here, in this volume, she gives posterity a very large piece of it.