DURING HER LONG REIGN (1837-1901), Queen Victoria dealt with a plethora of advisers -- ranging from governesses to prime ministers -- intent on harnessing her power to their purposes. In Persons of Consequence lawyer-novelist Louis Auchincloss tells how the most important of these advisers fared in their efforts to rule the queen.
Victoria could be headstrong. She withstood the efforts of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to get her to sign a document which would impose a regency even if she were of age when she succeeded to the throne. Besides her mother, the least successful aspirant to dominion over Victoria was William Gladstone, Whig leader and quondam prime minister, who could not muster the diplomacy to soften the hard edges of what she considered to be his radicalism. Disraeli, Gladstone's Tory rival, did well -- it was he who coaxed Victoria out of the funk she slipped into after Prince Albert's death -- because he contrived to cloak his deviousness with a passion for the queen's glory that was altogether sincere. Lord Melbourne, the charming old Whig prime minister, whom Victoria inherited with the throne, could not translate his personal sway over the young queen into permanent political control. Auchincloss also blames much of Victoria's early unpopularity on the old man's indulgence. The most effective of Victoria's advisers were Sir Henry Ponsonby, her longtime private secretary, and Robert Cecil, marquess of Salisbury, whose Tory prime ministry encompassed the last years of her reign.
Ponsonby could control the queen because he was both tactful and genuninely devoted to her. Generally deferential, he would get his back up when she was behaving foolishly. After the death of John Brown, the palace hunting guide who may have been her lover, Victoria decided to write his biography. Sir Henry was appalled: There were already those who referred to the queen as "Mrs. Brown." When other methods failed, Sir Henry sent Victoria as frank a letter as a protocol of third-person address allowed. "Sir Henry cannot help fearing," he wrote, "that the feeling created by such a publication would become most distressing and painful to the Queen." Victoria dropped the project and never mentioned it again.
Lord Salisbury got along with Victoria because he was able to convey his affection and respect for her. A scion of one of England's oldest political families -- two of his Cecil ancestors had served in the cabinet of Elizabeth I -- he felt no impulse to flatter or stand in awe of the queen. He treated her as an equal, and "as to opposing her when she took what he deemed a wrong position, what else could he do but present the arguments as logically and clearly as possible?" She responded to the compliment implicit in this approach, as well as to his ability to take seriously even the smallest of her concerns.When, for example, she indicated an unwillingness to admit divorced women to the court, he wrote a memorandum on the issue. "He made the unexpected point. . ." Auchincloss relates, "that, as no decree could be granted in a divorce action if any conjugal infidelity were proved against the plaintiff, it had to follow that a woman who had divorced her husband had a 'special certificate of character.'" Victoria was convinced, and divorcees were admitted.
Though it lacks the depth that a historian or political scientist might bring to the topic, Persons of Consequence has enough fresh insights and stylishness to compensate. It is also full of lovely illustrations, which evidently account for its swollen price. Persons of Consequence would make an excellent primer for any aide bent on taming the boss.
Life, Law and Letters , Auchincloss' new collection of essays, is less admirable. It contains some fine pieces, though, and an essay on why Emily Dickinson published so few of her poems is one of them. The piece begins with a passage that reminds us of Auchincloss' patrician origins. "In an age when reports of the stools of ill presidents are subject to national scrutiny, when noted public figures discuss their sex lives on television, when it is no shame to admit publicly one's alcoholism or drug addiction, the refusal of a writer to share with us her lyrics on such general subjects as death, immortality, and love seems bizarre, to say the least." There are also a skillful essay on Trollope and a nice trifle on Auchincloss' abortive scheme to publish a condensed version of Proust, with all the boring parts about Albertine excised.
But too many of the selections seem dashed off -- and commonplace. An essay on the writing style of Mr. Justice Cardozo reads like an eleventh-hour paper handed in by a harried American Studies major. Pieces on Corneille and Racine amount to little more than skeins of plot summaries. And the essay on Mr. Justice Holmes fails to mention, let alone argue with, Edmund Wilson;s magisterial analysis of the great jurist in Patriotic Gore . The amateurism that inspired Auchincloss to assemble old material in a new way in Persons of Consequence has let him down in Life, Law and Letters . The difference may be that, whereas some historians are pros, every literary critic is an amateur -- a condition that requires outright aggressiveness in the pursuit of originality. And Louis Auchincloss seems to be one writer incapable of literary aggressiveness.