By A.N. Wilson
Penguin Press. 642 pp. $36
Right off the bat, two questions. The first: Do we really need yet another biography of Queen Victoria, about whom so many already have been written that probably no one except perhaps a senior librarian at the British Museum could count them all? The second: Do we really need yet another book by A.N. Wilson, who since his first was published in 1977 has published an additional 41 (that’s more than one a year) and more pieces of fugitive journalism than even he probably can count?
The answer to both questions, to my considerable surprise, is an emphatic yes. Needless to say, I have read only a tiny percentage of the previous biographies, but Wilson’s “Victoria: A Life” may be the best I have read, even better than — well, at least as good as — my favorite, Lytton Strachey’s, published in 1921. Wilson has written frequently about the era to which Victoria gave her name — especially in “Eminent Victorians” (1990), “The Victorians” (2002) and “After the Victorians” (2005) — but this volume is surely the capstone of his career so far as that particular subject is concerned, not merely a persuasive, unsentimental but admiring and engaging portrait of the great woman herself, but a vivid account of the world in which she lived and to which she contributed so much.
Make no mistake about it, Victoria was indeed great, as also was her beloved prince consort, Albert. She assumed the throne in 1837 when she was 18 years old and stayed there for more than six decades, until her death in 1901. No one else has occupied that throne for so long — though Elizabeth II may yet claim the record — and it can be argued that no one steered the nation through a time of greater crisis and change. It was much more of a constitutional monarchy then than it is now, with the queen an active and at times controlling presence in the daily affairs of what was in the late 19th century a vast empire. If her regime did not begin auspiciously — she was widely seen as “a capricious little incompetent” — things changed very quickly after her marriage in February 1840 to her first cousin Albert, from the German branch of the exceedingly far-flung royal family.
It was at times a tempestuous marriage: “This pair of extremely strong characters was in for an extraordinary journey together when they married. Both wanted power. Neither wanted to surrender their independence. More than in most marriages, there was a thunderous clash of wills. There was also, however, a deep bond from the very first.” They genuinely loved each other — in Victoria’s case that love was almost palpably passionate — and when they functioned well, they were an amazing pair. Of course there were times when the machinery was off — she liked to stay up late, and he preferred an early bedtime: “Victoria was an owl, Albert was a lark” — but they had enough shared bedtime to produce nine children, all of whom lived to adulthood at a time when child mortality rates were still appallingly high. She did not enjoy being perpetually pregnant for about a decade and a half, and her “supply of maternal affection was small,” but those children were a direct extension of her love for Albert, and she treasured them for that.
He was, Wilson writes, “the only member of the Royal Family in recent history, or perhaps ever, who deserves the name of genius,” and his death in 1861, apparently from typhoid fever but no doubt also from sheer exhaustion, left Victoria devastated. Though she had a histrionic streak in her, she was also capable of cool calculation, and she understood just how much Albert had contributed to their marriage and his adopted country:
“When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up for the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College. . . And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.”
Wilson is at pains to stress the very complicated German connection that ran through Victoria’s entire life, and properly so. She herself “was three-quarters German,” and the ties she treasured to German kinfolk overseas were the strongest she had. It is easy to forget, after the two world wars of the 20th century and the hatred between the two peoples they engendered, that for a long time they — or at least their aristocracies — were the best of friends. “Yet the story of Germany,” Wilson writes, “and the story of Britain, and their tragic failure to understand one another, lay at the heart of nineteenth-century history, being destined to explode on the battlefields of the First World War.”
Germany as such didn’t exist when Victoria assumed her throne. The German people occupied a motley collection of “princedoms, duchies and kingdoms,” which were brought together during the 1860s primarily through the efforts of Otto von Bismarck, “the man who was . . . to dominate German politics” for years and whose rise in 1862 “was the central event of European political history” in that year. He engineered the expansion of German military might — “the political triumph of Prussia, and the creation of the German Reich, was made possible by the size, efficiency and professionalism of its army” — and at his death in 1898 he bequeathed to Europe a Germany thirsting for conquest. The sad irony is that the man who led it into the disastrous World War I, the inept and probably unbalanced Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the son of Victoria’s beloved daughter Vicky.
Victoria’s tangled connections with the kings, queens and lesser royals of Europe constitute a strong secondary theme in Wilson’s “Victoria,” one he handles with aplomb and no small amount of wit. It was “a dysfunctional family,” one held together largely by arranged marriages, some of which turned out to be reasonably happy and many of which did not. With all this interbreeding, difficulties inevitably arose, such as the hemophilia that was passed on to several of Victoria’s children, especially the unhappy Leopold. I commend to your attention Wilson’s Chapter 23, which includes an especially vivid portrait of this grand royal mess that is uncommonly amusing.
Victoria kept close tabs on all of this, as she did on almost everything else that came to her attention. It is rather odd that, having documented in page after page her obsessive attention to the many trivial papers that crossed her desk and the close eye she kept on all the prime ministers who reported to her, Wilson should say that “apart from being expert in watercolors and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything.” Perhaps Wilson’s definition of “do” and my own are not the same, for it seems to me that what she did in her very long life amounted to, well, a whole lot of doing. She presided over a nation that was “in a state of creative flux,” she had much to do with bringing it to the cusp of the modern age, and indeed, in assessing her role in Britain’s history at the time of her Diamond Jubilee, Wilson tells us exactly what she “did”:
“For hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, Queen Victoria had become something more than simply an old lady in a bonnet. She had transcended autocracy and become the role model for all future successful constitutional monarchs, a beloved figurehead reflecting back to the people themselves their own experiences of passing time and, perhaps also, their very own values, their own sense of the sacred. These things are very hard to define.”
Victoria did not ask to be queen. It was thrust upon her by the accident of birth and then by a succession of accidents that removed others who stood between her and the throne. She assumed it reluctantly and, at first, incompetently. But she learned on the job, and in the end she triumphed. An entire era in human history has taken its name from her. That, among many other things, is what she did.