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Victoria, warts and all
on 17 June 2003
After reading some glittering medieval and Tudor biographies, I wanted to fill in the gaps closer to our own day. Christopher Hibbert's comprehensive, readable biography is a good starting-point. However, as detractors have pointed out, it is short on political analysis. The emphasis is on "royal".
Hibbert sets the stage for Victoria's accession with a marvellous summary of how her various royal forebears failed to provide an heir, so that she succeeded by default. He delineates Queen Victoria's complex relationships with several Prime Ministers: her neediness with Lord Melbourne and Disraeli, antipathy towards Palmerston and Gladstone, respect for Salisbury. Unfortunately he does not clearly enough differentiate between Whigs and Tories. But he does acquaint the reader with the major political personalities and put you in a position to explore further. A useful reference alongside this book is "The Prime Ministers from Walpole to Macmillan" (possibly only available in the UK, and in danger of going out of print).
Skilfully interweaving Victoria's personal history with national and international landmark events, Hibbert provides handy, if underwritten, overviews of the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War, the Great Exhibition, and Chartism. He also sketches contemporary European royals like Napoleon III, exploring tensions between France, Italy and Austria.
Co-dependency, egotism and self-pity characterised Victoria's personal contacts. Her henpecking of her intelligent, unpopular consort Albert, and later selfish blocking of her children's marriages in order to keep them around, echo her own repressive childhood. But Victoria's households at Balmoral and Osborne were beacons of domesticity, and she was well-travelled and sophisticated.
She hated pregnancy, resented her children, and was scathingly dismissive of the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII). After Prince Albert's untimely death, she avoided official engagements for years, to the consternation of her government and people. She fostered obsessional bonds with her Scottish and Indian servants.
Her prolific writings reveal a needy, infantile and self-obsessed woman. Her USE of CAPITALS in an age before the telephone, is a way of SHOUTING (not unlike the internet), and italics give her prose stridency.
So what were Queen Victoria's merits, if any? By dint of longevity she was the epoxy glue of the Age which took her name, and her progeny peopled the Royal houses of Europe. Surviving several assasination attempts, Victoria held her family and household in thrall, and the country in awe. Somehow she inspired the loyalty, if also exasperation, of her Governments.
Henry VIII or Elizabeth I she ain't, but the story is worth reading. Christopher Hibbert gives an urbane, accessible account, with mercifully short chapters.