The life of Queen Victoria is very well-known & I’ve read many books about her. I’ve read biographies, her letters to her daughter, biographies of her children, her servants, her Prime Ministers, her ancestors & books on many aspects of the Victorian period. So, another biography of Queen Victoria & especially a biography I listened to on audio for almost 20 hours, has to be fresh & different to engage my attention. Instead of retelling the story of the book, I thought I’d concentrate on what makes this biography different from the others I’ve read over the years.
First of all, it’s the writing style & the persona of the author. A N Wilson is a distinguished biographer & novelist. I’ve read several of his biographies & non-fiction books & enjoyed them all. I have his massive biography of Tolstoy on the tbr shelves & I’ve just bought the audio book version on Audible so I may listen rather than read as the book has been there for many years. Wilson’s style is amused, sympathetic, almost confiding. He obviously felt considerable affection for Victoria & he delights in quoting her most unreasonable comments from her letters. This isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, as though he’s showing how ridiculous she was, but as a way of showing how human she was, as inconsistent as any other person. He shows the Queen in all her contradictory moods. He also emphasizes parts of her character & personality that haven’t been emphasized enough.
The importance of the Queen’s German heritage is a major theme of Wilson’s biography. Victoria was three-quarters German, after all. Her paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, was a Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz & her mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg was also German. She married Albert, nephew of Victoire, & her closest advisors in her girlhood & the first years of her reign were Baroness Lehzen, her governess, & Baron Stockmar, Albert’s friend & advisor who became hers as well. She spoke German as easily as she did English &, when she was especially agitated or excited, her written English took on the grammatical constructions of German. Prince Albert’s dream of a liberal German state headed by Prussia was also Victoria’s dream. Victoria wasn’t very interested in European politics early in her reign but, especially after Albert’s death in 1861, as her children married into European royal houses, she grew more involved & more determined to do what she could to realise that vision. Her role as Grandmother of Europe allowed her to interfere in everything from the marriages of her grandchildren to whether or not a particular member of a German royal house should accept the crown of Greece.
Wilson also disputes the extent to which Victoria withdrew from public affairs in the years after Albert’s death. She certainly suffered from extreme grief & depression in the 1860s & she shrank from public engagements & speeches because of her shyness. However, she didn’t neglect her role as constitutional monarch & demanded to be kept up to date on all political matters – even if that meant that her ministers had to travel to Osborne or Balmoral to consult her & keep her informed. She could be stubborn & unreasonable but she had been well-trained by Albert & Stockmar in the duties of a monarch & she was determined to be involved in everything that concerned Britain & the Empire.
Victoria’s relationships with her Highland servant, John Brown & her Indian secretary, Hafiz Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi have always been controversial. One of Victoria’s most endearing qualities was her lack of racism or prejudice, her “lack of side” as Wilson calls it. She felt completely at home among her Scottish subjects, especially Highlanders, & she was fascinated by India. Her title of Empress of India may have been a bit of a joke to some politicians & critics but Victoria was proud of her connection with India & its people. Whether she was ever actually married to John Brown will probably never be known. Wilson sets out the anecdotal evidence for & against. I’ve always thought they had a genuine friendship. Victoria enjoyed being looked after & cared for & Brown was devoted to her care. He wasn’t cowed by her & spoke his mind, which she enjoyed. The Munshi was a more shadowy character. He taught Victoria Hindustani & was given access to documents that he probably should never have seen but he came to symbolise India to the Queen & she refused to believe the stories about his disreputable conduct & dubious associates. The more her children, servants & ministers tried to remove Brown & the Munshi, the more Victoria clung to them.
Victoria’s servants, especially her Private Secretaries & doctors, were especially important. A sensible Private Secretary with a sense of humour, like Sir Henry Ponsonby, was vital if the everyday business of government was to continue. Ponsonby knew how to manage the Queen. He had a genuine liking for her & knew how to handle her moods. He was a necessary go-between for the family & politicians. Of her doctors, Sir James Reid was a favourite. He was Scottish (always her first requirement in a physician) & was well-suited to the demanding post of caring for the Queen & her household. Amazingly he never saw the Queen undressed or even in her bed until her final illness. Wilson quotes from Sir James’s biography, written by Michaela Reid (she married his grandson) & based on his private papers, so of course, I’ve ordered a copy. I also have a biography of Henry & Mary Ponsonby by William M Kuhn on the tbr shelves. One book just leads to another…
I enjoyed reading about the Queen’s sometimes volatile relationships with her Prime Ministers & her controlling, sometimes truly deplorable behaviour to her children. She could be selfish, unreasonable, petty & ungracious (her last audience with Gladstone is an example of just how ungracious she could be) but I find her completely fascinating. A N Wilson’s biography is a joy to read & I really enjoyed Gareth Armstrong’s reading of it. If you think you’ve read enough biographies of Queen Victoria, maybe you should read (or listen to) just one more.