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The Queen's English: Victoria brought to life

A N Wilson's book reveals the surprisingly diverse tastes of this quintessential English monarch.

Victoria: a Life 
A N Wilson
Atlantic Books, 656pp, £25

In the strange, gated chambers of Osborne House, her overgrown holiday bungalow on the Isle of Wight, the presence of Queen Victoria lingers like the smell of boiled cabbage in an institution. Preserved in this Italianate moment in time, Victoria and Albert remain a glossy, sexy, celebrity power couple, the Winterhalter epitome of mid-century certitude. But dark shadows lurk in the corridors, “strange gusts of cold in the atmosphere”, which, as A N Wilson discerns, began to blow even as that reign reached its peak; a foreboding of the grief that redefined it. “The 19th-century Cult of Death,” Wilson writes, “had no more operatic votary than Queen Victoria.” Indeed, in his elegant and sometimes Gothic retelling of her life, nothing is more striking than his evocation of Victoria, in the immediate post-Albert years, as a mentally ill woman.

In that shady light, Osborne’s bric-a-brac takes on a sepulchral tone. The disembodied limbs of Victoria’s offspring, rendered in marble and preserved under glass domes, are memento mori to match the Frogmore mausoleum where her prince lay in effigy. His queen, too, was carved in Carrara at the same time, ready to join him. It was as if she were already dead, as if one of the half-dozen or more assassination attempts on her during her reign had succeeded.

Wilson brings Victoria back to life by returning to original sources – the royal archives, through which we can hear her voice. Her correspondence is a wonder to behold, all underlinings and micromanagement, taking in everything from her children’s shortcomings (“I own I think him very dull,” she writes of Bertie, her eldest son and heir) to the police’s failure to catch Jack the Ripper. (She complains that her home secretary’s “general want of sympathy about the feelings of the people are [sic] doing the Government harm”, and comes up with practical suggestions of her own as to how to catch the killer.) In their negotiations, the queen’s more astute prime ministers learned to use extraordinary tact. Those whom she liked, such as Disraeli – described by Wilson as “a bizarre, pomaded figure” – engaged, and flattered. They knew they were dealing with a woman who could behave like a teenager, and they “could duck when the sparks flew”. Those she disliked (such as Gladstone, a “tall, fanatical, verbose man”) did not, or would not.

Psychologically, Wilson suggests, Victoria had surrendered her personality to Albert; marriage “infantilised” her. Her almost childish charm stemmed from “absolute truthfulness and simplicity”, as one of her confidantes put it. But that trait was her enemy, too. After Albert’s death in 1861, she invested her trust in John Brown, innocent of the public effect of her liaison with the Highlander. (On the exact nature of that relationship Wilson is undecided, but he leans towards the theory that Victoria and Brown, “the queen’s stallion”, were secretly married at Balmoral.)

This most British of monarchs (she was nearly “Elizabeth II” after pre-coronation objections to her use of the un-English “Victoria”) was also the most European. Her German ancestry, and her marriage to Albert – described here as a beautiful young man, gifted with many talents – expressed itself in a weird mixture of German and English: “Er wird für die Zukunft mein first object in life sein” (“For the future, he will be my first object in life”). Such foreignness provoked a disconnection between herself and her subjects. Hence her haughty reprimand to Mrs Tuck, her dresser, when displeased: “You English.”

She blamed her own children for their demands: producing baby after baby blighted the few years she had shared with her beloved Albert. As a parent, Victoria was forever directing, castigating, manipulating. And although she virtually disowned Bertie for excesses that threatened to unravel the respectability to which she had restored the monarchy after the PR disasters of the Georges, her own retreat from duty undermined that accomplishment. Wilson does not hesitate to draw parallels with the modern monarchy and the deep tension between private and public life. He sees Victoria like Diana, wanting to share her grief but unable to. “She was not only the Head of State. She was also a woman screaming inside the royal straitjacket and sometimes longing for release.” In a touching detail, Wilson notes that after Albert, there was no one to call her Victoria ever again.

Wilson weaves a wonderful overview of the political events around the queen. But it is in the personal that his book succeeds best. As Victoria turned into a caricature of herself – insular, obese, tipping whisky into her claret – she performed a marvellous turnaround. Suddenly, she bloomed into popularity as her empire burgeoned with transglobal pomp. She caught the spirit of a multicultural age as the “Mother of Nations”. Her new favourite was Abdul Karim, the “Munshi”. The queen ate curry, and parts of Osborne came to resemble Calcutta.

A stroll down those corridors, still lined with portraits of Indian aristocrats, evokes that authentic air of strangeness. Here at Osborne, Victoria’s empire ended, on 22 January 1901, in a room where Albert’s pocket watch still hung over the bed, and where her own dead hands now clutched a photograph of John Brown. It is a chamber that, as Wilson notes, “still possesses an electrifying atmosphere of her presence”’. So, too, does his book. 

Philip Hoare is the author of “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.