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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, 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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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror