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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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution