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)