The British have made the 19th century synonymous with Queen Victoria to the point where some appear to think she was an architect of their country’s achievements, reforms and expansions in that remarkable era. One detected this in some of the gushing pre-publicity that accompanied the bicentenary of her birth, on 24 May.
There have, perhaps, been too many saccharine and inadequate television programmes about Victoria, not merely dramas that have relied heavily on invention, but documentaries whose level of sensationalism reduces them to the rank of costume drama (for television executives seem to regard it as impossible to make an audience take anything historical seriously unless it is ramped up and trivialised in the most patronising way). A common trivialisation of Victoria is that she was, in her early years of marriage, a borderline nymphomaniac (she had nine children, a quite normal feat among her subjects at the time). This deduction is made from various coy comments in her diaries about her intense interest in her new husband, something also normal in young women; and, of course, it provides a titillating contrast with the Queen Victoria we assume we knew, the dowager of strait-laced sourness who, to resort to the ultimate Victorian cliché, was perpetually not amused. It is that stereo-type Victoria who inadvertently gave the nation a laugh when a critic allegedly said of Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in Antony and Cleopatra: “How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen.”
Whatever one’s opinion of the present monarchy, one should be grateful that Victoria was very little like our own dear Queen. She was wilful, ignorant and susceptible to toadies. The stories about Disraeli’s sycophancy are, unfortunately, true, though if one reads Disraeli’s correspondence with the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) or any other royalties, the nauseating oiling and greasing is pretty universal. She was entirely taken in by Disraeli, a flashy charlatan in the sort of ethical league now inhabited by Boris Johnson, and whose whole political life was an act.
Similarly, she could be vile and irrational towards people with far superior brains and principles who refused to suck up to or humour her. She treated Gladstone, who in terms of his political sense and commitment to the national interest was equalled only by Robert Peel among her prime ministers, abominably. He may or may not have spoken to her as if she were a public meeting – we have only Lytton Strachey’s word for this, and with his penchant for fabrication and embellishment he was not a reliable witness – but he provoked her to extremes of unconstitutionality, even by the standards of the time.
Gladstone had been the central figure in the Liberal Party’s 1880 general election campaign, even though he was not its leader – he had resigned from that role in 1876 and been succeeded by the Marquess of Hartington, heir to the dukedom of Devonshire. His party knew, when it won the election, that such was his standing in the country he had to be the prime minister; yet Victoria, once Hartington had declined her request to form a government, sent for Lord Granville, a former foreign secretary, and implored him to do so. Even if Victoria did not understand the proprieties, Granville did, and to her horror she had to accept Gladstone as her prime minister; she would soon be writing to her daughter, the future Kaiserin, to rant about the “madman” she had to tolerate in Downing Street.
Paint it black: Queen Victoria and her servant John Brown portrayed by Charles Burton Barber, painted in 1876 to commemorate Brown’s 50th birthday. Art Collection 3 / Alamy
It was not only her ministers who had to seek to manage her petulance and imperiousness (although, as the only empress in Britain at the time, perhaps she could be forgiven the latter quality). She was selfish, self-indulgent and tyrannical to her delinquent son and heir Edward, the man Walter Bagehot caricatured in 1867 in his seminal chapter on monarchy in The English Constitution as “an unemployed youth”. Three weeks before his death in 1861, Prince Albert had gone on a mission to Cambridge to see his son (who was doing an imitation of an undergraduate at the time), to discuss with him the possible consequences of his nascent priapism (there had been an irregularity in Dublin with an actress, which set the young prince off on a lifetime’s work).
It was a cold, wet November afternoon, and the two of them went for a walk in the country to ensure privacy. Albert caught a cold and was dead within three weeks; his doctors stated he had died of typhoid, but he had suffered from stomach pains for the previous two years and may have had stomach cancer, or Crohn’s disease. The Queen, however, decided that the chill he caught while out with their son had killed him, and because the last conversation she had had with Albert about the 20-year-old youth had been about how irresponsible and immature he was, she retained that opinion of him until he was well into his fifties.
Albert’s death marked the effective end of Victoria fulfilling the public duties of queen for the best part of a quarter of a century. The Victorians developed a sort of pornography of death, and she was their chief pornographer. She wore black for the rest of her life. One might excuse a young widow – she was just 42 when Albert died – with nine children hysterical with grief in the aftermath of such a loss, but the ostentatious mourning and self-pity lasted into the 1880s. Her refusal to give the public lead her people expected led to an outbreak of republicanism that peaked around 1870. Although she had been made to accept a far reduced civil list for herself and her family compared with the lavishness of the early Hanoverians, her invisibility prompted republicans to circulate a pamphlet entitled “What does she do with it?” about her need for public money. She became slowly aware of the problem she was causing: scheduled to open the new Blackfriars Bridge in London in November 1869 she wrote to Gladstone shortly beforehand saying she had decided not to do it because she was afraid she would be booed. He talked her round, another of the minor acts for which he was not forgiven. There was no booing.
That Victoria had become queen at all was a tribute to the delinquency and degeneracy of the sons of George III, her grandfather. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, was his fourth son, yet when Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV) died in 1817 at the age of 21 having just delivered a stillborn child, the mad old king was robbed of his only legitimate grandchild. Charlotte Augusta’s mother, Princess Caroline of Brunswick, had long been on terms of enmity with the Regent, who found his carnal entertainments elsewhere. George III’s second son, Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, had been estranged from his wife, Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, almost since their marriage in 1791. Three other unmarried sons contented themselves with mistresses, another was married but without children, and the marriage of yet another, the Duke of Sussex, was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act.
But when Charlotte Augusta died and the need for an heir became acute, the feckless sons set about doing their duty. Kent, already over 50, married a German widow of 32, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld: and the nation rejoiced when, almost exactly a year later, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born. Her uncle the Regent became King in 1820; his heir, his brother York, died in 1827; and then the Duke of Clarence became heir and, in 1830, King William IV. Clarence, a genial sort who had spent much of his life in the navy, had lived for years with Dorothea Jordan, an actress, with whom he had had ten illegitimate children. He regularised matters in 1818, during the succession panic, by marrying Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, 27 years his junior; but several miscarriages, stillbirths and the 19th-century curse of high infant mortality meant that, when Clarence became king, Alexandrina Victoria, aged 11, was his heir.
he succeeded in 1837, just after her 18th birthday, when the Sailor King died, and at a time of change and turbulence in her realm and in the world. The recent invention of the railways was beginning to make her country smaller and allow people to travel with greater ease and economy. A slow growth in adult literacy coincided with, and helped feed, a rise in political consciousness. The Poor Law Act of 1834 condemned many of the indigent to workhouses, new examples of which were being built all over the country (George Gilbert Scott, one of the era’s greatest architects, began on such projects before going on to build the Foreign Office, the Albert Memorial and the Midland Hotel at St Pancras Station). In 1838, at the time of the young queen’s coronation, two movements that would prove central to the evolution of society in the 19th century – the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists – were born. It was the time of that glut of novels by such writers as Disraeli, Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Trollope and Charles Kingsley about the “condition of England” question: how a country apparently so rich and powerful could have so many people poor almost to the point of starvation, and so uneducated that they were equipped only to undertake the most basic manual tasks. By the late 1830s there was disorder, and riots, in many British cities, as those at the bottom of the heap started to demand ameliorative action from those at the top.
It is one of the slipshod attitudes of history that we attribute society’s eventual conquering of these problems, the gradual improvement of the condition of the poor, the expansion of a middle class and an increase in social mobility, to some nebulous act of leadership by the Queen herself. She certainly lent her patronage to certain developments in society, notably to the enlightened ideas of advancements in the arts and sciences championed by her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom she married in 1840. She was, unquestionably and inevitably, the figurehead of a nation whose economic performance during her reign, and the vision it funded, were unprecedented since Tudor times. But it happened partly in spite of Queen Victoria, not because of her.
That Victoria was almost entirely uneducated was hardly her fault. By convention, most women of her generation were; and her stupid, stubborn mother certainly felt under no compulsion to have the young princess raised above her own level, even when her aged uncle was all that stood between her and the throne, and was fading fast. She turned out to be a remarkably unconstitutional monarch, but then there had been no serious attempt to teach her about the constitution. It began with her rage at Melbourne’s replacement by Peel, who built decades of prosperity and raised living standards by (at Gladstone’s prompting and in the teeth of Tory opposition) repealing the Corn Laws. She had not even begun to appreciate the speed with which political perceptions in her country were changing, following the most significant event of the years immediately preceding her accession – the Great Reform Act of 1832. It left most men in the country, never mind women, still unfranchised, but it had created an appetite for greater political participation and the creation of a genuine democracy that would run through Victoria’s reign.
The more one learns about Victoria’s personality and motivations the more remarkable it is that she remains one of the most feted people in our history. Being an often sentimental people, the British seem to admire her largely because, until the present queen overtook her, she was the longest-reigning monarch. Too many suspend disbelief about the rest of her accomplishments. This was true in Victoria’s reign as much as it is now: crowds turned out in huge quantities for her golden jubilee in 1887 and even more so for the diamond jubilee in 1897, and cheered her, despite the decades she had spent isolated from them. They mistook longevity for achievement.
As Walter Bagehot would have put it, that longevity certainly inspired stability, and provided a reassuring background of continuity. Unlike France, which veered between unstable republics and unstable monarchies during her reign, or the rising power of America, which sought a new head of state every four years and had a civil war, Britain endured no such upheavals. Political and economic stability provided a background of certainties against which Britain could grow and prosper; technological advances, notably the railways, but also telegraphy, telephony and the advent of electrification helped the spread of ideas and an increase in efficiency. As buccaneers expanded the empire over which Victoria reigned and which grew, to paraphrase JR Seeley, almost in a fit of absent- mindedness, so did markets for goods and supplies of raw materials grow. The morality or otherwise of imperialism was a consideration only for a few high-minded Liberals (Gladstone struggled to see the point of it); for everyone else, the augmentation of the country’s overseas possessions was a mark of virility and a source of pride. The Queen, declared Empress of India in a supreme act of sycophancy by Disraeli in 1876, was glad to bask in this glory.
Victoria and Albert photographed in 1854. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
The basic framework of the constitution remained the same even despite the reform acts of 1867 and 1884. As Gladstone embarked on his programme of extending something approaching meritocracy – by abolishing the purchase of commissions in the army, introducing appointment by examination in the civil service, securing acts of parliament that began to open up the old universities and providing a school place for every child – the system was able to endure it. And mainly under his Tory counterparts, Disraeli and Salisbury, the expansion of the British empire was done in the Queen’s name, and she came to symbolise the nation’s growing power and wealth. And what WS Gilbert purposely termed “the Queen’s nay-vee” policed her empire in her name.
Victoria’s most lasting achievement, which her successors have further popularised and consensualised, was the development of royal ritual. To her it was about cementing (again in Bagehot’s words) the “dignified” part of the constitution; to us it is now mainly a tourist attraction. It is often said that most of Britain’s ancient traditions date back only to the 19th century, and that is right, and all the institutions that established their traditions then took a lead from the spirit of the times dictated by the sovereign. The Queen very much took the view that ritual and tradition were a key part of dignified behaviour, and Britain as a polity was nothing if not dignified.
Although Victoria herself would have said she had been stricken by misfortune in the death so young of her husband, she was fortunate in two other respects. She was extremely lucky in her courtiers, notably Major General Sir Henry Ponsonby, who after distinguished service in the Crimea became Albert’s equerry. Albert liked him, which provided him with a passport to the Queen’s affections. In 1870, at the height of the Queen’s unpopularity, he succeeded General Sir Charles Grey (son of Earl Grey of the Reform Act and his wife’s uncle; the post was not put out for competition) as the Queen’s private secretary. Grey had become adept at concealing the Queen’s caprices and irrationalities not only from the public but even from some of her ministers. Ponsonby not only continued that tradition but gradually sought to bring the Queen out into the world again. A Liberal by temperament, he formed an invaluable bridge between the Queen and Gladstone. His careful management of the sovereign during the 1870s and 1880s did much to soothe republican sentiments and to establish her as an admired piece of the national furniture. This was consolidated in the 1887 jubilee, in whose genesis and execution he played an important part. It became the monarchy’s greatest propaganda exercise since the Restoration and set a new royal tradition.
Ponsonby, who served until illness and exhaustion finally claimed him in 1895, was also responsible for schooling the Queen in constitutional behaviour; that she did not block Gladstone’s appointment in 1880 was not only down to Hartington and Granville but also to the wisdom of her main courtier, with his gently restraining hand. Ponsonby also adeptly managed the Prince of Wales, who despite frequent acts worthy of a spoilt teenager eventually learned some discretion, was allowed to read state papers and was prepared to run an altogether more constitutional monarchy than his mother.
Victoria seemed to begin her reign in a mindset that had a touch of Elizabeth I, but finished it more like Elizabeth II. She could still be difficult but the various filmed adaptations of her relations in her seventies with her servant Abdul Karim, the so-called Munshi, seem broadly accurate and at least one thing she could not be accused of was deep-seated racism. Her relations with another servant, John Brown, also seem to acquit her of snobbery, even if suggestions they contracted a secret marriage are nonsense.
In a constitutional monarchy some might think it unreasonable to expect a sovereign to be able to do anything other than maintain the dignified image of the institution. But it is not. Edward VII created an alliance with France. George V’s handling of the first and second Labour governments did more to elevate the idea of constitutional monarchy than almost anything in its history. Victoria reigned seven times as long as her son and more than twice as long as her grandson, and one struggles to pinpoint any such positive interventions by her. Others forged the legends of her remarkable era; all she did was give it its name.
Simon Heffer’s histories of Victorian Britain, “High Minds” and “The Age of Decadence”, are published by Random House