The family enthroned

Queen Victoria
December 1, 2000

The modern monarchy began with Victoria, says Dorothy Thompson.

There is a very good case for saying that Queen Victoria is the best-documented figure in British history. The habits of journal-keeping and correspondence remained with her for the 64 years of her reign. In later years, many of her ordinary domestic orders or comments were transmitted by written notes rather than by spoken messages. Her own hand-written letters and journal would have amounted, according to her most recent biographer, to 700 volumes containing some 60 million words had they been bound together. She came, moreover, to the throne at a time when the newspaper and publishing presses were expanding rapidly in technology and in circulation, allowing a degree of comment and discussion of aspects of the monarchy that in earlier reigns would have been confined to the metropolitan inns and coffee houses.

Faced with such a plethora of source material, it is hardly surprising that the queen has attracted a continuous series of biographers. To the primary material already mentioned has to be added a mountain of secondary studies, ranging from the hagiographies of the jubilee years through the ground-breaking work of Lytton Strachey and the popular but scholarly biography of Elizabeth Longford to the quasi-mystical insights of postmodern literary criticism. Now, as we approach the centenary of the queen's death in January 2001, one is bound to ask whether another biography is really necessary.

Christopher Hibbert describes his account as "a personal history". It is based largely on the royal archives and on the recollections of courtiers and diplomats who had personal knowledge of Her Majesty. Another trawl through the vast amount of material is, of course, bound to net some quotations and comments that readers have not come across before. I especially liked the queen's comment on Lord John Russell that he would be better company "if he had a third subject; for he was interested in nothing except the constitution of 1688 and himself". Dedicated royal-watchers will find some new things here, and the well-presented illustrations include some that are not in Longford's book. Very little in this volume, however, adds to the general analysis found in Longford's 1964 biography, which must remain the standard biographical work on the queen.

Hibbert does not set out to consider one of the main reasons for looking again at the recent history of the monarchy, which must surely be to look for some light on present-day questions about the throne and its place in the state and the nation. Many contemporary assumptions about the place of the modern royal family start from attitudes to monarchy developed during Victoria's reign. During her reign, the royal family moved from being a collection of debt-ridden old gentlemen of dubious morals seen by their subjects either as distant and stylised embodiments of a principle of royalty or as the gross caricature figures of the urban print sellers, to being the embodiment of all the virtues of the Christian family. Starting her reign with a debt of £60,000 inherited from her spendthrift father, Victoria died one of the richest women in Europe. The interests of the country and those of her monarchy had grown and stabilised together. In a century during which modernisation and liberalisation came increasingly to be associated with republican forms of government, the British, who in the 18th century had been regarded by the rest of the world as unstable king-killers and perhaps as the people most likely to overthrow their ancien regime by violence, became the subjects of the most stable monarchy in Europe.

In his lectures in the 1860s, Walter Bagehot commented on the importance of the image of the monarchy in a famous utterance: "A family on the throne is an interesting idea also. It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life." He went on to suggest that "royalty is a government in which the attention of the nation is concentrated on one person doing interesting things. A republic is a government in which that attention is divided among many who are all doing uninteresting things." His perceptions still had validity at the opening of the 20th century, and it can be seen that the emphasis on the family, the feminisation of the office and the apparent limitation of royal power in the realm of political action started from the actuality of Victoria's tenure of office and the presentation of it by the politicians of the period.

Hibbert's account confirms what earlier work has shown, that Victoria's personal interference in day-to-day politics was greater than most of her subjects realised. The moments of conflict when the queen or her husband found themselves at odds with senior politicians are gone through here mainly from the royal point of view, and shed a little further light on the details of the royal relations with, for example, Palmerston and Gladstone. They do not, however, alter the accepted picture or go into any depth about the general significance of these episodes for the popularity and influence of the monarchy among the general public. The extent to which the remodelling of the British crown in the 19th century represented a real power struggle and the points at which Victoria's actions and personality advanced or delayed this remodelling is still worth further study. Her sex precluded her from the throne of Hanover and thus broke the close connection with the German states. She married when she was already queen a husband of a lower social status who turned out to have qualities very rare in his caste: intellectual ability and commitment to his role as royal consort. His support in the years of their marriage undoubtedly helped the queen to take a dignified part in political relations with her ministers; his early death may have removed a royal figure of more potential influence and therefore threat to the actions of the elected representatives. These and other aspects of Victoria's life and character had a considerable effect on the structure of British politics. On a very few occasions - perhaps during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis and in the early days of the Franco-Prussian war - the crown was seen in some quarters as a base of power with interests different from those of the political leaders. By the time of the first world war, the family connections with the royal families in other parts of Europe had ceased to be as close and the power of the crown to intervene had been reduced even further than it had been when the century opened.

There are historical and sociological questions of another sort on which the royal archive may shed light. Queen Victoria weeded her journal and her correspondence in the last years of her life and many parts of apparently the most personal record were burned. Nevertheless, the great amount of material that has survived probably represents the most detailed account of one woman's life from childhood to old age that we are ever likely to see. The character that emerges from reading even a small part is extremely interesting. Here was a woman of many qualities. Wilful and with an almost uncontrollable temper, she was intelligent, hard working, cultured and gifted as a musician and painter. Her family and others around her feared her unstable temper and her obstinacy, but clearly many genuinely loved her in spite of these qualities. There are a number of references in Longford and in the present volume to fears for the queen's sanity by courtiers and officials at various times. She herself recalled the history of insanity in her family and feared sometimes that her "nerves" would give way and that she would lose her reason. In many ways she was clearly more than life size, in others she retained some of the self-deprecatory attitudes which the century increasingly demanded from her sex.

We should also look more closely at the effect that the presence of a woman in the highest office of state had on the consciousness of her women subjects. If Queen Elizabeth I had declared herself to possess the best qualities of a man, Victoria constantly expressed her embodiment of the qualities of a woman. At a superficial level, her objections to the entry of women to the professions, particularly medicine, are well known. Even though she had been delivered by an accoucheuse she always had male doctors and attendants. Her objection to women as medical practitioners was that men and women would be studying together matters that were never spoken about "in mixed company". The prurience and dislike of mentioning physical functions that characterised later definitions of "Victorian" manners were not evident in her correspondence with her daughters. She supported the work of Florence Nightingale and the development of the more suitably feminine nursing profession. For some of the suffragists and the advocates of women's education, her very presence in the high office was used as an argument for their case. Her chief contribution to the woman question, however, was the enforcement of the power of the "womanly" roles in the family and in society. Her stern attitude to questions of marital and family morality were to dominate the early years of the century following her death. On the question of her relationship with John Brown, it should be noted that there was never a question of adultery or infidelity, only of a possible secret second marriage. Her commitment to the "traditional" ideals of the family remained set in stone. The major peaks and troughs of loyalty to the crown in the century since her death have been connected with questions of family relationship rather than of political conflict. The only abdication of a monarch in the 20th century was forced not by his dubious political alignments but by his unacceptable marital plans.

Republicanism and the role of the monarchy in the British state are again being discussed in the reign of Victoria's great-great-granddaughter. Another long reign by a female Hanoverian has seen the monarchy accepted by all major political parties. Does the present monarchy fulfil the role Victorian statesmen strove to establish: that of a symbol of the nation that stands above party politics and speaks for all sections of society? If it does, it is largely the result of the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria.

Dorothy Thompson, author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power , is at the Institute for Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

Queen Victoria: A Personal History

Author - Christopher Hibbert
ISBN - 0 00 255826 2
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 557

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