SEAL OF THE CENTURY
Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria puts a lot of sparkling life into a monarch who was not amused, writes Peter Craven
footstool by my side and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before. He clasped me in his arms. We kissed each other again and again. His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness — really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! Oh, this was the happiest day of my life! This is sweet, but it and other such utter- ances make this book a peculiar thing, a bodiceripper about the woman who famously was not amused. Baird tells us Victoria’s libido was in good nick but she does detail the case (insinuated by Lytton Strachey) that Albert was keen on chaps. Needless to say, he wasn’t. Of course it’s arresting to have Albert declare, “in my home life I am only the husband and not the master in the house”.
Victoria “bloomed”, as Baird says, in her marriage and her childbearing, even though she did at one point experience post-natal depression. Despite personal trials, there is plenty in Victoria’s writing to indicate the seriousness of her opinions. She supported Peel when he moved to fund the Catholic seminary at Maynooth, Ireland. “I blush for the form of religion we profess that it should be so void of all right feeling, and so wanting in charity. Are we to drive these 700,000 Roman Catholics, who are badly educated, to desperation and violence?”
Victoria and Albert discovered their “pretty little castle” at Balmoral. Scotland was where Victoria’s heart came to belong. And she was sustained by her love for her husband who wrote in the very year of The Communist Manifesto, “All is well with us and the Crown has never stood higher in England than at this moment.” Then again, the Queen could say, “The uncertainty everywhere, as well as for the future of our children, unarmed me and I quite gave way to my grief … I feel grown 20 years older and as if I could not anymore think of any amusement.”
Victoria was confused at the spectre of rebellion and feared the great Chartist demonstration would turn into a “mob of bloodthirsty ruffians”. It did not. Nor did Ireland revolt, at least not then. In 1850, Peel was thrown from his horse and died, much to Albert’s regret.
The 1850s saw the Great Exhibition, which was Albert’s idea: “A living picture of the point of development which the whole of mankind has reached.” A glass behemoth in Hyde Park showed the grandeur of the globe, just as Florence Nightingale was writing an essay in which she asked, “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity, and a place in society where no one of the three can be exercised?” Meanwhile Victoria wrote in her diary that, as Albert’s appetite and aptitude for politics grew, “We women are not made for governing and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations, but there are times which force one to take an interest in them, Mal gre bon gre [like it or not].”
The strain of Victoria’s incessant pregnancies and Albert’s aptitude for government are obvious. Baird retells the Strachey story (probably apocryphal) about Victoria knocking on Albert’s door. “Who’s there?” he asks, and when she repeats, “The Queen of England” several times, the door is not opened, not until she says, “Your wife, Albert”.
She became jealous of Nightingale, “the lady of the lamp”, though she liked her when she met her and recalled there was “not the slightest display of religion or a particle of humbug”. Nightingale, for her part, at first thought the Queen was “stupid … the least self-reliant person she had ever known”.
Victoria’s children bored her, Victoria’s children delighted her. She wasn’t especially good at motherhood but she did her best. In 1860, she was worried about war and wrote to her daughter Vicky that one day she wanted to escape to Australia with her children. After her
Queen Victoria with John Brown at Balmoral, photographed by George Washington Wilson in 1863