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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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