ytton Strachey (1880-1932) was an essayist and biographer, and a prominent member of London's culturally élite Bloomsbury Group. He had made his first real impact on the literary world with Eminent Victorians (1918), in which he presented the early twentieth-century reader with a series of iconoclastic portraits of some of the idols of the previous century. Here, for example, Florence Nightingale appears as a "thin, angular woman" with a "haughty eye" and "acrid mouth," plagued by inner torments (173), and Dr. Arnold as a despot with rather short legs and bushy eyebrows, ruling his boys at Rugby not with humane benevolence, but with an "awful grandeur" that compels rather than appeals (180, 183). But when it came to his biography of Queen Victoria, first published in 1921, Strachey found himself drawn to his subject's "irresistible sincerity" (265). He is still clear-eyed, and sometimes irreverent. As he begins to sum up her achievements in the penultimate chapter, he points out that the great advances of the age in industry and science left the monarch "perfectly cold" (258), as they would not have done Prince Albert; that she was not a great thinker when it came to more profound matters, but retained throughout a simple orthodoxy in her religious faith; that she thought the emancipation of women a "wicked folly" (260); and that, when it came to constitutional matters, she played a passive rather than an active part, and actually presided over a diminution of royal powers: "at the end of her reign, the Crown was weaker than at any other time in English history" (261).
Nevertheless, says Strachey, the Queen and her times had much in common. In the section excerpted here, he deals first with imperialism — "the dominant creed of the country" (262). This creed has long had its day, but in this respect, of course, Queen Victoria was utterly at one with her age. Strachey goes on from this to discuss her life and character more generally, and in doing so, is evidently beguiled by her. Sometimes the modern reader is pulled up short again, for example, by the Queen's disapproval of divorce, and even of remarriage after widowhood. But it is still worth reading this section in full, because, contrary to Virginia Woolf's belief that Strachey's picture of the Queen would become the accepted one (see her essay, "The Art of Biography"), both Victoria and Victorianism were already sliding precipitately from grace. Indeed, Strachey's Eminent Victorians had given it the first push. The catchphrase "We are not amused" now seemed to sum up a stiff and starchy matron, completely at odds with the figure that emerges from her letters and journals; and the age over which this figure presided now seemed one of intolerable earnestness, hypocrisy and even perversity. Only quite recently, with a wave of new books, exhibitions and dramatizations, and a revival of interest in Victorian arts and crafts of all kinds, have the true personality of the Queen and the spirit her age manifested themselves again. It is fascinating to see Strachey starting off here in his usual acerbic vein, mocking the public adulation of an elderly Queen, but then himself falling under the spell of her unchanged and unaffected "vitality, conscientiousness, pride, and simplicity."
Left to right: (a) "Her Majesty's Gracious Smile," a visiting card with a photograph by Charles Knight dating from 1887, the year of her Golden Jubilee. (b) Sir Thomas Brock's replacement for the unpopular Golden Jubilee coin designed by Sir Edgar Boehm. This one dates from c.1893. (c) Frampton's Jubilee Monument for Queen Victoria in Calcutta, dating from 1897-1901. [Click on all images for larger sizes and more information, where available.]
An Excerpt from Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria
The final years were years of apotheosis. In the dazzled imagination of her subjects Victoria soared aloft towards the regions of divinity though a nimbus of purest glory. Criticism fell dumb; deficiencies which, twenty years earlier, would have been universally admitted, were now as universally ignored. That the nation's idol was a very incomplete representative of the nation was a circumstance that was hardly noticed, and yet it was conspicuously true. For the vast changes which, out of the England of 1837, had produced the England of 1897, seemed scarcely to have touched the Queen. [...]
But if, in all these ways [industry, science, Darwinism, Women's Rights, constitutional change], the Queen and her epoch were profoundly separated, the points of contact between them also were not few. Victoria understood very well the meaning and the attractions of power and property, and in such learning the English nation, too, had grown to be more and more proficient. During the last fifteen years of the reign — for the short Liberal Administration of 1892 was a mere interlude imperialism was the dominant creed of the country. It was Victoria's as well. In this direction, if in no other, she had allowed her mind to develop. Under Disraeli's tutelage the British Dominions over the seas had come to mean much more to her than ever before, and, in particular, she had grown enamoured of the East. The thought of India fascinated her; she set to, and learnt a little Hindustani; she engaged some Indian servants, who became her inseparable attendants, and one of whom, Munshi Abdul Karim, eventually almost succeeded to the position which had once been John Brown's. At the same time, the imperialist temper of the nation invested her office with a new significance exactly harmonising with her own inmost proclivities. The English polity was in the main a common-sense structure, but there was always a corner in it where common-sense could not enter — where, somehow or other, the ordinary measurements were not applicable and the ordinary rules did not apply. So our ancestors had laid it down, giving scope, in their wisdom, to that mystical element which, as it seems, can never quite be eradicated from the affairs of men. Naturally it was in the Crown that the mysticism of the English polity was concentrated — the Crown,with its venerable antiquity, its sacred associations, its imposing spectacular array. But, for nearly two centuries, common-sense had been predominant in the great building, and the little, unexplored, inexplicable corner had attracted small attention. Then, with the rise of imperialism,there was a change. For imperialism is a faith as well as a business; as it grew, the mysticism in English public life grew with it; and simultaneously a new importance began to attach to the Crown. The need for a symbol — a symbol of England's might, of England's worth, of England's extraordinary and mysterious destiny — became felt more urgently than ever before. The Crown was that symbol: and the Crown rested upon the head of Victoria. Thus it happened that while by the end of the reign the power of the sovereign had appreciably diminished, the prestige of the sovereign had enormously grown.
Yet this prestige was not merely the outcome of public changes; it was an intensely personal matter, too. Victoria was the Queen of England, the Empress of India, the quintessential pivot round which the whole magnificent machine was revolving — but how much more besides! For one thing, she was of a great age — an almost indispensable qualification for popularity in England. She had given proof of one of the most admired characteristics of the race — persistent vitality. She had reigned for sixty years, and she was not out. And then, she was a character. The outlines of her nature were firmly drawn, and, even through the mists which envelop royalty, clearly visible. In the popular imagination her familiar figure filled, with satisfying ease, a distinct and memorable place. It was, besides, the kind of figure which naturally called forth the admiring sympathy of the great majority of the nation. Goodness they prized above every other human quality; and Victoria, who had said that she would be good at the age of twelve, had kept her word. Duty, conscience, morality — yes! in the light of those high beacons the Queen had always lived. She had passed her days in work and not in pleasure — in public responsibilities and family cares. The standard of solid virtue which had been set up so long ago amid the domestic happiness of Osborne had never been lowered for an instant. For more than half a century no divorced lady had approached the precincts of the Court. Victoria, indeed, in her enthusiasm for wifely fidelity, had laid down a still stricter ordinance: she frowned severely upon any widow who married again. Considering that she herself was the offspring of a widow's second marriage, this prohibition might be regarded as an eccentricity; but, no doubt, it was an eccentricity on the right side.The middle classes, firm in the triple brass of their respectability, rejoiced with a special joy over the most respectable of Queens. They almost claimed her, indeed, as one of themselves; but this would have been an exaggeration.For, though many of her characteristics were most often found among the middle classes, in other respects — in her manners, for instance — Victoria was decidedly aristocratic. And, in one important particular, she was neither aristocratic nor middle-class: her attitude toward herself was simply regal.
Such qualities were obvious and important; but, in the impact of a personality, it is something deeper, something fundamental and common to all its qualities, that really tells. In Victoria, it is easy to discern the nature of this underlying element: it was a peculiar sincerity. Her truthfulness, her single-mindedness, the vividness of her emotions and her unrestrained expression of them, were the varied forms which this central characteristic assumed. It was her sincerity which gave her at once her impressiveness, her charm, and her absurdity. She moved through life with the imposing certitude of one to whom concealment was impossible — either towards her surroundings or towards herself. There she was, all of her — the Queen of England, complete and obvious; the world might take her or leave her; she had nothing more to show, or to explain, or to modify; and, with her peerless carriage, she swept along her path. And not only was concealment out of the question; reticence, reserve, even dignity itself, as it sometimes seemed, might be very well dispensed with. As Lady Lyttelton said: "There is a transparency in her truth that is very striking — not a shade of exaggeration in describing feelings or facts; like very few other people I ever knew. Many may be as true, but I think it goes often along with some reserve. She talks all out; just as it is, no more and no less." She talked all out; and she wrote all out, too. Her letters, in the surprising jet of their expression, remind one of a turned-on tap. What is within pours forth in an immediate, spontaneous rush. Her utterly unliterary style has at least the merit of being a vehicle exactly suited to her thoughts and feelings; and even the platitude of her phraseology carries with it a curiously personal flavour. Undoubtedly it was through her writings that she touched the heart of the public. Not only in her "Highland Journals" where the mild chronicle of her private proceedings was laid bare without a trace either of affectation or of embarrassment, but also in those remarkable messages to the nation which, from time to time, she published in the newspapers, her people found her very close to them indeed.They felt instinctively Victoria's irresistible sincerity, and they responded. And in truth it was an endearing trait. [Chapter IX, Part IV]
The Queen and the Prince of Wales Going to St Paul's, a relief of 1880 commemorating a visit of 1872, on the Temple Bar Memorial, Strand, London.
The personality and the position, too — the wonderful combination of them — that, perhaps, was what was finally fascinating in the case. The little old lady, with her white hair and her plain mourning clothes, in her wheeled chair or her donkey-carriage — one saw her so; and then — close behind — with their immediate suggestion of singularity, of mystery, and of power — the Indian servants. That was the familiar vision, and it was admirable; but, at chosen moments, it was right that the widow of Windsor should step forth apparent Queen. The last and the most glorious of such occasions was the Jubilee of 1897. Then, as the splendid procession passed along, escorting Victoria through the thronged re-echoing streets of London on her progress of thanksgiving to St. Paul's Cathedral, the greatness of her realm and the adoration of her subjects blazed out together. The tears welled to her eyes, and, while the multitude roared round her, "How kind they are to me! How kind they are!" she repeated over and over again. That night her message flew over the Empire: "From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them!" The long journey was nearly done. But the traveller, who had come so far, and through such strange experiences, moved on with the old unfaltering step. The girl, the wife, the aged woman, were the same: vitality, conscientiousness, pride, and simplicity were hers to the latest hour. (Strachey, Queen Victoria, 258, 262-66).
- Ambivalent Victorians in Modern and Postmodern Perceptions. A Review of The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror by Simon Joyce
Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. 1918. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922. Internet Archive. Web. 2 January 2012.
_____. Queen Victoria. 1921. London: Chatto & Windus (Phoenix), 1928. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. "The Art of Biography." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays.. eBooks@Adelaide. Web. 2 January 2012.
Last modified 23 December 2004