The review has been arranged and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee. All images other than the first are from the sources specified, rather than the book under review, which is, however, attractively illustrated. Click on the images to enlarge them, and sometimes for more information about how they can be reused.

Front cover of the book under review.

According to the blurb, this new biography of Queen Victoria (2014) is exhaustively researched and definitive. Fortunately, it is much pleasanter to read than the words "exhaustively researched" suggest, but it is not without its weaknesses. This is principally because it is marked throughout by Wilson's admiration for Queen Victoria, mixed, as he admits later, with awe. He shows considerable empathy for his subject in all the travails of her long life. It follows that his biography refutes many of the long-standing negative impressions that some of us might have of Victoria. The inescapable risk in doing so is that the book might tilt too far in the other direction. Whether it does or not, the individual reader must decide.

Wilson follows a conventional structure with a largely chronological thread. Just occasionally the narrative goes ahead to retain coherence on a particular theme and it is not always immediately obvious when one has stepped back to cover other, earlier ground. It has not only been as well researched as the publishers claim but also draws on more than half a lifetime of Wilson's reading and reflection on the nineteenth century. He has written at least three previous books on the period. The account of the Queen's visit to Abbotsford in 1867 (295-96) illustrates how Wilson has been able to draw on his own earlier work: his critical biography of Sir Walter Scott (subtitled The Laird of Abbotsford) came out in 1980.

Particular Issues

On some of the issues where Victoria has been criticised by others – her susceptibility to Disraeli's flattery, her hostility to Gladstone, her limited understanding of the implications of the extension of democracy during her reign, her treatment of her children and particularly of her heir, her relationships with John Brown and Abdul Karim (the Munshi) which deeply upset her family, her failure to discharge her duties with the conscientiousness that we have come to take for granted in the Sovereign since before the Second World War – Wilson is either sympathetic to the Queen or less critical than he might have been. He does not, however, attempt to defend Victoria over the affair of Lady Flora Hastings, a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Kent. Lady Flora died of a malignant tumour in 1839 which had led to gossip that she was pregnant. The Queen's insistence on a medical examination seems harsh, especially as it revealed that she was a virgin but did not detect that she was already terminally ill. He is also justifiably critical of her unwillingness to make some changes to the court when she asked Peel to form a government in 1839. Even here though, reasonably enough perhaps, he points to her inescapable immaturity.

The Prince of Wales.

More questionable is Wilson's leniency towards the Queen in the way she behaved towards the Prince of Wales. One senses that Wilson shared the Queen's view that his behaviour was deplorable. There is no extensive treatment of the relationship and therefore no real defence of the criticisms elsewhere of Victoria's complete refusal to prepare her son for the heavy responsibilities he would bear after her death.

Even the Queen's inactivity is seen by Wilson as an attraction to a biographer, and he writes almost as if that is a sufficient answer to the frustration of, for example, Gladstone in failing to get her to open Parliament:

If you have been reading this book from its beginning, you will have been noticing that this is one of the most remarkable of all the remarkable features of the Queen's character: the idleness, which in the 1860s and early 1870s drove Ministers to despair, and at times appeared to threaten the very existence of the British monarchy.

It was not, as we have seen, a total idleness, since she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things that make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really "do" anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. [553]

This quality might have been seen by others in a less kindly light.

Similarly, Wilson is very sympathetic to the Queen's reliance on Brown and less than sympathetic to the relatives and courtiers who resented his position, saw its dangers and suffered from his blunt style of speech. He also sees credit in the Queen's treatment of the Dean of Windsor, Randall Davidson, when he wrote very firmly that she ought not to publish the biography of Brown that she had written and given to Davidson to read. She ordered him through one of her ladies-in-waiting to withdraw what he had said and to apologize. He offered his immediate resignation as Dean. Wilson goes on:

A long silence followed. Then he was sent for. He was received by his old friend. All was smiles, and the memoir was never mentioned again. It was, according to the son of Henry Ponsonby [the Queen's private secretary], quietly destroyed. This strange episode revealed, among other things, the Queen's resilient capacity to forgive, and even seemingly to forget, old grievances. [429]

Of all the things that the episode reveals, the Queen's capacity to forgive is arguably not the most obvious.

There are occasions too when a compulsion to be interesting or provocative leads to judgments that are hard to defend. In May 1859 Victoria's mother was seriously ill. The Queen was deeply upset. Wilson uses the occasion to discuss the mother/daughter relationship. In his pleasure at challenging the received wisdom about the relationship Wilson goes too far: "For all of a sudden, the most important relationship of her life was seen to be, not her relationship with her Angel, Prince Albert; and not with her children; but with her poor spurned mother" (235). "Important" needs an unusual definition to put the Duchess ahead of Albert and their family in her concerns.

The Growth of Democracy

Lord Salisbury

Lord Salisbury.

On the growth of democracy during the Queen's lifetime, Wilson sees the salient points and helps us to see them too. He quotes Ensor from 70 years ago on the extension of the franchise in 1867 putting an end to the power of the monarchy. But he doesn't hide from us the fact that even as late as the 1892 election when Salisbury lost to Gladstone, the Queen herself did not understand what was happening:

Far from moving with the times, Queen Victoria had reverted to pre-1832 ways of thinking about the electoral system. Rather than recognizing that Salisbury had lost in the polls, she thought that he "appeared to acquiesce too much in the result of the elections." To [her eldest daughter] Vicky, she wrote, "It seems to me a defect in our much famed Constitution, to have to part with an admirable Government like Lord Salisbury's for no question of any importance, or any particular reason, merely on account of the number of votes." [501]

On the other hand Wilson admires the way the Queen used the powers that remained to her and sought to influence her governments, with some success, in the areas where democracy had given the authority to her Ministers. Incidentally, Wilson's description of Salisbury as rivalling Derby for the title of the cleverest Victorian Prime Minister (292) seems to fit rather better in a parlour game than in a serious book.

The Queen and John Brown

John Brown

John Brown, © National Portrait Gallery, London, by kind permission (NPG x87207).

Wilson is at his strongest on the long-standing issue of whether the Queen and Brown were married. He doesn't generally find it hard to form and express an opinion, but here he refuses to go beyond the evidence. He lays this evidence before us, sees it as inconclusive and thus doesn't reach a conclusion. Perhaps the best example of the care with which he addresses the matter is his treatment of the Queen's wish to be buried with the wedding ring of Brown's mother which he had given to her:

This is indeed a striking request, suggesting that, whatever the nature of her deep devotion to Brown, it was something much more profound than that felt by many old ladies for their servants. Like all the other evidence relating to Brown, however, it is far from definitive, and it certainly does not prove, or disprove, the truth of the strange deathbed confession of Norman Macleod that he had married the pair when Minister at Craithie. For beside the coffined figure, with the ring of old Mrs Brown on her finger, there were to be wedged a whole crateful of mementoes, including "the hair of our old valued friend Baron Stockmar who died in 1863," another locket "containing the hair of the late Countess Blücker [sic]," and another "containing the hair of my dear friend Lady Augusta Stanley." Together with a "pocket handkerchief of my faithful Brown" and "a coloured profile photograph in a leather case of my faithful friend J. Brown" was to be "some souvenir of my faithful wardrobe maid Annie McDonald to be near me, & anything else which Beatrice should wish to add." [555]

It is, on the whole, a careful, balanced approach to this episode of the Queen's life.

Looking Back

Queen Victoria, in the frontispiece to Dame Millicent Fawcwtt's Life of Her Majesty the Queen (Boston: Robarts Brothers, 1895) contributed to the Internet Archive by Harvard University.

At the end of his long journey through the Queen's life, Wilson summarises his conclusions in the last paragraph:

Those who visited her in the latter decades of her life might have made pleasantries about her, smiled at the vehemence of her opinions, observed her vacillations between well-grounded common sense and sheer caprice. In her presence, however, they felt something like awe. Anyone who has tried to write about her develops this sense too. It is something quite other than sentimental deference to royalty for its own sake. Almost none of the crowned heads who followed her coffin through the streets of Windsor could inspire it. The awe is for Queen Victoria the woman. Step over the carpet to that plump little figure who sits at her table, state papers or a Hindustani grammar open in front of her, the Munshi or Princess Beatrice at her side. You are approaching someone of great kindliness, someone of a far sharper intelligence than you would quite have guessed, and someone who - contrary to the most tedious of all the clichés about her – was easily amused. But you are also, if you have your wits about you, more than a little afraid. You are in the presence of greatness. [575]

Few people will read the 575 pages of this biography without putting the book down, but Wilson's lively and committed engagement means that they will take it up again with pleasurable anticipation. There are occasional slips — one example is that Lord Salisbury replaces Lord Derby as Foreign Secretary on a couple of occasions (pp. 382 and 384). As for the publisher's claim that the book is definitive, that remains questionable. Some years and one or two more biographies of Queen Victoria must come along before that can be accepted.

Book under Review

Wilson, A. N. Victoria: A Life. London: Atlantic Books, 2014. 642 + xiv pp. Hardback. £25. ISBN No. 9-781848-879560.

Last modified 14 November 2014