The Queen Victoria that most readily comes to mind is a figure on a coin of the realm, representing the empress of India when Britannia ruled the waves and much else. That Queen Victoria, as A.N. Wilson shows in his stately biography, did not emerge until 1877, when her favorite prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, rammed through Parliament a bill bestowing on her that grand title — one anti-imperialists such as the queen’s least favorite prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, opposed. Victoria had been quite content, until then, to be a more subdued public figure, deferring to her husband, Prince Albert (1819-61), and then to her government ministers while she mourned Albert’s premature death, and refusing to emerge as the crowning symbol of British might and main.
Wilson, a superb biographer, is eager to show that the effigy of Queen Victoria, an image of a prude and prudent monarch, stuffy and solemn, was the work of her successors, who destroyed Victoria’s personal correspondence with Disraeli as well as the book she wrote about her Scottish servant, John Brown, whom many in the court’s intimate circle believed to be her lover. Wilson doubts the romance, although he shows, again and again, that Victoria allowed Brown intimacies forbidden even to her physicians, none of whom ever actually touched her or employed so much as a stethoscope to examine her.
Victoria, in Wilson’s book, is a passionate person and a partisan — never entirely losing touch with politics, especially world affairs — even in her most depressed moments. In fact, she was so high-spirited and apt to go into rages that her ministers feared that, like George III, she would go mad. That she did not do so perhaps resulted from her ability to learn on the job by working with men she did not like, such as Gladstone, and learning to appreciate those who seemed uncongenial, such as Robert Peel. Victoria might storm against the growing democratization of her nation that inevitably reduced the power of the monarchy, but she eagerly grasped the Conservative Disraeli’s plan to make her the very figurehead of imperialism, thereby associating the crown with the nation’s strength and military achievements.
A.N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria is a great person, because of her position and because of her personality. It was not what she did so much as what she was that makes her a fit subject in his view. The biographer’s great achievement is that he has liberated Victoria from the protective raiment of her family and the British establishment.
Carl Rollyson is the author of “Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl” and “To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie.”