7 minutes on Queen Victoria

‘Victoria: A Life (extract)’

One gusty April day in 1838, Thomas Carlyle was walking in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace in London, when he saw the young Queen ride past in her carriage. Forty-two years old, the Scotsman had been living in the English capital for a little over three years, and he had lately soared to literary fame. His study of The French Revolution had been published in the previous year — the year in which Victoria was crowned the Queen of England — and the popularity of the two events was not disconnected. Carlyle had made what his first biographer, J. A. Froude, called a ‘vast phantasmagoria’ culminating in the French people getting rid of their monarchy.

The English were not minded, in any very organized sense, to do the same, but Victoria became queen in hungry times. The monarchy had not been popular in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Froude noted that ‘the hungry and injured millions will rise up and bring to justice their guilty rulers, themselves little better than those whom they throw down’.

Britain in those days was very far from being a democracy. It was governed by an oligarchy of aristocratic, landowning families. Its stability as a state depended upon the functioning of the law, the workings of two Houses of Parliament, the efficiency of the army and navy, and the balance of trade. Parliament was representative, not democratic. That is, the members of the Commons were not elected by the people, but by a small number of men of property. In the reign previous to Victoria’s, that of her uncle William IV, the Reform Bill of 1832 had done a little to extend the franchise and to abolish the more grotesque of the electoral anomalies — the so-called Rotten Boroughs, in which there were only a handful of electors. But the members of the Commons were not elected by more than a tiny handful of those whom they represented. Checking and approving the deliberations of the Commons was the function of the Upper House, the Lords, some hundred or so rich men who owned most of the land, and exercised most of the power, in Britain.

There had, as yet, been no French-style revolution to overthrow these arrangements. And it was to be the care and concern of the British governing classes to make sure that no such revolution occurred. The previous old King, William IV, having had a dissolute life and fathered ten children out of wedlock, died legitimately married and reconciled to God, murmuring the words, ‘The Church, the Church.’

The twin institutions of the Church of England and the monarchy clearly played a vital role in the delicate balance of the British Constitution. The Victorians liked to tell one another that the monarch was simply a figurehead, kept in place by the Whig landowners, a figure who signed state papers and gave the nod to the deliberations of the House of Lords. This was not really the case. The monarch still occupied a position of real power in Britain, and if that power were to be exercised recklessly, or if the monarchy were hated by a hungry populace, there was no knowing what anarchy would ensue. The monarch depended upon the peerage; the peerage depended upon economic prosperity, and upon the rising commercial classes who could provide it; the shared powers of Trade, Land, the Law and the Church were all delicately, and not always obviously, interwoven in the destinies of that young woman glimpsed in the park by the historian. It was essential for her future that the other institutions should continue to support her; it was essential for all of them that she should maintain the status quo, that she should not fail.

Victoria’s grandfather, King George III, a monarch who was politically active and who had played a pivotal role in the shaping of British political history, was blind for the last ten years of his life, and at sporadic intervals in the last twenty years of his long reign (1760–1820) he had been raving mad. The fear that the royal madness was hereditary was ever-present in the British governing class, and the young Queen’s ministers watched every one of her tantrums, each emotional display, every instance of irrational behaviour, with anxiety.

George III’s son, who ruled as Regent during the times of blindness and madness, had been extremely unpopular, not least because of the sordid and cruel way in which he had divorced his queen, Caroline of Brunswick. By the time he was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Clarence (William IV) in 1830, it had looked very much as if the supply of possible heirs to the throne had all but dwindled. It was mere luck that William had not, in turn, been succeeded by his extremely unpopular brother Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, a scar-faced brute who was widely believed to have murdered his valet and married a woman who had killed her previous two husbands, and whose extreme Toryism made him hated by the masses. Had the young Victoria not existed, Ernest would have been the King of England, and Britain might well have made a second decision to become a republic.

Carlyle himself was by way of being a republican, certainly one deeply read in the era of the first Republic in the seventeenth century, and a hero-worshipping biographer of Oliver Cromwell. Carlyle was a sardonic and amusing man, whose stock in trade was a refusal to be impressed — by the English, who to his Scottish soul were ever alien; by the Establishment, which he found laughable; by the class hierarchy, very near the bottom of which he had been born. His hero was the German poet Goethe, and Carlyle sought, in the confused state of modern England, with its great social injustices, its teeming poor, its disease-ridden industrial cities, its Philistinism, some means of returning, with that poet, a positive attitude to life, an Everlasting Yea. Carlyle, on that breezy April day, was passed by a carriage: the Queen taking, as he said in his Scottish way, ‘her bit departure for Windsor. I had seen her another day at Hyde Park Corner, coming in from the daily ride. She is decidedly a pretty-looking little creature: health, clearness, graceful timidity, looking out from her young face… One could not help some interest in her, situated as mortal seldom was.’

Carlyle, who went on to write one of the most magisterial royal biographies in the literature of the world — The Life of Frederick the Great — was peculiarly well placed to see the strangeness of Victoria’s position as she swept past him in the carriage. (They would not meet until years later, when, both widowed and old, they exchanged small talk at the Deanery of Westminster Abbey.)

She was indeed situated as mortal seldom was. This makes her story of abiding fascination. Her father and mother might so easily not have had a child at all. Once born, Victoria’s often solitary childhood was the oddest of preparations for what she was to become: not merely the mother of nine and the grandmother of forty-two children, but the matriarch of Royal Europe. She was either the actual ancestor of or was connected by marriage to nearly all the great dynasties of Europe, and in almost each of those crowned or coroneted figureheads, there was bound up a political story. Her destiny was thus interwoven with that of millions of people — not just in Europe, but in the ever-expanding Empire which Britain was becoming throughout the nineteenth century. One day to be named the Empress of India, the ‘pretty-looking little creature’ had a face which would adorn postage stamps, banners, statues and busts all over the known world. And this came about, as the Germanophile Thomas Carlyle would have been the first to recognize, because of the combination of two peculiar factors: firstly, that Victoria was born at the very moment of the expansion of British political and commercial power throughout the world; and secondly that she was born from that stock of (nearly all German) families who tended to supply the crowned heads for the monarchies of the post-Napoleonic world.

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