Monday, January 25, 2010
Queen Victoria - Lytton Strachey
Lytton Strachey was a writer & critic who had an overnight success with his book, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. The four short biographies of Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, General Gordon & Thomas Arnold swept away the traditional Victorian three volume biography & ushered in a new, freer, less respectful style of biographical writing. Strachey’s book was a reaction to the Victorian hagiographies of great men, often written by their widows or acolytes, which smoothed over any rough edges of the subjects life. Only one example is the five volume life of Prince Albert that Victoria commissioned after his death. Strachey’s Queen Victoria (1921) has no false flattery or submission to his subject. The book is full of sly humour, mostly at the expense of the great & good of the period. He quotes liberally from the Creevey Papers & the Greville Diaries, two men with access to the Court & a sardonic eye for a good story. Victoria comes across as a bouncy young girl with a boisterous sense of humour, rather too fond of laughing & showing her gums. More Regency in temperament than what we think of as Victorian. The chapter on Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister, is quite moving. The young Queen, who had never known her father & had grown up in Kensington Palace with her foolish mother, never alone, with only her governess Baroness Lehzen for support, was determined to reign alone but realised that she needed help. Lord Melbourne was rejuvenated by the adoration of Victoria & he guided her through those first months of her reign. Then, along came Albert, whose influence Strachey sees as responsible for the increasing starchiness of Victoria’s Court. With their marriage, Albert gradually became the centre of Victoria’s life. He became, in effect, her Private Secretary & chief advisor. He revolutionised the badly run Royal palaces & was the architect of the Great Exhibition. Through all this, Victoria supported & admired him. All her life she wanted to have someone to lean upon. First Lehzen, then Lord Melbourne, then Albert. After his death at the early age of 42, she was devastated. The well-known story of her long seclusion in widowhood & her late return to public life & popularity is well-told. Her relationship with her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is dwelt upon in all its absurdity as well as its genuine affection. Disraeli laid on the flattery “with a trowel” as he said & he charmed & beguiled Victoria . She sent him primroses she had picked herself & was delighted when he insisted on her assuming the title Empress of India. Strachey doesn’t go into her relationships with her children in any detail apart from the story of her fraught relationship with the Prince of Wales. He depicts Victoria as a woman with all her faults but he tries to understand the influences on her character that resulted in the stubborn, tyrannical, passionate personality of the Queen. Amazing to think it was published only 20 years after her death. Next up is a new biography of Victoria & Albert by Gillian Gill called We Two. Ninety years on from Strachey, will this be a radically different view of their relationship?