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Queen Victoria: Unhappy and glorious

There have been many good biographies of Victoria: by Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth Longford, Cecil Woodham Smith, Christopher Hibbert, A.N. Wilson, and more than 500 others. How is this one different?

Paula Bartley approaches her through the letters she wrote, mainly to her ministers, and the journals that she kept daily throughout her life, from the age of 13. In doing so she questions many of the assumptions and myths that have built up around Victoria, not least about her withdrawal from public life and politics after the death of Prince Albert, and about her character.

The picture that emerges is of a surprising, somewhat contradictiory figure: obstinate and wilful; sexual and sentimental; self-indulgent, but hard-working; reactionary but, on some issues, liberal; not racist; sometimes a grump, sometimes susceptible to flirtation and flattery.

She emerges as a monarch with strong prejudices (against Roman Catholicism, against Ireland), but also as someone capable of occasional, surprising pragmatism.

She was brought up by her mother as a fervent Whig, and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, became a father figure: they rode together every day and discussed everything.

Her journals show that she dismissed the Chartists’ case for electoral reform, although she was not unsympathetic to reforms of industry — despite Melbourne’s belief that the conditions in factories were “greatly exaggerated . . . it’s better children should work,” he maintained, “than be idle and starve”.

In foreign affairs she never found it possible to distinguish between the interests of her family and those of the country — she was related to the royal families of France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Austria and Hungary, Mexico, Russia and Germany. “The idea of my country being at war with that of my dearest relations and friends would be a terrible grief to me,” she wrote in 1844.

But family considerations didn’t arise in the case of Ireland where she found the rise of Daniel O’Connell “very alarming” and she deplored the reduction of his prison sentence for leading the campaign for Irish independence as “too bad!”. Nevertheless she saw that “governing Ireland by Troops” would be “dreadful and cannot last”.

She identified the influence of the Catholic clergy as being at the root of the problem and supported, and financed, a better educated and informed clergy. Not that such prescience could prevent her being dubbed “The Famine Queen” before she, belatedly, supported Peel’s reform of the Corn Laws that were keeping the price of corn artificially high.

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