Queen Victoria

Article excerpt

WALTER L. ARNSTEIN. Queen Victoria. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xii + 254, introduction, bibliography, index. $29.95.

It is just as well that Walter Arnstein takes on the question of why another biography of Queen Victoria from the very first paragraph of his introductory chapter. Any reader would be bound to ask, particularly since Arnstein's new contribution is a very slim little volume, reminiscent, appropriately enough, of a nineteenth-century pocketbook. His aspirations for this return to familiar biographical territory are, by contrast, substantial. Following a very useful summary of the cottage industry that is scholarship on the queen that gave her name to an entire epoch, he provides his rationale for his own addition to the list of 500-plus books on the subject. It includes the incorporation in a short narrative of the insights of the last twenty years of scholarship, with particular emphasis on relatively neglected aspects of the queen's life and reign, a carefully balanced presentation of the public and private Victoria, the use of the queen's own eminently quotable words whenever possible, and the development of the socio-economic, cultural, and political context of nineteenth-century Britain in sufficient detail to make the queen's world intelligible for the general reader.

It is a tall order for 206 pages of text, but Arnstein succeeds to a remarkable degree, thanks to his own masterful understanding of the world of nineteenth-century Britain. In his presentation of the progression of the queen's life from "cloistered princess" to "imperial matriarch," Victoria emerges as a woman intensely involved with the world around her. Arnstein is particularly skillful at adjusting common (and often misleading) perceptions of the queen's role as a constitutional monarch and her supposed withdrawal from an active role in the life of the nation following the death of Prince Albert.

The influence and authority that she in fact exercised throughout her long reign derived, not from hereditary right or constitutional sanction, but from her personal interaction with her ministers, her carefully orchestrated ceremonial role, and her own stamina and experience. This very personal exercise of influence clearly did not, however, diminish her importance for the nation. She became, in effect, "Britain's champion." Arnstein's emphasis on the connection between the queen's understanding of this role and her affinity for both the army and the Empire is an important counter-balance to the emphasis often given to her role as exemplar of the ideal of motherhood and domesticity. The matriarch was in equal parts the "Warrior Queen," often to the consternation of her less bellicose ministers. …