Magazine article The Spectator

'Victoria: A Life', by A.N. Wilson - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Victoria: A Life', by A.N. Wilson - Review

Article excerpt

A new, revisionist biography argues that it was only after her husband's death that Queen Victoria found her true self. Jane Ridley is impressed

Victoria: A Life A.N. Wilson

Atlantic Books, pp.642, £25, ISBN: 9781848879560

Do we really need a thumping new life of Queen Victoria? She seems to be one of our most familiar figures, the subject of countless books; but the surprising fact is that there hasn't been a full, authoritative study since Elizabeth Longford's life of 1974. A.N. Wilson has spent many years thinking and reading about Queen Victoria, and this superb revisionist biography is the book that he was born to write.

In Wilson's view there are two Victorias. The young Victoria was always someone's pawn, trying to be a person that she wasn't. She was in thrall first to Lord Melbourne and then to Baron Stockmar and Prince Albert. Only after Albert's death was she able to become her true, strong-minded self.

Most writers have been drawn to the drama of Victoria's youth and her love affair with Albert. This is the period of the queen's life which Wilson finds least interesting. The first third or so is the weakest part of the book. Victoria disappears from view for pages at a time, as Wilson explains the Whigs and Tories or the Crimean war. Important episodes such as the Bedchamber Crisis are rushed over.

His account is revisionist, nonetheless. Victoria was brought up in seclusion by her German mother, the Duchess of Kent, at Kensington Palace, and she remembered her childhood as being lonely and unhappy. Her biographers have repeated this, but Wilson contends that Victoria invented the story in order to justify her harsh treatment of her mother. Whether or not the Duchess maltreated her daughter -- and the jury is still out on this -- she was certainly a tiresome, rather stupid woman, and once Victoria came to the throne she ditched her. Wilson has seen hundreds of letters written by the Duchess, brimming with maternal love, and on this basis he argues that the Duchess was incapable of cruelty towards her adored child. When Victoria saw these letters after her mother's death, she was overcome by remorse and had a sort of breakdown.

The biggest surprise is Wilson's treatment of Prince Albert. Writers on Victoria are sharply divided into fans and haters of the prince, and I had thought that Wilson was a cheerleader. In a very small, buried footnote he claims that he is Albert's greatest admirer, but one would hardly credit it from the text. In spite of his abundant talents, the prince emerges here as a fussy stickler, a hypochondriac and a humourless pedant. How it was that the engaging, sparkly-eyed young man of Brocky's drawing of 1841 turned into the heavy, depressed workaholic of only a few years later is a puzzle which still remains to be solved. Wilson considers that Victoria sought to please Albert by playing the little woman and feigning ignorance of politics. The deeper she fell in love with him, the more she regretted surrendering power to him.

Once Albert is dead and safely buried in the magnificent mausoleum which Victoria erected over him at Frogmore, the book really warms up and becomes a gripping read. The 1860s were the darkest decade of Victoria's life, about which least is known, and Wilson has found plenty of new material. Victoria, who had been infantilised by Albert and by her despised mother, was liberated by their deaths. …

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