Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Merry Monarch beneath the Widow's Weeds

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Merry Monarch beneath the Widow's Weeds

Article excerpt


VICTORIA: A LIFE by AN Wilson (Atlantic, PS25) IF THERE is one thing most people know about Queen Victoria, it is that she was not amused. And yet, contrary to popular belief, the woman who became Britain's Queen in 1837, aged just 18, loved joking, music and dancing. Her portraits showed her as stiff and forbidding; in private, however, she was proud, warm, kind-hearted and impulsive. In death she became a caricature; in life, like all of us, she was a mass of contradictions.

The woman who ruled the largest empire the world had ever seen was the same woman who conducted a passionate relationship with her Scottish manservant, John Brown. Posterity remembers her as a "funny little woman in a bonnet". But as A N Wilson points out in his splendid biography, that funny little woman reigned over the greatest superpower on Earth for almost 64 years.

There have been plenty of books about Victoria before, and some of Wilson's previous forays into history have been patchy, to say the least. But this book is a gem: thoughtful, witty, insightful, striking a perfect balance between political commentary and personal gossip. Not only does Wilson know the turf as well as anybody -- from the palace drama of her teenage accession and the tragedy of her husband's early death, to her griefstricken breakdown and re-emergence as an imperial icon -- he is simply masterful at finding new angles.

He points out, for example, that her mother, a German princess, was an immigrant who never spoke English perfectly, and that many of Victoria's qualities were "based upon the classic immigrant insecurity", not least her determination to build up her family fortune. Victoria wrote so many letters and was such an assiduous diary-keeper that her collected works would come to some 700 volumes. In her lifetime she probably wrote some 60 million words -- even more than Wilson himself.

As a political actor, Victoria remains enormously underrated. Instinctively conservative, she was canny enough to trim her sails according to the winds. As a teenage Queen she hero-worshipped her first Prime Minister, the Whig Lord Melbourne. …

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