What I’ve been reading

Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. The dustjacket quotes a contemporary as saying that Strachey’s Victoria will become the Victoria, displacing the earlier myth, and this is indeed correct. I was watching an ABC documentary a week or so ago, and it could have been taken directly from Strachey.

A couple of observations on this. Although this is a very sympathetic portrait, by the standards of the time it was highly irreverent. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published a few years previously, though mild by today’s standards, was the beginning of the tradition of debunking biography that dominated the 20th century[1].

The other point is one of historical perspective. Victoria’s life was changed dramatically by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, when she was only 42. By the time she died 40 years later, most people had no memory of her as anything other than “the widow of Windsor”, and the eponymous embodiment of Victorian propriety and prudery. Strachey was the first writer to approach her as a historical figure. In this light it was her first 40 years that were of primary interest.

Reflecting my own biases, I’d say that at present, it’s the views of contemporaries that dominate the interpretation of events from the Vietnam onwards. On the other hand, the Labor Split and the McCarthy era, which were very much alive when I was younger, are now viewed mainly in a historical light, as are the World Wars.

fn1. I have a tentative impression that this trend has run its course.

11 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading

  1. Another worthwhile biography of Queen Victoria is the recent one by Christopher Hibbert. Like Strachey, Hibbert provides lots of information about QV’s first 40 years. Unlike Strachey, Hibbert has no interest in debunking his subjects; and on this occasion (as with his dozens of other books) he makes good use of archival material which Strachey neither employed nor, it would seem, wished to employ.

    Without wishing to sound like a shrink, I do find it interesting that QV and her husband should have spent so much of their marriage at loggerheads. If their union had been smoother and calmer – or even if her husband had lived to enjoy the formal administrative role which he so frantically craved – one wonders if QV would have felt the need to spend her entire widowhood ramming the memory of Dear Albert down her family’s collective craw. Seems to me as if she felt decided pangs of guilt about not treating him more respectfully when he was still alive.

  2. Be warned, RJS, that sort of sacrilege is bound to earn you a rebuke from Lawrence of Mesopotamia.

    For what it’s worth, I learnt most of what I know about Victoria from the BBC series Edward VII that ran in the ’70s. It was about a dozen episodes as I recall, with convincing performances from Annette Crosbie, Robert Hardy (before he became a vet) and Timothy West, as Victoria, Albert and Bertie respectively. As a result of watching the whole thing at an impressionable age, I’ve always had a sense of knowing Victoria pretty well. I wonder why the ABC never reruns these history classics.

  3. I’ve just been reading the excellent James Rhodes biography”Albert ,Prince Consort “.It is a remarkable picture of an astonishing man.a real polymath. He could advise the Queen on everything under the sun,then design the Royal “beach house ” Osborne,on the Isle of Wight,then turn to designing some jewellery for his wife’s birthday.As well he was quite modern in rejecting the awful English public schools of the day,and in planning an enlightened curriculum for his children.(though his eldest son Edward,who may have been dyslectic,was a dead loss,and broke his fathers’ heart.)This by the way poisoned the relationship between The Queen and her son the Prince of Wales. Albert was concerned for the environment ,and pressured the Queens” Ministers into cleaning up the Thames and making a start on London’s terribly polluted environment.A contemporary said he was ” the best Prime Minister Britain ever had “.Had been a politician he would have been a very liberal one indeed.Some of the hostility towards him amongst the elites was merely that all to prevalent British zenephobia towards Europeans. Worth a read,and there are a number of other biographies of Albert as well .

  4. On JQ’s perception that the twentieth-century enthusiasm for debunking biography has run its course. I think they change is more nuanced and more threatening than JQ is allowing for.

    Lytton Strachey set the standard for twentieth-century biography. In addition to a humane desire to liberate his subject from the cloying entanglements of pietism, Strachey had a political purpose for writing debunking biography. He sought to use biography to undermine the credibility of Victorian morality. He and other British left-wing and anti-establishment thinkers wished to replace Victorian morality with an alternative set of ethical priorities.

    This was a remarkably successful project that had the effect of making Victorian values the butt of ridicule. This continues to infuriate moral conservatives.

    Any revisionist desire to promote pietistic biographies of the “great and the good” might therefore be seen as one battle in the Culture Wars.

    On the other hand, the “warts and all” school of biography,which had its intellectual origins in Freudianism, has a less respectable shadow, the “nothing but warts” school which delights in seamy, usually sexual, detail.

    One motivation for writing “nothing but warts” biographies is that sex sells. However, the other more important, and darker motivation is the assertion that the issue of “character” trumps all. This idea is very imporartant politically. For example, it drove Kenneth Starr’s persecution of Bill Clinton and has fuelled much of the rhetoric of the Right in political campaigns.

    One political consequence of the successful insistence upon moral strictures as a qualification for fitness for leadership is that if you have “sinned” you must seek forgiveness. And at the moment it seems that select religous identities are only credible agencies for forgiveness in the United States. And, of course, they are deeply implicated in the Bushite project to cleanse America and to change the world.

  5. Elizabeth Longford’s ‘Victoria’ biography is arguably the modern benchmark. She builds on Strachey but offers a lot more insight into the shaping of the Queen.

  6. Re Brian McKinlay’s observation that Albert was a polymath, it’s striking how many explorers in the 1700’s and 1800’s, and sometimes soldiers and engineers, were accomplished artists. James Cook and explorer Thomas Mitchell are striking examples. That sort of skill is unusual in people holding equivalent positions in modern society. I guess those people should be grateful for the camera.

  7. James,

    Not to forget interesting sidelight “family” portaraits of the Kaiser and the Tzar.

    And I think it on the relations of the monarchy with a succession of British PM’s such as Melbourne, Gladstone and Disraeli. Although I may be confusing it with another series.

    I too fondly recall this series.

    Played (playing?) recently on Fox. “Ovation” I think.

  8. The name of the author of “Albert, Prince Consort” is Robert Rhodes James. He also wrote a fine book on the Gallipoli campaign.

  9. Gertrude Himmelfarb of neo-conservative fame has a good essay on biography in her The Old History and the New. The civility she recommends is rarely adopted by her ideological colleagues. But to be fair the Australian left has produced some classics of misjudgement as well, particularly on Menzies.

  10. Not much of a royal watcher, but i did appreciate Dorothy (wife of EP) Thompson’s Queen Victoria: the Woman, the Monarchy and the People (Pantheon, 1990) a few years back.

  11. …with a succession of British PM’s such as Melbourne, Gladstone and Disraeli.

    Yes, exactly.

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