To mark the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth on 24 May, 1819, author and HWA member Miranda Carter examines Victoria’s lifelong conviction that she was always right – especially when she was completely wrong – and its often disastrous consequences.
Queen Victoria lent her name to the period when Britain reached its peak as the richest, most powerful, most creative and ingenious country in the world, though she, personally, had almost nothing to do with this. Indeed, it was during her reign that what left of the British monarchy’s power was systematically whittled away. And if she had had real power the truth is she might well have found herself out of a job, like so many other royals in the revolutions of 1848.
While she can take credit for resurrecting the British monarchy after her feckless Hanoverian uncles had mired it in sex scandals and bankruptcy, turning it into a bastion of irreproachable family values and stability, her most pronounced characteristics were her wilfulness, her selfishness, her intolerance and her conviction that she was always right.
In fact, this was the way in which she most truly resonated with Victorian Britain – in its darker aspects: as a big, energetic, difficult personality, determined to get her way – as a bit of a monster, if a splendid one.
For me, Victoria’s great formative and revelatory moment – her origin story if you will – came at the moment she became Queen, aged 18 in 1837. Her mother intended to be Regent when Victoria became Queen and exercise the real power; Victoria’s unhappy childhood had been plagued by the systematic attempts of her mother and her mother’s personal secretary, John Conroy, to bully her into compliance and dependency.
But when the moment came she stood up to her oppressors, refused to make her mother Regent, moved out of the bedroom she had shared with her since birth, and banned Conroy from her presence. The Court and the government, which had loathed Conroy’s influence, applauded: she was totally vindicated.
It must been a heady victory for an 18-year-old. The people who had belittled and bullied her were the bad guys; she had been right all along. One cheers for the browbeaten adolescent who asserted herself and won. The lesson Victoria took from this, however, was a double-edged one. On the one hand, it gave her confidence; on the other, it planted a conviction that only got stronger with age, that she was always right, especially when she was completely wrong.
The earliest example of this came in 1839, when Victoria became convinced that Lady Flora Hastings, an unmarried lady-in-waiting and friend of her mother’s whom she disliked, was pregnant with Conroy’s child. Victoria’s former governess Baroness Lehzen obligingly spread the rumour. Hastings was publicly humiliated, forced to protest her innocence and undergo a gynaecological examination. It transpired her swollen stomach was due to advanced liver cancer. At her funeral two months later Victoria’s carriage was stoned.
Simultaneously, the Queen embroiled herself in a political crisis when she flatly refused a request from Robert Peel, the Tory leader about to form a new government, to replace some of her all-Whig entourage with Tory ladies-in-waiting.
The Whig government was limping, but Victoria was passionately attached to the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and told the elderly Duke of Wellington that she hated Tories (also insects and turtle soup) above all things. Peel said he couldn’t form a government without the Sovereign’s confidence (in fact it suited him‚ he would be leading a minority government that wouldn’t last). Victoria looked autocratic and partisan, and her popularity nose-dived. It took the royal wedding to Albert and a failed assassination attempt the following year to revive it.
She never learned; continuing to be wilfully partisan, to interfere in politics – rarely successfully – and to be certain she knew better. She lapped up the flattery of her favourite Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who famously admitted he laid “it on with a trowel”, and never hid her intense dislike of William Gladstone, whose manner and progressive social policies she loathed, and whose plans for Irish Home Rule she considered a threat to her Empire. “A mischievous firebrand, arrogant, tyrannical and obstinate,” a “half-crazy… wild and incomprehensible old fanatic” she called him. More than a few observers sensed an element of jealousy in her enmity towards the People’s William.
When Gladstone won the 1880 general election, she announced she would abdicate rather than accept him as Prime Minister, then offered two other Liberal grandees the job before she finally yielded. She then tried to force him to weed out the members of his cabinet she regarded as too radical and progressive. He refused.
Her interventions failed to prevent her cabinets from achieving what they were determined to do, but she could wear them down; one of her Prime Ministers said handling her was like having a whole separate government department to deal with. Gladstone’s secretary reckoned he wrote her a thousand letters, most in reply to complaints. She was indefatigable.
Her political instincts tended towards the bellicose, the jingoistic and undemocratic. Even Disraeli had to fight her off on occasion. In 1876, to her delight, he got Parliament to make her Empress of India. In its wake he managed to slip through a series of innovative social bills including the Public Health Act.
Victoria never saw the point of social legislation, though Britain had some of the worst living and working conditions in the world. She had agreed with Lord Melbourne that the great Victorian philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury’s attempts to improve children’s working conditions were entirely unnecessary.
Only a year later in 1877 she tried to force Disraeli into taking Britain into the Russo-Turkish war. The Russians she said, were “wicked, villainous and atrocious”, British prestige would suffer if it stood aside, and she would abdicate if he failed to act. Disraeli’s cabinet, however, were united in opposing intervention and she didn’t get her way. Of course, beyond the Cabinet and the upper echelons of the aristocracy, few people knew about her bossiness and her interventions. To the public always seemed the incarnation of of devoted, pious wife and then widow.
Within her own household, however, she was an autocrat. The remoteness of her favoured homes – Osborne on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral in Scotland – were a constant inconvenience for politicians trying to consult her. Both were also freezing and deathly silent. The Queen was impervious to the cold and demanded absolute quiet, she forbade fires and insisted on having all the windows open. (Lord Salisbury referred to Balmoral as Siberia, and had his private secretary write to say he had a doctor’s note to the effect that his bedroom must be heated to a temperature of no less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Victoria routinely spent days in her rooms, while her household and servants stood whispering in the corridors waiting for her to appear. No one was allowed to smoke indoors, or to go outdoors until she did. When this happened the entire household would fly off in all directions so as not to stumble upon her by accident – “a great crime”. If she appeared, the done thing was to dive into the bushes.
As for her children, while Albert was a strict but loving father, Victoria was in many respects an awful mother. She couldn’t help but view her nine children as functional extensions of herself, expected unquestioning obedience and was bracingly forthright about their failings.
When Bertie, the future Edward VII, rebelled against the rigid system his parents devised for him (“I had no childhood,” he would say, and his early years were, by pretty much everyone’s estimation, wretched), she called him “backward” and “lazy”. She blamed his waywardness for Albert’s early death: “I never can or shall look on him without a shudder,” she said, and refused to allow him any involvement in government for the next 40 years.
When her youngest daughter Beatrice fell in love and got secretly engaged, Victoria – who had decided Beatrice would be the unmarried companion of her old age and forbade the mention of weddings in her presence – was so angry she refused to speak to her for six months. She relented only when Beatrice agreed to live with her after she married.
Having sent her eldest child Vicky to Germany to marry the heir to the Prussian throne, she sent her four letters a week instructing her, among other things, to remain resolutely English, not to become too friendly with her in-laws, never to be alone in a room with a commoner, and never to be seen laughing in public. Perhaps unsurprisingly Vicky was not a hit in Germany.
Right to the end the Queen brought an energetic perverseness to all she did: furious in 1898 when Bertie acted as a pall bearer at the hated Gladstone’s funeral (the two had got on rather well); fighting off the doctors when they told her to diet; and matchmaking her 40-odd grandchildren into unions in which a significant proportion of them were throughly miserable.
She has also written Anthony Blunt: His Lives and
The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One.
Photograph of Queen Victoria: Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)
Royalty in a Rage or Family Quarrels by Robert Cruikshank: Library of Congress LC-USZC4-9896
Queen Victoria by George Hayter: Royal Collection via Wikimedia
Dishing the Whigs, cartoon by Henry E. Doyle: via Wikimedia
Dwellings of the poor in Bethnal Green, the state of the water supply (1863): Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)
L’Enfant Terrible: via Wikimedia