Queen Victoria – H3a Reading Group Review, 13 April 2011

Queen Victoria
By Elizabeth Longford 

 

Following “Birds Without Wings” and “Portrait of a Turkish Family”, both set in the early years of the 20th century,  the group wanted to read about what was going on outside Turkey in the same period, the Edwardian era (1901-1910) and the years leading up to WWI. It was felt that, in order to understand this period, knowledge of the Victorian period would be useful.  Elizabeth Longford’s book was read in conjunction with two DVDs on Queen Victoria’s life.

In fact this book is too brief to give anything more than a very sketchy outline of one of the most successful centuries in British history.   The reign was a long period of prosperity for the British people, as a result of profits gained from the British Empire, as well as from industrial improvements at home.   For Britain, it was a period of rapid industrialisation, of revolutions avoided when Europe was wracked with them, of an abandonment of the countryside in favour of the cities, of huge social inequality, of growth of the franchise at least for men, of relative peace although major wars took place, of bitter and bloody disputes over  home rule in Ireland.   In terms of technological, industrial, scientific advancement, the speed of development is probably only exceeded by the advances in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch in British history, at 63 years and 7 months. In this concise biography, Elizabeth Longford, long recognised as an authority on the subject, gives a full account of Queen Victoria’s life and provides her unique assessment of the monarch.

Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 on the death of her uncle William IV.   Her hard work and exemplary family life did much to restore the declining reputation* of the monarchy– despite her decade of withdrawl from public life.

*SIDE NOTE ON HOUSE OF HANOVER

George I

Queen Victoria’s  great, great grandfather was George I and the only reason he got the job was that the 57 other, better qualified contenders in the queue were all Catholic.   İt was certainly not because of his linguistic skills because he could barely speak a word of the language spoken by his subjects.    He really started the process of parliamentary government largely because he relied so much on the Prime Minister due to his lack of English.

Like most of the Georges, he had lovers including a tall thin one called “maypole” and another, actually his half sister, nicknamed “Elephant” because of her size.

He also started a Georgian trend, whereby the incumbent King hated his heir, the eldest son.   This went on pretty much uninterruptedly to Queen Victoria who was by no means fond of her Prince of Wales, later Edward VII

George II

Queen Victoria’s great grandfather, George II, son of George I, who laid foundations of the British Empire, also relied heavily on his Minsters and especially Walpole.  Before he became king, as Prince of Wales  he held a rival court.   Geoge II carried on the family tradition of hating his heir, Frederick, and he was said to be glad when the son died prematurely from a lung abscess caused by being struck by a tennis ball.   This accident meant that George II’s successor was his grandson.   He died whilst sitting on the lavatory.

George III

Known fondly as “Farmer George”, George III was the longest reigning King in British history (59 years).    He had 15 children, which suggests he was reasonably happy with his domestic arrangements.  Domestically it was a period of political stability but overseas policy was a disaster.    He lost the Americas but in fairness, he was more successful with the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

George III is most famous for becoming mad.  His illness started in 1788, allegedly being seen trying to shake hands with a tree, which he thought was the King of Prussia.   By 1811 he had become so bad, they decided to appoint the Prince of Wales as Regent.   Despite his generally dissolute life style, the Prince of Wales has the distinction of not actually being hated by his father, merely being disapproved of.

George IV

was a man of great taste and refinement.   In 1815, he built one of the great treasure of British architecture, the Brighton Pavillion.   He was also described as selfish, lazy , gluttonous, licentious and extravagant.  He became known as the Prince of Whales due to his great size. Like many a Prince of Wales who has spent a lifetime waiting in the wings for his father to die, wine, women and profligacy filled his days and nights.

He entered an illegal marriage with a Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act.   The marriage was annulled and eventually huge debts meant that his father forced him to marry his cousin, Catherine of Brunswick.   George IV broke with the royal tradition of hating his son;  instead he hated his wife.   The feeling was mutual.   She claims she was deceived by then flattering  portrait she had been shown of him, in which he did not appear to be so fat.   He, in turn, found her coarseness and poor hygiene appalling.  However, on the wedding night – the first and last time they shared the same room – they managed to conceive  Princess Charlotte.   It was the premature death of Charlotte in 1817 that, indirectly opened the path to Victoria becoming Queen 20 years later.

The coronation of George IV was nearly ruined by the presence of Catherine at the doors of Westminister Abbey demanding to be let in so she could claim her role as Queen.  She was denied entry on the grounds that she didn’t have a ticket.   She died somewhat later.    When the news of Napoleon’s death reached court, the courtier announced to the King, “Sire, I congratulate you, your greatest enemy is dead”, to which the king replied “Is she, By God?”.   Perhaps not surprisingly George IV died of a stomach ulcer.

William IV  1830 – 1837

William IV, “not a man of talent, but he had a warm heart” said the Times obituary, was the third son of George III.   (George IV’s only child, Charlotte, had died prematurely in childbirth) so the line moved sideways to his next living brother).   Not expecting to become King, William was first in the navy, and scandalised society with his womanising.  However when it became apparent he was to become king they married his off to Adelaide of Saxe-Meineingen.   The marriage was happy but no children survived infancy.    Apparently his first act, on becoming King, was to rush back to bed so he could experience the thrill of sleeping with a Queen.

He faced a huge constitutional crisis when the Whig government committed to extending the vote.   It was during his reign that the Great Reform act of 1832 was passed.  In constitutional terms it was a huge step foward – so important in fact that many historians date the Victorian era from 1832, rasther then when Victorial actually came to the throne in 1837.

In terms of number of people enfranchised the act was not so great.   The right to vote was land based and the 1832 reform act raised the number of voters (male only of course) from 14% to 18% of the population.  However it did sort out the anomalies of so-called “Rotten Boroughs”, places with one or two residents who had the right to send someone as Member of Parliament, whereas huge cities had no such rights.  Needless to say, rotton boroughs were bought and sold by the power- hungry.

The process of reform that began with the 1832 Great Reform Act, continued during Victoria’s reign with the Reform acts of 1867 and 1884.   Voting rights for women, which Victoria opposed, did not arrive until 1918 (for women over 30) and 1929, when the age was reduced to 21.

Williams’ reign saw the beginnings of social reform with the improvement of the Poor Laws, and the abolition of slavery and child labour.   William died of pneumonia in 1837 and the next in line was the daughter the  Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, Alexandrina Victoria.

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In 1840 Queen Victoria married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha;  protocol required that she had to propose to Albert, but there was no doubt that he would accept.   After a shaky start, when they were working out their respective roles, they went on for the next 20 years or so to be inseparable.    Their descendants – 9 children, 41 grandchildren and 817 great grandchildren –  were to succeed to most of the thrones of Europe.

One striking aspect of Victoria’s life was how she developed from stifled child to being known as the Grandmother of Europe. Indeed it was said that she ruled Europe like a Mother but her family like a Queen.

 It was perhaps not surprising that she asserted herself firmly – sometimes too firmly for Albert’s liking, it seems.   As a child she was cacooned by her over-protected  mother, the Duchess of Kent and the ambitious Sir John Conroy – she was not even allowed to walk down stairs without holding her hand;  she was never allowed to sleep alone in her room;  she was kept well away from the court of her uncle, William VI.   

An early sign of her spirited nature could have been discerned in the way, when she became Queen on the death of her Uncle, she immediately removed herself from the influence of her mother and John Conroy, adopting her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as her political tutor.

However, by far the greatest influence on her development as monarch was Prince Albert.   He combined the duties of Consort and teacher, image adviser and “management consultant” and made himself indispensible for the young Queen.  They worked together tirelessly to fulfill the role of consititutional monarchy.

Albert took a keen interest in all aspects of science and the arts and, whilst never completely taken to the nation’s heart, he had huge success with the Great Exhibition of 1851, showcasing the best technological achievements from all over the Empire, and attracting over 6 million visitors.  


SIDE NOTE

The greatest success of the Exhibition was probably the exhibition hall itself, the world’s first all iron and glass building, dubbed by Punch magazine, “The Crystal Palace”.   When the exhibition was finished, the building was dismantled and reassembled on Sydenham Hill in South London where it remained until being destroyed by fire in 1938.   The building gave its nickname to a football team, Crystal Palace FC.  

There is also a Turkish connection with the Crystal Palace.  When Sultan Abdul Aziz paid a state visit to Britain, he was the guest of honour at a concert staged by Queen Victoria in the Crystal Palace on 16 July 1867. 

 One member of the group brought along an early photograph of the interior of the Crystal Palace after it had been reassembled in Sydenham.  

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Victoria and Albert were effective figureheads during the traumas of the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War but in 1861, at the age of 42 Albert died of typhoid fever.   Victoria’s overwhelming grief caused her to almost withdraw from public life for nearly a decade. This perceived dereliction of public duty, coupled with rumours about her relationship with her Scottish ghillie, John Brown, led to increasing criticism, and even calls for the abolition of the monarch and the establishment of a republic.

Coaxed back into the public eye by Disraeli, she resumed her political and constitutional interest with vigour.  She had very decided opinions, particularly on foreigh policy – as she was related to most of the royal families of Europe perhaps she could claim some special expertise.      

By the time of Victoria came to the throne, the notion of a constitutional monarchy was well established.   However, in her later years there were occasions (especially over the question of Home Rule for Ireland) when she went well beyond the role of constitutional monarch – expressed by the great constituitional writer Walter Bagehot, as the right  “to advise, to encourage and to warn”.  At her best, she added a fourth right, “the right to find out”.

In 1876, Disraeli – who once said of flattering royalty that “you should lay it on with a trowel” made Victoria empress of India.   Towards the end of her life, and after the death of John Brown in 1883, Victoria made a habit of surrounding herself at court with Indian servants, both Hindu and Muslim, and entered a particularly close friendship with one Abdul Karim who taught her Hindi.

In her final years of her long reign, it was her family that again brought her comfort as her friends died, one after another.   There is a famous photograph of Queen Victoria taken in 1889 surrounded by three future Kings, George V, Edward VIII and George VI.  

Queen Victoria died on 23rd January 1901 and after a “white” funeral” – no black horses pulling the gun carriage, a white pall over the coffin – she was buried at Frogmore Mausoleum, beside the Prince Consort.

   During our discussion comments included:

  • a good introduction to the life of Queen Victoria.  However with only 118 pages of text, too much information was crammed into too short a book leaving little room for explanations of people and events.
  • The tone is dry and more concerned with listing facts than telling a story
  • However, it was felt it served its purpose of providing background to the period we were intending to explore with future books.

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