- - Thursday, June 19, 2014

QUEEN VICTORIA: A LIFE OF CONTRADICTIONS
By Matthew Dennison
St. Martin’s Press, $22.99, 208 pages

Before she even reached the throne, Queen Victoria was denouncing her predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, whom she described as “a great Queen but a bad woman.”

She complained that Elizabeth “had a very great idea of her prerogative and was more arbitrary even than her tyrannical father.” As queen, Victoria declared that she had “no sympathy” with Elizabeth.

It should be kept in mind that such comments came from a woman who spent more than 40 years in ostentatious mourning, ignored as many of her royal responsibilities as she could delegate to her ministers, and even refused to appear publicly at her daughters’ weddings.

In this meticulously researched biography of what sounds like a nasty little woman, Matthew Dennison observes, “Throughout her life, Victoria was an intellectual pragmatist, mistrusting excessive learning, especially in women, and rightly suspicious that she herself knew less than she might.”

Worshipful of her husband, Albert, while unenthusiastic about her nine pregnancies, Victoria wrote, “We women are not made for governing and if we are good women, we must dislike these masculine occupations.” Nevertheless, the author notes, Victoria created in Albert “an ersatz fellow sovereign” evolving a dual monarchy in which her husband became superintendent of the queen’s household, manager of her private affairs and her sole confidential adviser in politics. However, she was the sovereign, and there was never any likelihood Albert would be king. Photographs of the devoted couple and their children, reports Mr. Dennison, show Victoria as “a woman of unlovely appearance, with her weak chin, amphibious glare and stolid expression” while Albert, whom she called “her angel,” is “sternly attentive” beside her.

Yet, there is evidence that Albert recoiled from his wife’s “uncontrollable temper” when he wrote to her, “If only you were less occupied with yourself and your feelings.”

She demonstrated her callousness even to her own attendants, such as in the case of Flora Hastings, a lady at court who developed a lethal tumor and was compelled to undergo a medical examination to prove she was a virgin and not pregnant. On the woman’s deathbed, Victoria conceded error, but did not apologize.

Her social conscience was minimal, as she and Albert reigned over the hungry 1840s in England, a nation stricken by poverty, disease and unemployment while they “evolved a holiday world of escape.” They bought and built two new royal residences, made extensive alterations to Buckingham Palace and opened the Great Exhibition of 1845 to proclaim the glories of the Victorian era.

The death of Albert at the age of 42 launched one of the strangest eras in English history, with a queen obsessed by grief and a period of mourning that she declared would be “lifelong” — and it was.

Victoria made life miserable for her family, her staff and her people to the point that she became a figurehead in an empire whose existence was the result of the brilliance and ambition of men like Disraeli, Gladstone and Lord Melbourne.

To cap a ludicrous saga, there was John Brown, to whom Victoria became so close that she was dubbed “Mrs. Brown.” He was a fiercely loyal Highlander, originally hired by Prince Albert, and his relationship with the queen sent scandal flaring as she bestowed favors on the man in kilts who led the pony she rode and who became one of the few to whom she talked. Yet, even the rumors that sprang up about the widow at Windsor did not discourage the queen from taking the boorish Brown to London, where he seemed to play the role of bodyguard as much as escort, which perhaps was what Victoria wanted.

As a mother, she apparently left much to be desired, not surprising given that she described her infants as “froglike.” Her treatment of her eldest son, who was to become King Edward VII, made his defiance understandable.

Only when he developed typhoid fever, which had killed his father, did the queen interrupt her deeply selfish routine to visit his bedside. By the time she died after six decades on the throne, she was hailed as the grandmama of Europe and the possessor of the jewel in her crown that was India. Mr. Dennison describes the moment when the octogenarian queen waved off the troops heading for the horrors of the Boer War. Surely with tongue in cheek he reports, “It was on that Christmas that Victoria authorized for those brave fighting men the distribution in her name of one hundred thousand tins of chocolate.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.