- - Monday, December 15, 2014


British novelist, biographer and historian A.N. Wilson has written about many subjects from Tolstoy to Hitler, but I think it is fair to say that he has a special affinity for the Victorian era, which ended exactly a half-century before his birth in 1950. There are not just his probing studies “The Victorians” and “After the Victorians: The World Our Parents Knew,” but throughout his prodigious oeuvre, you will find references to a period that obviously fascinates him and that he considers important not just in itself but also in its continuing influences and counterreactions. So it is hardly surprising that he should turn his attention to the defining figure of the age, Queen Victoria herself.

Steeped as Mr. Wilson is in the personalities, issues and conflicts of Victorian England, be they social, political, religious or cultural, it is no shock to find his unparalleled knowledge infusing almost every one of the 642 pages of “Victoria: A Life.” What will astonish even those familiar with Mr. Wilson on the Victorians is the intensity of his engagement with the extraordinary woman at the center of their world. Neither the formal portrait of the aging, reflective mournful figure that takes up most of the front cover of the book nor the richly adorned matron in her prime on its back cover has much to do with the woman so vividly brought to life in these pages. In fact, they might be said to reflect the very images he wants to correct.

For one of Mr. Wilson’s most remarkable achievements in this biography is to deconstruct — or in some places to destroy — the mythologizing of Victoria by herself and others. From her famously unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her mother to the widow brought to the verge of insanity by grief at the loss of her husband — and so much else — Mr. Wilson is unafraid to march right in there and offer a salutary, authoritative corrective. Some of this is intuitive, it must be acknowledged, but it is not just consistently original but reinforced by a vast amount of knowledge and, still more important, profound understanding.

All those familiar with Victoria know her incarnations as child, willful young woman and dominating old battle-ax. Trust Mr. Wilson to use another portrait of her barely out of her teens to give us an all-important explicatory insight into her character as a teenager. A chalk drawing of her, along with one of Albert, from 1841 hangs today in Queen Elizabeth II’s sitting room at Balmoral, the estate in Scotland that the royal couple acquired later in that decade. Mr. Wilson’s analysis of this drawing shows a Victoria — and for that matter, a Victorian — far different from most people’s image:

“We see Victoria as her husband must have seen her on her wedding night when they were alone together. Victoria looks like someone who has barely emerged from childhood, but she is bursting with sexual vitality. Her hair has been dressed but it nevertheless, at the edges of its ringlets, is slightly tousled. The eyes are young, joyful, amused. The very moist red mouth is open, just a little.”

The vividness of Mr. Wilson’s writing is, if anything, surpassed by the life qualities it evokes. His portrait of Victoria is bursting with her multifarious qualities, and his subtitle, “A Life,” is no mere conventionality here.

Since Mr. Wilson learned Russian some decades ago when writing his biography of Leo Tolstoy, it is no surprise that he took the trouble to do the same with German when compiling this one.

When he writes, “A biography of Queen Victoria is not a task undertaken lightly. The process is in the gestation as well as in the writing,” you believe him. Clearly, he has put a lot into this biography, with the result that there is an obvious intimacy between author and subject rarely seen. He is by turns censorious and understanding, gossipy and respectful, consistently able to distinguish between fact and speculation, but not afraid to plunge into the latter while separating their validities. He makes no bones about Victoria’s ability as a human being, not just as a queen, to fascinate. He acknowledges her foibles and caprices, but in the end succumbs to awe: “You are in the presence of greatness” is how he concludes this compelling biography.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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