Her portraits showed her as stiff and forbidding; in private, however, she was proud, warm, kind-hearted and impulsive. In death she became a caricature; in life, like all of us, she was a mass of contradictions.
Posterity remembers her as a “funny little woman in a bonnet”. But as AN Wilson points out in his splendid biography, that funny little woman reigned over the greatest superpower on Earth for almost 64 years.
There have been plenty of books about Victoria before, and some of Wilson’s previous forays into history have been patchy, to say the least. But this book is a gem: thoughtful, witty, insightful, striking a perfect balance between political commentary and personal gossip. Not only does Wilson know the turf as well as anybody but he is masterful at finding new angles.
He points out, for example, that her mother, a German princess, was an immigrant who never spoke English perfectly, and that many of Victoria’s qualities were “based upon the classic immigrant insecurity”, not least her determination to build up her family fortune. Victoria wrote so many letters and was such an assiduous diary-keeper that her collected works would come to some 700 volumes. In her lifetime she probably wrote some 60 million words – even more than Wilson himself.
As a political actor, Victoria remains enormously underrated. As a teenage Queen she hero-worshipped her first Prime Minister, the Whig Lord Melbourne. Wilson describes their relationship as “love, for it was much more than friendship”. Similarly, she adored the flamboyant, charismatic, utterly unprincipled Benjamin Disraeli, who made her empress of India.
The real fascination, though, is with Victoria the woman. Few of her subjects ever glimpsed the fierce passions beneath the dour exterior. Her marriage to Albert was one of history’s great love affairs. Reading her account of their wedding night – “I never never spent such an evening!! My dearest dearest dear Albert… his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness… how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!” – you would have to be mean-spirited indeed not to smile. And reading Wilson’s account of Albert’s death, when she was only 42, you would have to be very hard-hearted not to feel a pang of sympathy.
Wilson says his friends all asked him the same question. Did she really have an affair with John Brown? Since the relevant letters were destroyed we will never know – but that probably tells its own story. Wilson thinks it possible that she might have been secretly married to Brown, and certainly their relationship, whether physical or not, was more intense than many marriages. As this terrific biography shows, there really was a human being behind the gloomy portraits.