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Biography of Queen
Victoria refutes longstanding misconceptions
Lynn, Humanities Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On the eve
of the 103rd anniversary of her death on Jan. 22, the woman whose name
defined an age – arguably the most famous woman of modern times
– comes to life in a new and myth-shattering biography.
The book, "Queen Victoria" (Palgrave), has been praised for
its "fairness and cogency" by the American Library’s
Association’s Book List, and as being "sharply observed and
excellently written" by History Today.
In the introduction to his book, author Walter L. Arnstein, a historian of modern Britain and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, concedes that the queen, as a topic, has been widely
covered. Since her accession to the throne in 1837 at age 18, more than
500 books about her have been published. In the Library of Congress,
only three women rank ahead of her in numbers of titles: the Virgin
Mary, Joan of Arc and Jane Austen.
What provoked Arnstein to take up the gauntlet and write his own book
was his frustration with several more-recent biographies about Victoria,
which to his mind "have become so eager to provide an ‘intimate
portrait’ and retrospectively to psychoanalyze the private personality
that they have neglected not only the public face that Victoria presented
both to her people and to her fellow monarchs but also the influence
that she exercised on both people and events."
Therefore, in his treatment of the monarch, and in his effort to present
Victoria’s public face, Arnstein took on several neglected topics
– among them Victoria’s religious views, constitutional
role and connections with Britain’s army and with Ireland –
to paint a portrait, in his words, of "not only a personality and
a symbol and an adjective but also a multidimensional human being and
an active player in the domestic politics and the international relations
of the nineteenth century."
Whenever possible, Arnstein used the queen’s own words "as
a key to understanding both her character and the manner in which she
understood the world in which she lived." The queen, he observed,
"is often worth quoting."
More specifically, Arnstein drew from a vast amount of correspondence
both to and from the queen and also from the queen’s own journals.
Only within the last generation have vast amounts of unpublished materials
become available to historians, he said.
From Victoria’s private writings and from other more official
documents of state, readers will discover a strong and capable woman
– less than 5 feet tall and increasingly round as time went on
– who not only lived large, but also manifested a series of fascinating
paradoxes, among them:
queen is so often associated with what has been called the Victorian
‘celebration of death’ that we readily forget that for most
of her life she was an exceptionally healthy and vital individual."
The dominant and prevailing image of Queen Victoria is that after her
beloved husband, Prince Albert, died at age 42, she essentially withdrew
from matters of state and became a reclusive, non-functioning monarch.
This, in fact, is one of the major myths about her, and one that Arnstein
Although Victoria made few public appearances after Albert died, she
remained "very much involved" in both the private and public
lives of her children and grandchildren, four of whom married during
the decade after their father died, Arnstein said.
Moreover, behind the scenes, Arnstein said, Victoria remained closely
involved "with the work of her cabinet ministers and with the often
dramatic changes in world history that were precipitated by the unification
of Germany, the unification of Italy and the American Civil War."
Still, Arnstein does address Victoria’s "intense interest"
in orchestrating memorials to her late husband and her "special
satisfaction" in the arrangement of funerals. So much black crepe
was used to drape the rooms and corridors of Windsor Castle after Albert’s
death in 1861, that the national stock was exhausted.
And it is true that for years, her moods alternated between "calm
resolution" and "paroxysms of despair," and that she
habitually dressed in mourning – black robes with white caps and
was both "an exemplar and proponent of such Victorian values as
character, duty, domesticity, and modesty, and yet she was fully aware
that in this world, precept and reality did not necessarily accord."
In some respects, the woman was a prude, Arnstein said – a prude
worthy of the term "Victorian," and yet she had a lusty nature,
evinced by the fact, among others, that she often gave her husband paintings
of nude females for his birthday.
"Her sense of modesty did not extend to her marriage bed,"
Victoria and Albert had nine children, all of whom reached adulthood.
Since most of the five girls and four boys eventually married royalty,
Victoria in a very real sense became "Grandmother of Europe,"
She had, in her own words, "a warm passionate nature," which
partially explains why both during and after Albert’s life, Victoria
became attached – some think romantically – with a string
of men: Lord Melbourne, her adviser and prime minister; John Brown,
her personal attendant; and Abdul Karim, her Munshi, or teacher of the
Hindustani language and the social and religious customs of India. Victoria
resisted suggestions from all sides – in particular, from her
children and courtiers – to get rid of Karim, and he remained
influentially hers until the day she died.
spirit of romance was "at war" with an underlying penchant
for truthfulness and common sense.
"On occasion she could behave in a manner both stuffy and ornery
and selfish," Arnstein wrote, but at the same time "she had
the ability to epitomize grace and to attract both awe and devotion."
a female ruler in a patriarchal society, and she accepted the widespread
belief that men and women occupied separate spheres in society. Yet
her very presence as queen" ultimately strengthened the modern
"Although the queen sometimes described her own position as ‘anomalous,’
in practice she was compelled to concede that that position, and the
spirit of responsibility that she brought to it, undermined the contention
that women were by nature disqualified from exercising political authority,"
lived during an age of relative international peace, and yet by temperament
she was a "warrior queen."
According to Arnstein, the queen thought of herself as a soldier’s
daughter, and she took an intense interest in every campaign under her
watch; national defense was always her top priority. "It is hardly
surprising that she decreed a military funeral for herself."
by the queen that is cited most often is "We are not amused,"
and yet "the implication of unbroken royal sobriety is equally
"In private, she could derive enormous enjoyment from music and
dancing as well as from the theater, the circus, and a Wild West show
– and also from excursions in the Scottish Highlands and carriage
rides near her holiday home on the French Riviera."
In her later years the queen became a staunch imperialist, but also
"a fervent champion of religious and racial diversity."
"Whatever her errors of judgment," Arnstein concluded, "none
proved fatal to her influence or to the dignity of her office. And by
the time of her death, books and articles, pictures and engravings,
coins and postage stamps had transformed the solitary princess into
the single best-known person on Earth as well as into an adjective that
dictionaries are unlikely to define as ‘archaic’ for some
generations to come.
"More than 100 years after her death, her personality continues
to fascinate and her image remains engraved on our collective memory."