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Biography of Queen Victoria refutes longstanding misconceptions

Andrea 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 Only within the last generation have vast amounts of unpublished materials become available to historians, he said.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:

orange dot "The 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 refutes.

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 veils.

orange dot Victoria 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," Arnstein noted.

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," he said.

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.

orange dot The queen’s 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."

orange dot She was 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 women’s movement."

"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," Arnstein wrote.

orange dot Queen Victoria 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."

orange dot The statement by the queen that is cited most often is "We are not amused," and yet "the implication of unbroken royal sobriety is equally misleading."

"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."

orange dot 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."