Queen Victoria was born amidst the Lear-like scheming that surrounded the Regency. As mad George III lurched ever closer to death, questions of the succession lay with his seven sons, all past middle age, and not one legitimate child among the entire brood. The Georgian era unto which Alexandra Victoria was born was a completely different world that the one from which she departed, but in Strachey’s hand, what emerges is the petty, pampered and petulant nature of the various sons of George III, as described by Lytton Strachey in his 1921 biography of Queen Victoria:
- Prince Regent - “a preposterous figure of debauched obesity”;
- The Duke of York, the only one of the seven sons “who had the feelings of a gentleman”;
- The Duke of Clarence, who had “lived for many years in complete obscurity”
- The Duke of Sussex, who had “mildly literary tastes and collected books”
- The Duke of Cumberland, “probably the most unpopular man in England.
It is remarkable that the influence of what would become the Victorian Era (what we today would refer to as an excess of modesty and restraint, especially in sexual matters) extends to Strachey’s descriptions of these long-dead Dukes. A modern biography would provide explicit details on the nature of this “amorous intrigue of an extremely scandalous kind.” Knowing that Strachey was a homosexual, and the fate of homosexuals under Victorian standards was (given the case of Oscar Wilde) tenuous, one wonders how he balanced his personal views with the demands of his literary audience. For example, “Of the Duke of Cambridge,” Strachey writes, “not very much was known. He lived in Hanover, wore a blond wig, chattered and fidgeted a great deal, and was unmarried”.
Victoria’s upbringing stands in direct contrast to the excesses to which her uncles were famous. Strachey commands the English language to his ends in making this contrast. Such as when the six-year-old Princess Drina (as she was called) meets George IV: “The old rip, bewigged and gouty, ornate and enormous, with his jeweled mistress by his side and his flaunting court about him, received the tiny creature who was one day to hold in those same halls a very different state”.
Throughout the work, what emerges is the picture of a split woman: both on the edge and totally in control. During her childhood, as it became more and more apparent that this girl would ascend the throne upon the death of her uncles (Kings George and William), she was never allowed a moment’s peace. Strachey shows her sleeping in the same room as her mother, never descending stairs without someone holding her hand, and brought up in an atmosphere without male influence. This is a girl entirely under the influence of her mother.
Queen Victoria, like Queen Elizabeth I, emerges into her role as sovereign very much in charge of politics, but throughout Strachey’s biography there is her need for a controlling figure. First was her mother. Victoria seems to have resented this level of control—the constant watchfulness, the constant attending to—and her first act as Queen (at the age of 18) is to order her bed removed from her mother’s room.
With her natural mother displaced into the background, the Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s governess, emerges as the Queen’s closest unofficial advisor and confidant. “Nobody knew—nobody will ever know—the precise extent and the precise nature of her influence,” Strachey writes. In matters of politics she turned to the aging Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Both of these characters exert, if not undue influence, then a strong moral influence on a young girl “who had stepped all at once from a nursery to a throne”. When the political system threatens the Melbourne government, Victoria is in a state of near-terror, the opposite side of her coin.
But the most important figure in Victoria’s story, one who must forever remain in the background, is her husband (and cousin), Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Of Albert, the man who would not be king, Strachey writes: “His sense of duty triumphed. It was a curious omen: his whole life in England was foreshadowed as he landed on English ground”. Albert had been decidedly sick during the Channel crossing, only to collect himself for the crowds that waited at the pier. Prince Albert would spend his public career obeying his duties.
Prince Albert was immediately overshadowed by the force of Victoria’s will (she had been Queen for two years before their marriage) and her political alliance with Melbourne. In his personal life, Baroness Lehzen ruled the house. Albert’s position was not secured until after the births of their first children, at which time Lehzen’s influence waned considerably. Victoria, was “overcome by a new, an unimagined revelation” and “surrendered whole soul to her husband”.
From this point on, until his death, Prince Albert’s influence on Victoria led to what Strachey calls the death of the 18th century. The Great Exposition was his idea alone, but his antagonistic relationship with Prime Minister Palmerston led to numerous clashes with the Government, crises that eventually led to England’s involvement in the Crimean War. Albert “has grown into a man of unbending determination whose tireless energies were incessantly concentrated upon the laborious business of government and the highest questions of State”.
Albert all but ran the affairs of monarchy for Victoria, and his death marks a changing point in Victoria’s life. She all but withdrew from life, drawing a curtain down upon her own personal happiness. She drew back from personal appearances, and even the Members of Parliament recognized at last that it had been the Prince Consort who had run the monarchy for the previous two decades. It is only her own iron will (strengthened by her memories of how Albert would have expected her to behave) that kept Victoria for completely teetering off the edge.
A recent film (Mrs. Brown) has explored the relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown, and Strachey devotes a mere four pages to the Scottish manservant who was able to break through the tremendous personal grief and public mourning that characterized Victoria during the 1860s and 1870s. Brown was the last major controlling figure in Victoria’s life. “The power of a dependent still remains,” Strachey writes.
Without becoming a full psychological biography of Queen Victoria (for one, such a genre did not exist in 1921, and second such exercises are usually futile), Strachey hints at the inner nature of the Queen. Victoria seems to have needed someone to control parts of her life, so that she could carry out what she had been taught were the duties of a queen. Elizabeth I could not afford a husband or children, she needed to remain “the Virgin Queen” in order to govern during an age of volition. Victoria, who became the “Grandmother of Europe,” required the presence of Albert (or some tangible aspect of his memory, i.e. John Brown) in order to carry the burden of sovereignty. Lytton Strachey understood that, and thus treats the section on John Brown with great sympathy, refusing to heed the rumors and “ribald jests” that many in England made regarding their relationship.
Queen Victoria was the only English monarch of the 19th century. When she ascended the throne in 1837, the last vestiges of the 18th century still held Europe in their grip. When she died in 1901, the 20th century was dawning. She ruled over a strange and complacent nation, lending her name to an entire European age, one that her grandchildren would blow apart in World War I. Lytton Strachey’s biography is fanciful and flowery, everything Victoria was not.