January 12th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

Books promotion page

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

by R.J. Stove (reviewer)

News Weekly, January 12, 2002
The un-Victorian Victorian

QUEEN VICTORIA: A Personal History
by Christopher Hibbert

Rec. price: $29.95

Christopher Hibbert, now aged 77, has 34 books to his credit. This staggering total presumably includes one or two lemons, but this reviewer has yet to find any. Hibbert's latest volume belongs with his very best, and defies anyone to read a single chapter without immediately gobbling up the next half-dozen.

It might be thought that Queen Victoria's two finest pre-Hibbert biographers, Elizabeth Longford and Stanley Weintraub, had between them exhausted their theme. Hibbert, though, draws on Royal Archives material which no previous book-length study has used.

While the result compels no spectacular revisions of accepted verdicts, it periodically shines instructive new beams of light. Kaiser Wilhelm II's loathing of England is familiar enough, but in the Royal Archives we find his rage expressed in concentrated, unfamiliar style: "An English doctor killed my father," Wilhelm lamented, "and an English doctor crippled my arm."

Married life

Most Victoriana concentrates overmuch on the Queen's four decades of widowhood. Hibbert's achievements include redressing the balance by due emphasis on her life with Prince Albert, which comprised almost half (and was, in political terms, much the more dramatic half) of her reign.

Albert - who had to wait 17 years after his marriage before formally attaining the title "Prince Consort" - inspired almost universal detestation among Britain's upper classes, who had clearly learnt nothing from the fate of their counterparts in Revolutionary France.

Hibbert does justice to this complex, intelligent and preternaturally industrious personage, who worked himself into the grave when only 42.

Albert's horror at his eldest son's wild oats has been much derided; it becomes eminently understandable in the light (or darkness) of Albert's elder brother, who - through carelessness that would have silenced even Lady Bracknell - managed to catch VD twice.

Moreover, unlike every other British royal since 1688, the Prince Consort had the intellectual capacity to articulate (by precept and, during the Crimean War coalition, in practice) a coherent, thoughtful philosophy of constitutional sovereigns' proper governmental role.

Had he enjoyed an adequate life-span, his descendants might well have been spared the degrading servitude which has been their lot beneath a Lloyd George's or a Blair's whip (and which had already become evident when Walter Bagehot wrote of Albert's widow: "She must sign her own death-warrant if [Parliament's] two Houses unanimously send it up to her").

Later royals might also have benefited from Albert's shrewdness as a judge of men: the last quality one might expect from so bookish a figure, and a virtue which he failed to instil in his spouse.

The widowed Queen - notwithstanding her common sense on subjects that did not involve her deepest emotions - soon became a soft touch for every conceivable form of mountebank, bully and boor. It is a surrealistic experience to read about her court life with preconceived notions of "Victorian" decorum echoing in one's head.

The woman who formed (at least theoretically) the British Empire's apex could not run a household notably better disciplined than Homer Simpson's.

Throughout her reign, many of her servants were roaring-drunk and often violent: most notoriously, her favourite John Brown, who when not addressing to his monarch such endearments as "Hoots, woman", took to hitting her haemophiliac son (the Duke of Albany) in the face with spoons. Once Brown had obligingly boozed himself to death, Victoria consoled herself by adopting an Indian Muslim: Abdul Karim, "the Munshi", whom she appointed her secretary, despite or because of his almost total inability to read and write.

This charmer imported from his homeland so many female dependants that each time the Queen's doctor "was asked to attend Mrs Abdul Karim a different tongue, so he said, was put out for his inspection."

As early as Victoria's coronation, Murphy's Law prevailed: with - among other embarrassments - clergymen who lost their place in the liturgy, and a Prime Minister (Lord Melbourne) dazed by his brandy and laudanum intake.

How did she manage to keep all this from becoming an international scandal? Partly through luck: she died just before Hearst- or Pulitzer-style gutter-journalism had emerged with the aim of routing all political authority save its own; and by outliving her feeble-minded grandson, the Duke of Clarence, she prevented him from squandering her own moral capital.

Partly through the sheer strength of monarchism's position throughout Europe in the half-century before World War I: a period when only Switzerland, Portugal (after 1910), Spain (1873-75) and Third Republic France (itself crypto-monarchist) formally eschewed kingship.

But partly through that most elusive of personal attributes: a charm that could, when she chose, thaw the frostiest critics. It thawed them posthumously as well: above all in the case of Lytton Strachey, who began his account of her life with every intention of dancing the Charleston on her grave, but whose reflexive sniggers she eventually silenced. It has clearly won over Hibbert too.

Hers was the attractiveness of unspoilt responses, rather than of manipulation. In her 82-year existence she appears never to have told a single lie.

Randall Davidson, the Dean of Windsor, attributed her appeal to "the combination of absolute truthfulness and simplicity with the instinctive recognition and quiet assertion of her position." Hibbert's own summary is just:

"When far cleverer people were wrong, she was often instinctively right. As [her last Prime Minister] Lord Salisbury observed, she had a deeper understanding of the passing moods of her people than many politicians who spent far more time among them than she did."

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