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Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions

Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions

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Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions

évaluations:
4/5 (1 évaluation)
Longueur:
224 pages
3 heures
Sortie:
Jun 24, 2014
ISBN:
9781466850019
Format:
Livre

Description

Queen Victoria is Britain's queen of contradictions. In her combination of deep sentimentality and bombast; cultural imperialism and imperial compassion; fear of intellectualism and excitement at technology; romanticism and prudishness, she became a spirit of the age to which she gave her name.

Victoria embraced photography, railway travel and modern art; she resisted compulsory education for the working classes, recommended for a leading women's rights campaigner ‘a good whipping' and detested smoking. She may or may not have been amused.
Meanwhile she reinvented the monarchy and wrestled with personal reinvention. She lived in the shadow of her mother and then under the tutelage of her husband; finally she embraced self-reliance during her long widowhood. Fresh, witty and accessible, Matthew Dennison's Queen Victoria is a compelling assessment of Victoria's mercurial character and impact, written with the irony, flourish and insight that this Queen and her rule so richly deserve.

Sortie:
Jun 24, 2014
ISBN:
9781466850019
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

Matthew Dennison is the author of seven critically acclaimed works of non-fiction, including Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, a Book of the Year in The Times, Spectator, Independent and Observer. His most recent book is Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter. He is a contributor to Country Life and Telegraph.

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Queen Victoria - Matthew Dennison

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1

‘Pocket Hercules’

IN THE SPRING of 1819, Britain’s royal family lacked heirs in the third generation. None denied the fecundity of the geriatric King and his recently deceased queen. George III – mad, irascible, tearful and, to a host of unglimpsed imaginary listeners, still talkative despite his deafness – and red-nosed, snuff-sniffing, cricket-loving Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (plain-featured even in likenesses by Gainsborough and Allan Ramsay) had produced fifteen children and a template of royal domesticity which, with dire consequences, discounted cosiness or intimacy between parents and children. Their vigorous momentum had not been maintained. Too many of those children remained unmarried – or sloppily embroiled in the rouged embrace of middle-aged mistresses, childless or giving birth only to bastards and ill repute; the babble and patter of grandchildren scarcely touched the sovereigns’ dotage. So easily did bad parenting come close to extinguishing a dynasty.

The Prince Regent, future George IV, was the eldest of the fifteen: in his late fifties balloon-faced, extravagant and quick to pique. Married at the wish of his parents and Parliament, he was father to a single daughter. Like the Regent’s mother another Charlotte, she ought in time to have become Queen of England. Instead she died in 1817 giving birth to a stillborn son. Her short life had been one of shoddy rambunctiousness. Her loathsome parents loathed one another. Neither scrupled to shield their daughter from their differences. In the circumstances this apple-cheeked girl of novelettish instincts might have turned out worse – born of the loveless coupling of a prodigal sybarite and a hoydenish German princess slapdash in the cleanliness of her undergarments and afterwards, it was claimed, over-generous with her favours. In retrospect Charlotte appears a quintessentially Regency figure.

The unnecessary death of the King’s granddaughter and only heiress presumptive, attributed to obstetric malpractice, had provoked nationwide grief and a crisis in the monarchy. ‘In the dust/ the fair-haired daughter of the isles is laid,/ the love of millions,’ Byron lamented. Commemorative cups and saucers, cream jugs, even printed handkerchiefs echoed the strain. With incontinent capitalisation, one broadsheet implored the nation to, ‘Reflect upon the Uncertainty of HUMAN LIFE, So strikingly exemplified in THE DEATH Of your amiable and much lamented PRINCESS’, a didactic imperative which anticipates the lugubrious piety of the remainder of the century. Politician Henry Brougham described public reaction ‘as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child’. Belatedly remorseful – and too late for Charlotte, of course – the hapless obstetrician Sir Richard Croft shot himself. The princess’s death did not inspire her woebegone father once more unto the breach: at forty-nine, the vilified Princess of Wales would not produce a second heir.

That task fell instead to the Regent’s six surviving younger brothers: Frederick, William, Edward, Ernest, Augustus and Adolphus, in Shelley’s estimation the ‘dregs of their dull race’. Mired in debt and bawdy, these flaunting adulterers were lethargic in matters of duty, slatternly and discreditable, tarnished to the extent of accusations of incest and murder – a boon to caricaturists: with their wigs, pockmarks, gluttony and gout not even ornamental. With hindsight they would be regarded as a nadir for Britain’s monarchy, ‘a race of small German breastbestarred wanderers’, as anti-monarchist MP Charles Bradlaugh later described the Hanoverians.¹ For the high-minded if alarmist Prince Albert, they would provide an enduring cautionary tale.

Of the seven possible progenitors in the aftermath of Charlotte’s death, William, Edward and Adolphus responded to the siren call of a regal vacancy and an anxious Parliament prepared to barter their debts for an heir (Frederick and Ernest were already married). Hastily they allied themselves to a trio of uninspiring Protestant German princesses: all lacked even the misplaced high spirits of the Regent’s estranged wife. In April 1819, it was Adolphus’s wife, Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge, who gave birth to a healthy son. He was christened George. For seven weeks this infant prince of Cambridge was alone eligible in his generation to inherit the throne of England. But Adolphus was the youngest of the married brothers. Senior in precedence were William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV), described after his death as ‘not … a prince of brilliant and commanding talents’;² Edward, Duke of Kent, of martinet stiffness, black-dyed hair, surprising philanthropy and tenderhearted devotion to his bride; and Ernest, Duke of Cumberland: emaciated, charmless and acerbic, but more sensitive than history has allowed to his status as England’s most hated man.

And so from the outset Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was a person of consequence. Born as dawn broke over the southeast corner of Kensington Palace on 24 May 1819, in a room whose costly refurbishment her fifty-one-year-old father had completed only two days previously, she immediately displaced her Cambridge cousin in the line of succession. Sources disagree on when she herself first learnt it. An aura of consequence – occasionally cultivated, occasionally insisted upon – was an attribute she would never lose.

She would become one of England’s most vigorous monarchs. As a baby, her father described her as ‘a model of strength’: ‘more of a pocket Hercules, than a pocket Venus’.³ Perhaps something of the urgency and precariousness of that scramble which preceded her birth remained with her life long. It is discernible in her later conviction of her own eminence, her retreat behind that impenetrable shield, ‘Queen of England’: she may not have forgotten that her queenship was so nearly that of her older cousin, Charlotte, or indeed young George. At different levels, hers is the response of the lottery-winning poor relation and, at the same time, simply one manifestation of a remarkably forceful nature. Over time much of her public life, with its parade of accessible virtues, represented a deliberate revision of the indignity of her pre-history and the tattered record of her immediate forebears. Fanciful to claim that she was born to right the record: her selfishness and sense of entitlement were equal to those of any of her father’s siblings. But guided by those nearest to her, and prompted by the memory of uncles and aunts set on lives of eighteenth-century excess, as well as her own impulsive if inconsistent craving to exploit her position for good, she would redefine the face and function of British monarchy. She embraced an outlook some have labelled middle class and did so with wholehearted sincerity, as much a stranger to real middle-class mores as she was to those of the aristocracy she mistrusted or the Highland tenantry she determinedly idealised. Victoria’s reign reasserted – and successfully bequeathed to her successors – what her contemporary Mrs Oliphant described as ‘that tradition of humdrum virtue’ established by her grandfather George III:⁴ in that respect she became in fact as well as appearance, as Lady Granville described her in her infancy, ‘le roi Georges in

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