Objecting to the standard “life” of the nineteenth century biographer, Lytton Strachey founded a significant new school of biography. He transformed the ideal biography from a long, redundant eulogy to a concise, clear, and factual account of the subject’s life. With the publication of QUEEN VICTORIA he graphically illustrated that biography could be an art without following the “classical models” of Boswell’s JOHNSON or Lockhart’s SCOTT. The small biography is restrained; the author is detached; the tone is ironic; and the style is polished. QUEEN VICTORIA presents a woman as well as a queen, a woman who comes alive as we share Strachey’s impressions of her long life.
Strachey opens the biography with an inevitably complicated resume of the future queen’s disreputable—indeed scandalous—uncles, especially of the notorious Prince Regent, who became George IV, and the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, married only when he thought that he and his children might succeed to the English throne. Victoria’s mother, the Princess of Saxe-Coburg, discovered after her marriage that her husband was impoverished, but she also knew that if she could bear a child before her sisters-in-law, that child would be ruler of England. On May 24, 1819, she gave birth, but the child was a girl, later to be christened Alexandrina Victoria against her father’s wishes. This birth was practically ignored; the English were waiting for the birth of a boy.
The child, reared in obscurity at Kensington, was placed under the governance of Fraulein Lehzen, daughter of a Hanoverian clergyman and the only person who could control the little “Drina’s” outbursts of temper. Under the influence of this governess the future queen was taught to be horrified at the shameless behavior of her uncles, and always to be mindful of the virtues of simplicity, regularity, propriety, and devotion. Victoria never forgot her lessons. The Duchess of Kent had decided that her daughter would become a “Christian queen,” regardless of the child’s happiness. When Victoria was eleven, her mother invited the Bishops of London and Lincoln and the Archbishop of Canterbury to examine her; she passed, displaying a great variety of Christian knowledge. Still she was not told that she was, in fact, to be Queen of England. When she finally learned of the responsibility eventually to be thrust upon her, she calmly accepted her duty.
But before the day when she would actually become Queen of England, two things happened to the young girl: she met and fell madly in love with her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, and she discovered that her mother was having an affair with Sir John Conroy. When Victoria became queen, she entirely separated herself from her mother and momentarily forgot the “beautiful” German prince. She fell under the rigid influence of Fraulein Lehzen and of the Prime Minister, William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne, and she thought that she was happy. She thought that she was free to do as she pleased without her mother’s prying eyes, but the eyes and advice of Lehzen and Melbourne were as prying and confining as her mother had been. For example, Victoria was led by her advisers to believe the groundless rumors against Lady Flora Hastings and, as a result, lost the support of the English public. Also she interfered with the government more than many of her subjects thought she should, and thereby she turned the English against her.
In 1840 she married Prince Albert, with whom she was still madly in love. Albert, however, had a will of his own and was not in love with his doting bride. Although he was his wife’s intellectual superior and interested in the arts, she let him entertain no scholars or literary men. He had a much better mind for politics, but she was so influenced by Fraulein Lehzen that she would not discuss politics with him. In short, Prince Albert was a miserably unhappy young man who felt that...
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