The world’s worst-dressed woman

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Queen Victoria’s Secrets by Adrienne Munich
    Columbia, 264 pp, £22.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 231 10480 4

When Lytton Strachey looked back at the ‘apotheosis’ of Queen Victoria’s final years in his biography of 1921, he could only wonder at the disparity between the ‘dazzled imagination of her subjects’ and the unimaginative woman who had somehow inspired them. While ‘Victoria soared aloft towards the regions of divinity through a nimbus of purest glory,’ as Strachey put it, no one appeared to realise how inadequate she was to her symbolic task:

That the nation’s idol was a very incomplete representative of the nation was a circumstance that was hardly noticed, and yet it was conspicuously true. For the vast changes which, out of the England of 1837, had produced the England of 1897, seemed scarcely to have touched the Queen. The immense industrial development of the period, the significance of which had been so thoroughly understood by Albert, meant little indeed to Victoria. The amazing scientific movement, which Albert had appreciated no less, left Victoria perfectly cold. Her conception of the universe, and of man’s place in it, and of the stupendous problems of nature and philosophy remained, throughout her life, entirely unchanged.

Noting the Queen’s stubborn resistance to the social movements of her day, Strachey wrote that ‘towards the smallest no less than towards the greatest changes she remained inflexible.’ As an example of the latter, he cited Victoria’s steadfast opposition to the emancipation of women; as an instance of the former, her continued ‘anathema against’ smoking. ‘Kings might protest; bishops and ambassadors, invited to Windsor, might be reduced, in the privacy of their bedrooms, to lie full-length upon the floor and smoke up the chimney – the interdict continued.’ Though in this small matter, at least, the inflexible monarch might seem more up to date than the Modernist, there is no question that in many ways the symbol of the age failed to keep step with the age she symbolised.

Strachey was willing to concede that in certain respects – love of Empire, most notably – Victoria thoroughly identified with Victorian values. And then there was, by the end, the simple fact that she was very old: ‘an almost indispensable qualification for popularity in England’. But what principally accounted for her grasp on the imagination of her subjects, he thought, was the ‘peculiar sincerity’ of her character – a sincerity which made her, endearingly and absurdly, forever consistent with herself. This is, in its way, a very Victorian judgment. Certainly nothing could be further from Strachey’s talk of the ‘impact of a personality’, of ‘something deeper, something fundamental ... that really tells’, than Adrienne Munich’s unwillingness to attempt ‘to uncover a real Victoria’. Rather than a woman whose force of character magnetised an age, hers is a consummate role-player and performer, a Post-Modern queen of contradictions. Munich does not address Strachey’s comments, but she would presumably count his tribute to Victoria’s ‘sincerity’ as further evidence of the Queen’s skill at performance: ‘the reign’s extraordinary success in representing itself as if it were simply what it represented itself as being is one of its secrets.’

Munich evidently wishes to accord Victoria an agency others have denied her – to see in the Queen not just ‘a 19th-century curiosity’ but a ‘shaper of her culture’. Yet while her book begins by insisting, rather solemnly, that Victoria ‘performed cultural work for her age’, much of the discussion that follows happily loses sight of this modish claim. That the Queen herself had something to do with many of the images rounded up for this lively book is indisputable, yet as Munich’s own analysis often shows, the Queen’s subjects were more than capable of overriding the evidence in support of their fantasies. Drawing on material ranging from street ballads to Tennyson, from cartoons and advertisements to official portraits and monuments, Queen Victoria’s Secrets offers not so much an account of the Queen’s self-fashioning as an entertaining compendium of the conflicting guises in which the 19th century chose to see her.

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