The Ruling Exception

David Cannadine

  • Queen Victoria: Gender and Power by Dorothy Thompson
    Virago, 167 pp, £6.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 86068 773 2

Ever since Disraeli made Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876, the Conservative Party has been one of the lion-supporters of the British Crown, and to this day, the monstrous regiment of Tory women, and the blimpish cohorts of retired colonels, are among the most loyal and devoted of Her Majesty’s subjects. But for all that, the true-blue-rinse Thatcher years have not been a happy or an easy time for the House of Windsor. In public, the Prime Minister professes respect and admiration for her sovereign lady and the whole royal family. But it is difficult to believe that in private she offers the same unstinted ‘devotion’ that Disraeli lavished so fulsomely (and so calculatingly) on his ‘faery queen’. As the visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned riches, hereditary privilege, vested interests, paternalistic decency and patrician wetness, the crown and its court exemplify many of the attitudes which Mrs Thatcher most vehemently detests. And as the successful leader of the nation in arms (remember the Falklands?), and the most long-serving occupant of 10 Downing Street this century, the Prime Minister has in many quarters displaced the monarchy as the most potent symbol of national identity. ‘No wonder,’ she has reputedly remarked of the Windsors, ‘they stand on ceremony: what else have they got?’

Nor has the younger generation of royals exactly endeared itself to the national headmistress. Prince Edward has never recovered from the fiasco of It’s a Knockout, Fergie’s foray into fiction was equally ill-advised, and if Marina Ogilvy had not existed, the tabloids would probably have invented her (which to some extent they undoubtedly did). Even the Prince of Wales seems more than a little accident-prone. Like his predecessors, he is effectively without a job until the throne becomes vacant – which may not be until well into the next century. Meanwhile there is no longer an empire to provide him with the appropriate apprenticeship of a proconsular posting, and he is understandably eager to do more than accompany his wife on her shopping trips. But while his comments on modern architecture and urban planning may be sincerely meant, it is right royal naiveté to suppose that Britain’s social and environmental problems can best be solved by turning the whole country into a Canaletto-like theme park. And his concern for the disadvantaged has not exactly endeared him to the Conservative Central Office. As Norman Tebbit replied, in words reminiscent of Walter Bagehot, it is not surprising that the Prince is so sympathetic towards the unemployed: he is by way of being one of them himself.

All this is indicative of a deeper change in perceptions of royalty that has taken place during the last decade or so. The puppets of Spitting Image, and the trivialities of the tabloids, make it increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion of reverential seriousness essential to the survival of royal mystique. Such rigid organs of weekend Toryism as the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph regularly carry articles which zealously criticise an institution once thought by them to be beyond censure and above reproach. And a clutch of recent biographies has toppled several notable royal icons from their pedestals. Kenneth Rose depicted George V as an ogre so boorish and philistine that in retrospect he appears almost pathetically comical. In his books on Edward VIII, Michael Bloch has washed a great deal of the Abdication dirty linen in public, and much of the mud has stuck to the Duke of Windsor himself, to say nothing of the Duchess. Sarah Bradford’s biography of George VI portrayed him as the ultimate sacrificial sovereign, overwhelmed and destroyed by events he could neither control nor comprehend. And Philip Ziegler’s official life of Lord Mountbatten suggested that the royal family’s ‘beloved Uncle Dickie’ was an interfering manipulator of unscrupulous methods, and a shameless adventurer of colossal and inordinate vanity.

With so much daylight now being let in, it is hardly surprising that the old royal magic is not quite what it once was. By its very nature, monarchy can be either revered or discussed: but it can rarely be both at the same time. And in Thatcher’s Britain, the trend has been emphatically away from reverence and towards discussion. But in this increasingly critical reappraisal, professional historians have thus far played very little part. Most recent royal lives have still been penned by genteel amateurs, and there is no book on the modern British monarchy comparable in scholarly stature to Denis Mack Smith on the Kings of Italy. Dorothy Thompson’s study of Queen Victoria is thus the more to be welcomed, for she is a writer in a very different tradition from such conventional courtly biographers as Elizabeth Longford, Cecil Woodham-Smith and Georgina Battiscombe. She lectures in history at Birmingham University, she specialises in the study of early 19th-century popular protest, and her published work on the Chartist movement has been ‘written in general sympathy with it’. As a socialist, she sides with ‘ordinary people’ against the ‘constant erosion of the democratic process’, and ‘the authoritarianism of the rich and powerful’. And as a feminist, she believes that ‘the opinions and feelings of women, as workers, as thinkers, as carers and nurturers of the young and old, must be heard.’

Despite the wealth of material available, and the abundance of questions that could (and should) be posed, feminist historians have almost entirely ignored the modern British monarchy. Yet Queen Victoria was a woman before she was a sovereign or an icon, and this statement of the obvious is justified by the fact that it has in most serious ways been ignored by every previous biographer. Of course, she has been regularly depicted as the heiress presumptive, the virgin queen, the wife-and-mother, the grieving widow and the apotheosised matriarch. But in earlier accounts, these ostensibly gender-specific descriptions have been employed cosmetically, as chronological markers, rather than analytically, as investigative categories. And no previous biographer has made any attempt to look at Queen Victoria in the broader and in many ways very different context of 19th-century womanhood as a whole. Thompson’s aim, by contrast, is to ‘explore some of the moments when the fact that a woman was on the throne seems to be of particular significance during a century in which women were increasingly discouraged from taking part in the public life of the country’. The result is a valuable retelling of a familiar story.

When Victoria began her reign in 1837, she followed a line of Hanoverian men, who had occupied the throne since Anne, the last queen regnant, had died in 1714. By the early decades of the 19th century, the younger generation of royal males had largely forfeited public sympathy. George IV, William IV, the Duke of York (who was Victoria’s father) and the Duke of Cumberland were ‘bigamists, adulterers, squanderers of public funds’, whose behaviour was ‘repulsive to civilised taste’. Not surprisingly, it was the royal women who captured the public’s imagination, especially George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte (who died in childbirth in 1817), and his wife, Queen Caroline (whose determination to fight for her royal rights in 1820 meant she briefly became the darling of the London mob). So when Victoria came to the throne, there was still a fund of residual sympathy on which she could draw as a royal woman; and her youth and her purity were further novel advantages. But there was a downside to all this. She had spent most of her early life in the secluded, domestic company of her mother, her governess and her half-sister, and she had been educated as a woman rather than as a future sovereign. She was forbidden in the Salic Law from inheriting the Kingdom of Hanover, which now passed to her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. And there were some who thought that she should not be allowed to inherit the English throne, either.

But it was not just that Victoria was an untrained woman obliged to do what was still regarded in many quarters as essentially a man’s job: she was an unmarried woman at that. And the man who became her husband was much better fitted for the task of ruler than she was. For Albert was very well educated, was fascinated by statecraft, and was determined to play a full part in the political life of his adopted country. As the husband of a regnant queen, his position was, uniquely, both legally and constitutionally subordinate: he could be Prince Consort, but not King Consort. But Albert’s zeal for work and power of mind, combined with Victoria’s frequent pregnancies, meant that he soon took effective charge of royal affairs. He often dealt with politicians directly, was always present when the Queen saw her ministers, drafted most of Victoria’s letters and memoranda, guided her in the formulation of all of her opinions, and became in fact, though not in law, the real power behind the throne. Increasingly, in the 1840s and 1850s, it was Albert who bore the public and professional burdens of monarchy, while the Queen preferred the domestic privacy of Osborne and Balmoral. As she once remarked, with only slight exaggeration, she ‘had always disliked politics, and did not consider them a woman’s province’.

But then Albert died. Like many a Victorian woman, the Queen wanted to withdraw into the self-enclosed seclusion of private grief and gloom. And for over a decade, that is precisely what she tried to do. But although she was now a widow, she was also still the Queen, and during the 1860s and early 1870s she found it exceptionally difficult to reconcile her personal inclinations and her regal duties. ‘Public and private,’ she once lamented, ‘it [both] now falls upon me!’ Without Albert’s assistance, her grip on political business inevitably relaxed (though it never did so completely). She refused to perform the ceremonial duties associated with monarchy, and virtually absented herself from London altogether. She found consolation in the company of John Brown, and Thompson suggests that there was more to Victoria’s involvement with her Highland servant than it has been usual to suppose. Inevitably, there was widespread and growing dissatisfaction at the Queen’s non-performance of her public duties. Dowager queens consort were relatively commonplace in English history, but bereaved queens regnant were much more unusual. Some argued that since she was effectively a full-time widow, Victoria should abdicate in favour of her eldest son, the Prince of Wales. Others contended that as the monarchy had effectively disappeared from sight already, it should now be closed down.

Not surprisingly, the politicians tried hard to get the Queen to put public appearances before private grief. Gladstone treated her like an institution, and met with little success. Disraeli treated her like a woman, and fared much better. Hence Victoria’s re-emergence, during the last decades of her reign, as a public icon, a national symbol and an imperial totem. But once again, her gender mattered. In Britain itself (though not, significantly, in much of Ireland), she became a national mother-figure, ‘who stood in a kind of moral holy ground above the coarse realities of day-to-day politics’. And internationally, she re-emerged as an imperial matriarch, presiding with maternal devotion over the greater British family spread around the globe. But even at her two Jubilees, she insisted on donning her widow’s weeds, and she obstinately refused to wear a crown, preferring a bonnet instead. Once more, the boundaries between the private and the public were blurred over and confused. And what had so often been true of the Queen in life remained so at her death. The popular reaction was that her passing was a personal tragedy: the nation had lost the head of the family – ‘Mother’s come home.’ But it was the Queen herself who had insisted that she should be given a public and a military funeral.

Although the details of Victoria’s life are well and widely known, and although Thompson rightly describes her book as a work of re-interpretation rather than of original research, it abounds in valuable suggestions and shrewd insights. She will not allow us to forget one of the central paradoxes of Victorian Britain: namely, that while the highest office in the country was held by a woman, political life was almost exclusively a male preserve. She reminds us that Victoria was brought up in a domestic, female-dominated environment, but that after 1837 she was obliged to deal publicly with men, who were also very much better educated than the Queen was. She points out that the John Brown affair shows that even the sovereign of England was forced to defer to the rules of the double standard: a widowed king could have taken a lover, and no one would have minded (or even noticed), but a widowed queen could not. And she shows again and again how Victoria was constantly torn between the competing claims (and attractions) of private, female domesticity and public, masculine kingship, claims which she never fully understood or reconciled.

But for all its valuable and original insights, the book as a whole is curiously uneven in its coverage and uncertain in its viewpoint. Despite the volume’s subtitle, there is no real discussion of power at all: indeed, for someone who has so frequently and so passionately proclaimed her sympathy for the suffering and downtrodden masses, Thompson treats the Queen and the monarchy in a manner which is often disappointingly deferential and conventionally bland. One quarter of the book is devoted to a discussion of republicanism: but it fails to do justice to the widespread examination of the role of the monarchy which was carried on in the press and in Parliament between 1837 and the Golden Jubilee, and in any case, it has little to do with the central theme of the book. A further twenty-five pages are spent on inconclusive speculation about the Queen and John Brown: but the exact nature of their relationship still remains unclear, and while Thompson may wish that Victoria had publicly struck a blow against the tyranny of the double standard, the fact remains that she didn’t. And the treatment of her last two decades is cursory in the extreme: the apotheosis of the Queen is dealt with in scarcely a dozen pages, and there are some rather fanciful speculations about Liberal and Fabian courtiers which seem decidedly wide of the mark. Even in a book as brief as this, such proportioning seems a touch eccentric.

More generally, Thompson fails to explore those ‘moments when a woman was on the throne’ in the detail they require, if they are to yield serious and substantial insights. It is surely significant that the first two crises of Victoria’s reign – the Lady Flora Hastings scandal and the Bedchamber affair – began as essentially domestic difficulties, which later spilled over into the public arena. As such, they might usefully be seen in the context of Victoria’s abrupt but unsure transition from cossetted daughter to public figure. But no such analysis is attempted here. It is also clear that it took Albert and Victoria some years to work out the personal and functional aspects of their royal relationship. But while there is ample documentary material on this subject, it is almost completely neglected. In the same way, Victoria’s letters to her eldest daughter provide a mass of information on her attitude to marriage, to child-rearing and to the role of women in public life. But they go virtually undiscussed. And more attention should have been given to the fundamental transformation which took place during the Queen’s reign, from ruling sovereign to constitutional monarch. Again, gender mattered. If Albert had lived, it seems clear that he would have resisted that development tenaciously, while the gradual emasculation (and feminisation) of monarchy was probably more easily accomplished when a woman was on the throne.

Nor are these the only ways in which the Queen’s gender was politically and historically significant. Her easy relations with Melbourne, Disraeli and Rosebery, and her loathing of Gladstone, deserve more detailed analysis than they receive here. And it would have been helpful if Thompson had turned this problem inside out, and investigated how the politicians, who were only used to conducting public business with other men, went about conducting public business with their sovereign who was also a woman. How far, for instance, was the widespread anxiety and bewilderment that was felt about her in the aftermath of Albert’s death not just because she was widowed, or even because of John Brown, but (to use a word that was taboo then for very different reasons than it is taboo today) because she was menopausal? At the same time, we need to know more about the Queen’s awareness (and deliberate exploitation) of her own gender. One of the reasons why she clung so fervently to her reclusive widowhood may have been that (in the manner of Florence Nightingale and her post-Crimea ‘illnesses’) it gave her extra leverage and control in dealing with the politicians, who were so much better educated than she was and who, in the absence of her beloved and expert Albert, genuinely threatened and intimidated her.

In the same way, Thompson also makes heavy weather of trying to understand the Queen in the broader context of 19th-century womanhood, where she seems incapable of making up her mind what she thinks. On the one hand, she would clearly like to depict Victoria as a champion and supporter of women’s rights. She informs us that in the late 1830s, ‘the fact that the monarch was a woman may well have encouraged the incipient feminism’ of the time. Perhaps so: but little evidence is advanced in support of this claim. She tells us that Victoria’s court ‘was one in which the equality of the sexes was recognised to a degree’, with the result that ‘a positive contribution was made towards the achievement of equal status for women.’ But this novel view is asserted rather than demonstrated. She claims that ‘a modern feminist, indeed perhaps almost any modern woman’, would approve of the fact that the widowed Queen took John Brown as her lover. Maybe: but so what? And she feels sure that the Queen herself deserves some of the credit for the improvements in the position of women which took place during the last quarter of the 19th century: ‘her presence and status must on occasion have helped the legal processes forward.’ It’s a nice idea. But how, exactly, did this happen?

Not surprisingly, Thompson finds the argument that Victoria was some sort of regal proto-feminist extremely difficult to sustain, and it is easy to see why a book originally commissioned for inclusion in the ‘Virago Pioneers’ series has in the end been published separately. For the fact is, as Thompson elsewhere recognises, that Victoria did not view the world in the late-20th-century terms of the existence or the advancement of women’s rights (or, come to that, of men’s rights, either). On the contrary, the improvement of the lot of ordinary women was a subject about which she thought little and cared less. As Thompson admits, Victoria was resolutely opposed to women taking up careers in the great professions. She was not interested in establishing ‘a clear female right to an active presence in conventional politics’. And by the end of her reign, when she projected ‘a domestic, familial and passive image of a woman’, there was ‘little help in the image of the female monarch’ to those campaigning for women’s rights. From the standpoint of 19th-century British feminists, the fact that a woman was on the throne was at best irrelevantly coincidental, and at worst positively unhelpful.

Yet Thompson remains convinced that the presence of a female sovereign really did matter in the broader perspective of 19th-century history. But once again, this is much easier to assert than it is to prove. She suggests that republican and revolutionary movements found it more difficult to take root in England because it would have been unchivalrous to get rid of the Queen. But as the examples of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette imply, womanhood is no guarantee of immunity when the knives are out. She argues that Victoria’s gender ‘provided the basis for her re-emergence as a national symbol’ at the end of her reign. But a very similar transformation was simultaneously taking place in the German, Russian and Austrian monarchies, and in every case the sovereign who became the cynosure of national attention was male. And she even goes so far as to argue that ‘there must have been many ways in which the presence of a woman at the head of the state worked at a deeper level to weaken prejudice and make change more possible.’ But this could hardly be said of Russia under Catherine the Great, China under the Empress Dowager – or even Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

The real problem with understanding Victoria from the perspective that Thompson employs is that the Queen belongs to that growing band of past figures that feminist historians feel understandably uneasy with, and incline on the whole to neglect. For she was an exceptional woman: exceptional in her temperament, exceptional in her background, exceptional in her occupation, exceptional in her longevity, exceptional in her historical significance, and exceptional in the documentation she has left behind. In trying to understand her, it is important to be reminded so insistently and so forcefully that she was a woman trying to do a man’s job as well as her own. But that is only part of the story. For Victoria was also a much more complex historical personality than is implied in this analysis of her as a woman at large and adrift in a man’s world. And the rediscovery of that complex royal totality is still very much in its infancy. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, the British monarchy is now more problematic than it has been at any time since the third quarter of the 19th century. But that problematic has still to be fully addressed and understood in serious historical terms.