Not amused: Victoria in her own words

Beneath the excitable phrases and endless underlining, Victoria’s correspondence doggedly promoted a coherent policy


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1875, Queen Victoria sent Benjamin Disraeli a long and querulous letter “about vivisection, which she insists upon my stopping, as well as the theft of ladies’ jewels”. Similar heated and impracticable demands might arrive on his prime ministerial desk several times a day. He was not alone in thinking her “very wilful and whimsical, like a spoilt child”.

After the Conservative ministry’s defeat at the 1892 general election, Victoria complained it was “a defect in our much famed constitution to have to part with an admirable government like Lord Salisbury’s for no question of any importance or any reason, merely on account of the number of votes”.

Queen Victoria and Her Prime Ministers: A Personal History, Anne Somerset (William Collins, £30)

Victoria’s outbursts to, and about, her ten prime ministers over the 64 years of her reign provide the meat of Anne Somerset’s book. Most of her letters were extremely forthright; some were endearing; not a few seem demented. She found disturbances to her comfort or routine particularly intolerable, such as ministerial crises which erupted in Ascot week or during one of her pregnancies.

Somerset’s approach is exhaustive and chronological. Gluttons for Victorian political history will probably enjoy it; she writes well and authoritatively, though could be more concise. Over nearly 600 pages, the effect of this torrent of royal complaint is overwhelming. It’s easy to see why a shaken Bismarck stuttered, “Mein Gott! That was a woman!” after his only audience with Victoria in 1888.

The book is presented as a “personal history” of the exchanges between her and her premiers. Most readers will sympathise with the men who had to manage her tactfully; many will wonder why they put up with it.

Yet they put up with it because of the principles at stake, which a “personal” account cannot bring out properly. Beneath the excitable phrases and endless underlining, Victoria’s correspondence doggedly promoted a coherent policy. She fought to maintain the authority of the Crown within the constitution, seeing it as essential for effective government. Her worry was that popular pressure would destabilise politics, through extra-parliamentary agitation but also through parliamentary organisation. So she was very suspicious of political parties, which she saw as factional agencies whose populist demands would disrupt the constitutional status quo.

Politically she remained a Hanoverian monarch: she believed the Crown should manage parliament through ministers chosen for their competence, loyalty and patriotism, not their commitment to popular causes. She even tried (unsuccessfully) to glean information on internal cabinet arguments so she could play her ministers off against each other, a trick used by her Georgian predecessors until the cabinet managed to assert collective responsibility in the 1820s.

Her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, guided her through the issues of the day and protected her from the factional attacks of the Tory opposition. She did not grasp until later that Tory support also rested on real public opinion, so that her support of him at the 1841 election, which he lost, unintentionally made her look a “Party Queen”.

Between 1841 and 1868, she accepted her ministers irrespective of party, but this became easier as party and popular pressure at Westminster became weaker. She admired Peel for rising above partisanship to repeal the Corn Laws. In the 1850s, her husband Prince Albert openly discouraged party-based politics.

Victoria disliked the reappearance of party contention after 1867 and tried several times to alleviate its effects. She succeeded in bringing the parties together in conferences to settle the Irish Church issue in 1869 and electoral reform in 1884.

Victoria was convinced that Liberals aimed to reduce Britain to a second-rate power

On the second occasion, she characteristically praised “all statesmen and all true patriots” for collaborating to prevent “the mischief so ardently desired by the Radicals & republicans and destructives”. The 1867 Reform Act had democratised Liberal Party politics in ways that alarmed her. She disliked Gladstone, four times her prime minister from 1868, not (mainly) because he seemed bossy, self-righteous and insufficiently deferential but because he led a set of forces that she felt traded on popular agitation to undermine the constitutional position of the Crown and the standing of the country abroad.

“‘The people’s William’ is a most disagreeable person,” she told her daughter in 1880. In his first government, Gladstone put Acton Ayrton, a penny-pinching radical, in charge of much of the royal estate; in his second, he promoted the republican sympathiser Charles Dilke; in his fourth, he would have included Henry Labouchère, who had published anti-monarchist gossip, until Victoria vetoed him. Such men had “no respect for kings and princes”, she complained.

The striking thing is how many politicians continued to accept this system. Before 1867, aristocratic party leaders often collaborated to carry on the Queen’s government: Peel propped up Russell, Russell upheld Aberdeen (and was condemned as selfish when he stopped), Derby acquiesced in Palmerston. In the 1870s, Disraeli outraged Liberal intellectuals by his overt monarchism, but it became the bedrock of the late-Victorian Conservative Party revival.

Conservatives and Liberal Unionists dominated politics after 1886 by coalescing in opposition to Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule scheme, to Victoria’s immense satisfaction. In 1884, she had urged “a Third Party … formed of the Moderates on both sides” against “the violents”. In December 1885, she asked the Liberal dissident George Goschen to support Conservatives in a combination of “all moderate, loyal and really patriotic men”; he was the first Unionist to enter Salisbury’s government a year later.

Victoria shared Tory newspapers’ imperialism

Elizabeth II liked to ask courtiers what the popular press was saying about her. Victoria would have loathed the idea. At first, she seemed unwilling to think in terms of “public opinion”. Once Gladstone became Liberal leader, however, she started to claim that, for all his populist rhetoric, she understood public sentiment better than him, a view based on the weakness of Liberal foreign policy.

She was convinced that Liberals aimed to reduce Britain to a second-rate power. They failed to appreciate the importance, and popularity, of upholding national honour. The question, she thought, was simple: would Russia or Britain be supreme in the world? Liberals seemed too complacent about the outcome.

Her language on foreign affairs came to mirror that of the Tory press. She talked endlessly of the need to maintain “prestige”. In 1877, as Russia advanced through the Balkans, she attacked those at home who seemed willing “to kiss the feet of the great barbarians”. A few years later she described Tsar Alexander III as her “barbaric, semi-Asiatic tyrannical cousin” — a “savage” with the “instincts of Nero or Caligula”. From the 1880s, she also shared Tory newspapers’ imperialism. Gladstone thought her resistance to reducing British troop numbers in Egypt in 1882 “unconstitutional” and “irrational”, but many voters considered his approach to Britain’s security needs there less rational than hers.

By 1896, she was praising the former radical firebrand Joseph Chamberlain for behaving “admirably, so firmly and very strong” in upholding empire. Four years later, she visited Ireland and was sure that her positive reception validated the rejection of Home Rule. She died in 1901 much more contented with politics than she had been 30 years before — even if she surely did not think that her son would fight as hard for the principles that had obsessed her.

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