I have been reading the latest biography on Queen Victoria by Julia Baird. A very different biography, written from the Queen’s journals, those the author could gain access to, much has been destroyed by family members and the rest is under lock and key, Queen Elizabeth II wishes to preserve some secrets. The author also used correspondence and journals of her close family and Prime Ministers who served in her time.
This is not the Official saccharine version presented constantly in stories about that era but a much more unvarnished portrait of her family and her life.
Victoria was born in 1819 and baptized Alexandrina Victoria, the grand-daughter of King George III and Queen Charlotte, both were Germans and the entire British Royal Family is in fact of German origin with very close Family ties to the German Imperial Family. Her eldest daughter will marry German Emperor Frederick III and Victoria’s favourite grandson was Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1942).
Grandmama Victoria and grand son Wilhelm
Victoria’s father was Prince Edward who will die young when Victoria was a small child. Her uncles King George IV and King William IV did not like her much and will make all manner of difficulties for her and her mother German Princess Victoria of Saxe-Cobourg-Saalfeld. The reason being that they did not have children of their own and this created a succession crisis. Victoria had 2 step-siblings from her mother’s first marriage, Princess Feodora and Prince Carl, both lived in Germany and they visited each other often.
Victoria spoke fluent German and had an accent when she spoke English. At home life was in German and governess and personal attendants were also Germans. She had a sad childhood, which she describes as one of melancholy. She was very emotional, frivolous, obstinate, selfish, mean spirited, a conservative not in favour of greater democratic rights for her subjects, she often berated her Prime Ministers and tried to undermine her own Ministers. She reigned in an age when the role of the Monarchy was rapidly changing, responsible government was taking root and a greater proportion of men will be able to vote thanks to Prime Minister Gladstone many reforms. She also opposed voting rights for women and self-rule for Ireland.
In February 1840 she married her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha at the suggestion of her uncle King Leopold of the Belgium. Victoria and Albert had daily strenuous sexual relations, of their union 9 children will be born and 7 will live into adulthood. This is were the hemophilia gene enters the story and how it spread to other Royal families in Europe through her daughters. Little was known at the time about this disease and how it was communicated through the female line.
It appears from the biography of Baird, that what is known as the Victorian Era was in fact a creation of Albert’s influence. Victoria had many pregnancies and she was unable to attend to State Affairs, Albert was happy to take care of everything, assuming the role of King, though he was in Law only a Consort with no authority. He came from a broken dysfunctional family and had strict puritanical attitudes and imposed a harsh moral code at Court. He was a cold intellectual and made people feel stupid when he spoke on any topic, had strong anti-semitic views which shocked people in Britain. He also had misogynist views on women and their role. Much correspondence exist on this topic between him and his brother. Victoria in her diaries and in correspondence after a few years of marriage to Albert started to show a lack of confidence in herself, she will say I cannot make my mind up about anything without his guidance. The Family spoke German in private and Victoria had to be reminded by her Prime Ministers to be careful to only use English in public. There was much resentment and mistrust of Prince Albert as he was seen as a foreign influence on Victoria.
Albert dies in December 1861 of what is believed nowadays to have been Crohn’s disease. Victoria enters into a 10 year period of very deep mourning and disappeared from view. Living away from London, refusing to open Parliament or do any public duty. She developed a system were a cohort of medical expert would present ”Doctor’s notes” to explain her absence or inability to do her duty to the Prime Minister and the Press. The Press and the public criticized her for her absence and questions were raised about the role of the Royal family, why do we need them, she kept her adult children including the heir, the Prince of Wales, her eldest son Edward from any Royal duty. The image of the Royal family suffered during that period only to improve slightly towards the end of her life.
Her mental health after the death of Albert deteriorated so much that many feared she was going mad like her Grandfather King George III. In reading this biography, you see Victoria as indulged and weak and then as temperamental and emotional, much weeping about everything. Her children marry, they will move away and she feels always very depressed at every wedding. These marriages will also increase the prestige of Britain, connecting her family with other Royal Houses, like Denmark, Russia, Germany, Romania, Greece. She will offer asylum to French Emperor Napoleon III and his family in 1870 after his overthrow. She will also put Chancellor Bismarck in his place during a meeting in 1888 over the succession in Germany.
As for her relationship with the Scottish oaf John Brown, there is a strong suspicion that she had an affair with him for many years, he was a substitute for the dead Albert. Baird does bring a lot of context to this book and it helps the reader understand the dynamics of the time and destroy some myths about Victoria.
Painting of Victoria and Albert with 5 of the children in 1846 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter