Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
This is the first nonfiction title I’ve read from Project Gutenberg, I have to say—the other one on my list is The Golden Bough, which I’m quite looking forward to. (Although Joseph Campbell just swiped at it in the portion of The Hero With a Thousand Faces I’m reading. But he’s really androcentric, so he can bite me.) I’m under the impression that this is a Nancy Pearl recommendation, but I added those recommendations into the old list before I started marking down where they came from. In any case, Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria is considered to have changed how biographies addressed their subjects; on top of that, it was one of the first recipients of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (which was also awarded to another favorite piece of mine, Lady Into Fox).
Queen Victoria is, well, a biography of the woman who gave her name to the Victorian Age. From the circumstances that put her on the throne to her long widowhood after the death of Albert, Strachey follows her through her entire life with affection but not sentimentality, with a great focus on her beloved Albert and the politics that surrounded her life.
If there is one word to describe Victoria—or, at least, Strachey’s representation of Victoria—it is constant. Towards the end of her life (and, of course, the biography), Victoria becomes almost obsessed with ritual and routine, down to having Albert’s chambers dressed as if he were still alive decades after his death. She even frowned upon widowed women remarrying, despite the fact that she was the product of such a union. While her constancy eventually went stale and turned into staidness towards the end of her life, she wasn’t absent-mindedly stubborn, merely very committed to her decisions—she could be turned from a possibly poor decision by the application of an immense amount of effort by her political favorite of the moment. Strachey renders her as human, but also as a thoroughly decent woman, almost a living embodiment of the middle-class values that came to characterize the Victorian age, although she was never one for progress.
As a biography, Queen Victoria is well-done; it’s never too dry, supplies plenty of humorous and human anecdotes about its subject, and moves at a stately pace. In fact, Strachey is quite often funny in this biography, in that remarkably dry, British way. For instance, Strachey declares that “George IV, who had transferred his fraternal ill-temper to his sister-in-law and her family, had at last grown tired of sulking, and decided to be agreeable” (Strachey). But there is some pathos; Victoria’s apparent hoarding instinct (which extended to photographing and cataloging everything in her possession) gives way to a pondering on mortality, and, while he tries to remain neutral, I think Strachey was not the greatest fan of imperialism. I was a little wary at picking up a public domain nonfiction book; “classics” are often considered dense and hard to approach, and nonfiction doubly so. But Queen Victoria is definitely readable.
However, I was taken aback by Strachey’s sexism. It’s insidiously patronizing; you don’t particularly realize it until Strachey says things like “what may be admirable in an elderly statesman is alarming in a maiden of nineteen” (Strachey). He frowns upon her headstrong youth and appears to view Albert as having tamed her. In fact, once Albert enters the picture, Strachey almost abandons Victoria to talk about him and the conflict between being the head of the household but the Prince Consort of a Queen, and not being able to control her as much as other husbands control their wives. And now I’m creeped out. It’s not vicious, but that’s almost worse—Strachey talks about how Disraeli understood the easily distracted feminine mind. While I’m ultimately glad I read the biography, I do want to seek out feminist treatments of Victoria, although, of course, Victoria was not pleased by any movement towards feminism. (And, perhaps more famously, didn’t believe in lesbians.) On top of that larger issue, Strachey has a tendency to continually use pronouns until you forget about who he’s talking about; this is particularly bad when it comes to the various politicians in Victoria’s life, which is kind of important.
Bottom line: Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria is a warm, readable portrait of the ever-constant Victoria, but the insidiously patronizing sexism will start to grate after a while, as will Strachey’s tendency to run on pronouns long past remembrance of names. Worth a well-salted shot.
- Strachey, Lytton. Queen Victoria. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921. Project Gutenberg. Web. 19 February 2006.