She who must be portrayed

We are told, in a series currently being aired on BBC Two (“Queen Victoria’s Children”) & by a book flaunted on their website (Jane Ridley, A Life of Edward VII) that the home life of Victoria, Albert, et famille, was not an embodiment of perfect bliss; that paintings & photographs projecting “an image of a virtuous, devoted young couple surrounded by obedient, fair-haired children” may have been misleading.

This can come as a surprise only to the television audience, not to those previously exposed to a little history. Victoria’s temperament may be construed from her letters, & the anecdotes were circulating in her own day; though at least then the newspapers had the decency not to print them. That her relations with everyone around her were tempestuous, & those with her first-cousin husband compounded by a barely hinged sexual infatuation, were among those things “everyone who was anyone” knew, & none of them needed to know.

At Queen’s University up here in Kingston, Ontario, we have a huge collection of the letters of the late Benjamin Disraeli, novelist & sometime prime minister of the United Kingdom. Their number is astonishing — he turned them out like emails, sometimes thirty at a sitting, & of course in the good old days they were delivered around London at almost the speed of emails by the Royal Mail.

The late John Matthews, who was editing them (they will continue to appear in great thick annotated volumes for centuries to come), used to regale us at lunch with items illustrating the flirtatious tension between Disraeli & the old-widow Queen. A smart, but incredibly wilful woman, with an eye ever fixed on the trivial irritation, she adored Disraeli a little too openly, & hated his arch-rival Gladstone with a compensating serpentine passion. At one point Britain neared constitutional crisis, as she told her advisers that, election or no election, she would not have Gladstone as her prime minister. An ill & despondent Disraeli, loser of said election, had to be brought into the Palace to explain the situation to Her Majesty, & continue explaining until she scrawled a note to the effect that she was appointing Mr Gladstone, but only on the advice of her dear friend.

A little black-clothed bundle of crackling fire, through the decades after Prince Albert’s decease, she became almost ostentatiously reclusive, & left the impression she had no remaining interest in worldly affairs. In light of her correspondence & the anecdotes however, this will be seen as the opposite of the truth, & her meddling in the lives of her unfortunate children was among her many tracks of interest.

“Bertie,” later to become King Edward VII, was the first of her nine acute disappointments (four sons & five daughters). He was slow with his tutors, & she thought him a halfwit, referring obsessively to his narrow pointed head, & saying she shuddered at the sight of him. He had inherited her temper, & perhaps also her sexual intensity, but without her capacity to bottle them up, so that he lurched from scandal to scandal. But the flip side, also shared between them, was an inability to give anything up, so that the relationship between them remained constantly, & explosively, close. He made, in retrospect, as fine a King, as she made a Queen.

Some clever feminist should, by now, have written a biography of Her Late Majesty depicting her as the original “shriekie sister.” (Perhaps one has & we missed it.) Through all her pregnancies she remained revolted by the biologically distinguishing facts of womanhood, & later referred to her own grown daughters breastfeeding their babies as “cows.” She took inordinate relish in putting men down, & often reduced her own sainted husband to shoving gibbering apologetic notes under her door. Her “royal we” in conversation & correspondence has about it an air of the White Goddess, & when stipulating royal household arrangements she could leave her courtiers wincing from the blows of what felt like misandry; or perhaps, sudden emancipation from the female repression of the last ten thousand years.

As we hold, a magnificent Queen, all four-foot-eleven of her (at her accession; she had shrunk four inches by her Diamond Jubilee). To our mind her only flaw, besides not being Catholic, was her curious notion that she should hang the royal family up as an icon of “family values.” This had never been part of their job description, & was bound to lead to misunderstandings, & even muted suspicion of hypocrisy. She bequeathed this modernizing, public role to each of her successors (except Edward VIII), & through her progeny & example to many of the (mostly ill-fated) monarchies of the Continent. Add the paparazzi media, & we have these “democratic” monarchs today, with their offspring crushed under the burden of celebrity.

Whereas, a monarch should be remote; & journalists who get too close, for pictures, should be barracked in the Tower. People should mind their own business; & royal families should mind theirs.