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Old 09-10-2013, 03:32 PM   #1
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Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey

This is the MR Literary Club selection for September 2013. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time! Guests are also always welcome.


Some ebook availability-
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So, what are your thoughts on it?


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Old 09-11-2013, 06:22 AM   #2
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I have read this but it was decades ago and I don't think I really appreciated the subtlety of Strachey's technique; hence, it is almost like reading it for the first time.

I have finished the first chapter "Antecedents" and already there is a fine use of a sardonic undercurrent in Strachey's approach to the characters. The engaging Princess Caroline for all her capricious impulsiveness has "always longed for liberty; and she had never possessed it". Owing to a dysfunctional family she is engaged in a rudderless search for a meaningful relationship.

She is married off to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He is clever, manipulative, and very cold. He saw his primary duty was to tame "a tumultuous Princess" He did it methodically.

"Cold and formal in manner, collected in speech, careful in action, he soon dominated the wild, impetuous, generous creature by his side."

I think the word "creature" is significant. Leopold was both Machiavellian and very sinister. His wife was property--royal though she was. Particularly horrible is the Prince's refusal to change the inferior medical treatment given to the Princess on the medical advice of Caroline's Doctor causing her to die after giving birth to a dead boy.

After her death, a succession crisis looms and we meet the various worthless sons of the mad King. Most of the time is spent on the absurd, patriarchal, foolish, Duke of Kent, who also marries strictly to have a child. There seems to be little affection of any kind between himself and Victoria Mary Louisa the sister of Prince Leopold. In fact, the duke is far more worried about how a marriage to her will hurt the feelings of his mistress, Madame St Laurent.

Thus we are given an introduction which presents two very nasty men; one is sinister the other a fool. Both use women to obtain certain ends. The Prince fails, but one wonders what type of influence Leopold would have exerted had she lived.

The section ends with the birth of another Princess. How will she fare?
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Old 09-21-2013, 01:20 AM   #3
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I'm currently about two-thirds through Queen Victoria and enjoying it very much. Strachey's style is impeccable and his ability to give us all the important information so concisely is very impressive. He also has some delightful turns of phrase, as for example this towards the end of Chapter 4, "Marriage":

Quote:
The last vestige of the eighteenth century had disappeared; cynicism and subtlety were shrivelled into powder; and duty, industry, morality, and domesticity triumphed over them. Even the very chairs and tables had assumed, with a singular responsiveness, the forms of prim solidity. The Victorian Age was in full swing.
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Old 09-21-2013, 09:02 PM   #4
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I finished the book today. I enjoyed the style as well. I liked the personal, psychological approach at presenting the biography and the incorporation of the diary entries. It was easy to understand the political background and drew you right into the historical tale as if you were in the room with Queen Victoria and her ministers. It was also witty and made me laugh out loud at times. I have previously read other books regarding Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and I wondered if this biography was a source for these authors. The book presented personal strengths and weaknesses. And, I like that the perspectives of her ministers and the public's changing attitudes of adoration and discontent were portrayed.

I liked the detail regarding her childhood. I had never really thought about the psychological impacts of the lack of a male influence on her early development which surely influenced her relationships. Her mother had such absolute control over her. It is also interesting that she did not support the woman suffrage movement as women had a duty to be protected and supported by men and to maintain their female differences.

Quote:
No father, no brother, was there to break in upon the gentle monotony of the daily round with impetuosity, with rudeness, with careless laughter and wafts of freedom from the outside world
What an amazing age in history her reign spanned with so many political, social and technological advancements that the 19th century is my favorite time period to study. Yet the book makes the point that the Queen herself seems outside of the period and did not change very much in her perspectives. I felt the book bogged down a bit in the middle with too much Albert, but he was such overwhelming force in her life and behind the Crown as her personal advisor that one does wonder how history would have been different had he not died so young.

I liked these quotes that sum up the history nicely for me. We have the benefit of hindsight to know how history played out in the 20th century on the global stage and how the role of the monarchy and relationship with its people progressed. Who could have guessed there would be another Queen who with the celebration of her recent Diamond Jubilee (and what appears to be still robust health) may outlive the length of Victoria's reign.

Quote:
From 1840 to 1861 the power of the Crown steadily increased in England; from 1861 to 1901 it steadily declined. The first process was due to the influence of the Prince Consort, the second to that of a series of great Ministers....

Then, with the rise of imperialism, there was a change. For imperialism is a faith as well as a business; as it grew, the mysticism in English public life grew with it; and simultaneously a new importance began to attach to the Crown.....

Thus it happened that while by the end of the reign the power of the sovereign had appreciably diminished, the prestige of the sovereign had enormously grown.

Last edited by Bookworm_Girl; 09-21-2013 at 09:05 PM. Reason: Fixed typos
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Old 09-21-2013, 10:24 PM   #5
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I came away from the book with a sense of the times and what it was like to be royalty, but no real sense of Victoria. I think the problem was one of scope, the biography covered many decades and a lot of different relationships.
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Old 09-22-2013, 09:09 AM   #6
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I have left this book mid-way through, though I loved the style of writing in the beginning. But I had to force myself to read on.

To be completely honest: I am not that fond of biographies to begin with, for I do like all historical material to be 'exactly exact', without too much interpretation from the writer. I feel that 'a novel is a novel' and an historical account should be supported by lots of notes........Perhaps that's the handicap that comes from me being a Cultural Scientist. So, the fault is not the writer or the book, but lies completely with me.
I am OK with memoirs though, ahem....


Well, on with Rushdie, which I find a very complex and rich book and the Mahabharata.
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Old 09-22-2013, 09:55 AM   #7
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I have just finished, and enjoyed it very much. I agree, desertblues, that there was certainly some interpretation and invention by Strachey - for example his imagining of Victoria's last thoughts remembering back over her life as she was dying. But I do think that he drew a great deal on written records both by Victoria herself and the various people who had dealings with her.

I did love the section on Disraeli and how he buttered up Victoria:

Quote:
"You have heard me called a flatterer," he said to Matthew Arnold, "and it is true. Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel." (Chapter 8)
And again Strachey's turn of phrase when describing the effect Disraeli had on the Queen:

Quote:
Like a dram-drinker, whose ordinary life is passed in dull sobriety, her unsophisticated intelligence gulped down his rococo allurements with peculiar zest.
My main surprise in the book was just how much involvement (and sometimes interference) Victoria and Albert had in the affairs of state. They were really trying to run foreign affairs, particularly where countries connected to one or other of their numerous relatives were involved. Bookworm_Girl quoted the comment on the increase of the power of the Crown from 1840 and 1861, and then its decline. This of course was because of the influence of Albert. What a gifted and interesting man he was.

Great nomination once again, issybird!
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Old 09-22-2013, 03:18 PM   #8
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Virginia Woolf wrote a fascinating essay "The Art of Biography" which is included in the book The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. She asks "Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper creativeness?" She uses Strachey and his various biographies to illustrate her points. Biography as a literary form and as an interest to the reading public did not come of age until the nineteenth century. Strachey was born at the right moment in time when biographers gained freedoms to expose a complete, truthful portrait. Before biographies were more hagiographic in spirit and did not expose flaws or weaknesses. Biographers have the limitation, however, that their subjects are bound by facts that can be authenticated. Woolf says "But these facts are not like the facts of science — once they are discovered, always the same. They are subject to changes of opinion; opinions change as the times change." The biographer has the challenge to create unity from the diversity of facts and opinions about his subject. And, much was known about Queen Victoria from her own prolific writings and those of her contemporaries to authenticate Strachey's writing. Less information was available in the second half of her life during her self-imposed exile in widowhood (Strachey referred to it as a "veil" upon this time period). Hence, Strachey takes a quicker summary approach to this period in his book.
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Old 09-22-2013, 08:05 PM   #9
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Thanks, Bookworm_Girl - I haven't read that and must look it up, as it sounds very interesting indeed. And spot on for this discussion!
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Old 09-23-2013, 08:42 AM   #10
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My main surprise in the book was just how much involvement (and sometimes interference) Victoria and Albert had in the affairs of state. They were really trying to run foreign affairs, particularly where countries connected to one or other of their numerous relatives were involved. Bookworm_Girl quoted the comment on the increase of the power of the Crown from 1840 and 1861, and then its decline. This of course was because of the influence of Albert. What a gifted and interesting man he was.

Great nomination once again, issybird!
Yes, a wonderful nomination!

Albert certainly dominates things in the central section of the biography.
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Old 09-23-2013, 08:49 AM   #11
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I'll just elaborate my feelings about Albert in the context of Bookpossum's point:

While Queen Victoria is certainly the main character, she shares a great deal of the story with her husband, Prince Consort Albert. In fact, he dominates a section of the biography, {Chapters 4 through 7} much as he dominated Victoria--who was certainly madly in love with him throughout their entire marriage.

While Strachey’s ironic tone is far more muted and controlled in Queen Victoria than in Eminent Victorians, we do see it in certain descriptions of Prince Albert. An example occurs when Albert indulges in his {possibly limited} “artistic appreciation”:

“ . . .she listened to him cracking his jokes . . . or pointing out the merits of Sir Edwin Landseer’s pictures, as she followed him round while he gave instructions about the breeding of cattle, or decided that the Gainsboroughs must be hung higher up so that the Winterhalters might be properly seen--she felt perfectly certain that no other wife had ever had such a husband. His mind was apparently capable of everything, and she was hardly surprised to learn that he had made an important discovery for the conversion of sewage into agricultural manure . . . Unfortunately, owing to a slight miscalculation, the invention proved to be impracticable . . . but Albert’s intelligence was unrebuffed, and he passed on . . . into a prolonged study of the rudiments of lithography.”

Of course, Strachey is using Victoria’s admiration ironically: J.B. Priestly points out that Strachey “ . . . is telling us that Albert was an industrious, solemn prig, without taste and artistic judgement.”

Here is another example. Albert was asked to preside over a commission dealing the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament with a view to the encouragement of Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Since Albert had an “extraordinary technical acquaintance with the processes of fresco painting”, his suggestion that they be used to encourage morally uplifting thoughts in the observer was accepted.

“The frescoes were carried out in accordance with the commission’s instructions, but unfortunately before very long they had become, even to the most thoughtful eyes, totally invisible. It seems that His Royal Highness’s technical acquaintance with the processes of fresco painting was incomplete!”

On a deeper level, the point has been made that Albert was King of England in all but name and Strachey states: “ . . . from 1840 to 1861 [the year of Albert’s death] the power of the Crown steadily increased in England; from 1861 to 1901 it steadily declined.” If Albert had lived on it is possible that he could have transformed England “ . . . into a State as exactly organised, as elaborately trained, as efficiently equipped, as autocratically controlled as Prussia herself”-- having what what Disraeli himself described as “the blessings of absolute government.” Thus, the pupil of Baron Stockmar would have conquered England. But Strachey points out another equally dark possibility.

“ . . . perhaps eventually, under some powerful leader--a Gladstone or a Bright--the democratic forces might have rallied together, and a struggle might have followed in which the Monarchy would have been shaken to its foundations.”

Strachey, I feel, believes that is was the gook luck of England that the Prince died when he did.

After the death of the Prince, Victoria was in a paroxysm of grief which bordered on denial; when at Balmoral, she had his clothes laid out for him every morning for the rest of her life. She attempted to make certain that the entire population would never forget him and would share

“her overmastering determination to continue, absolutely unchanged, and for the rest of her life on earth, her reverence, her obedience, her idolatry.”

She did this with the building of the Albert Memorial and also by bringing out a collection of the Prince’s speehes, having a biography written and even getting the cooperation of the Poet Laureate to praise Albert in verse.

All this was to show “that Albert had worn the white flower of a blameless life.”

Of course, the attempt simply didn’t work.The public weren’t interested in “the sugary hero of a moral story-book” The enormous irony is that in attempting to recreate the Albert of her imagination, Victoria destroyed the very interesting Albert of reality.

This Albert becomes a focus for the very real and deep love the Queen had as well as an illustration of her quite obvious limitations.
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Old 09-23-2013, 12:50 PM   #12
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Wonderful posts, FantasyFan, Bookpossum, and Bookworm Girl. I read the book so quickly and distractedly that I am grateful for the elucidation that is preventing it from going right over my head. It is frightening and sometimes ironically humorous that the history of nations and the fate of powerless people are shaped by fallible, foggy individuals.

I just read Ireland by Frank Delaney. He writes that when Queen Victoria traveled to Ireland and saw the Book of Kells, she wanted to sign it. Boggles the mind.
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Old 09-24-2013, 06:15 AM   #13
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Virginia Woolf wrote a fascinating essay "The Art of Biography" which is included in the book The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. She asks "Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper creativeness?" She uses Strachey and his various biographies to illustrate her points. Biography as a literary form and as an interest to the reading public did not come of age until the nineteenth century. Strachey was born at the right moment in time when biographers gained freedoms to expose a complete, truthful portrait. Before biographies were more hagiographic in spirit and did not expose flaws or weaknesses. Biographers have the limitation, however, that their subjects are bound by facts that can be authenticated. Woolf says "But these facts are not like the facts of science — once they are discovered, always the same. They are subject to changes of opinion; opinions change as the times change." The biographer has the challenge to create unity from the diversity of facts and opinions about his subject. And, much was known about Queen Victoria from her own prolific writings and those of her contemporaries to authenticate Strachey's writing. Less information was available in the second half of her life during her self-imposed exile in widowhood (Strachey referred to it as a "veil" upon this time period). Hence, Strachey takes a quicker summary approach to this period in his book.
Brilliant Post Bookworm Girl! It goes right to the heart of this book and is why Queen Victoria is so special.

I notice that Strachey dedicated this biography to Virginia Woolf.

Woolf has entered the public domain {as has Joyce} in Europe and Delphi have an excellent, well formatted complete edition of her works available at a modest price--though one can get a number of them free at Project Gutenberg and undoubtedly more will be available.
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Old 09-24-2013, 07:19 AM   #14
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Woolf has entered the public domain {as has Joyce} in Europe and Delphi have an excellent, well formatted complete edition of her works available at a modest price--though one can get a number of them free at Project Gutenberg and undoubtedly more will be available.
We don't need to go that far, we have a very good compilation of her works here too:
http://www.mobileread.com/forums/sho...d.php?t=179482
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Old 09-24-2013, 07:30 AM   #15
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I never noticed that!
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