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Book review: Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers: A personal history by Anne Somerset

12 April 2024

Victoria’s main interests lay overseas, Michael Wheeler concludes

LADY ANNE SOMERSET is a royal historian, author of a prizewinning study on Queen Anne. Emerging afresh from the daunting Royal Archives, she now offers new angles on familiar stories, such as Lord Derby’s formation of the “Who? Who? Ministry” in 1852, his reassurance to Disraeli when appointing him as Chancellor (“They give you the figures”), Dizzy’s laying on the flattery to his monarch with a trowel, and Gladstone’s inability to realise that long memoranda were no substitute for sensitive handling of a woman who never got over her lonely hothouse childhood.

But this book is more than a study of the monarch and her ten Prime Ministers. It offers an overview of international relations in the Victorian Age.

Victoria’s direct involvement in politics increased as she developed from the young woman who was mentored by Melbourne, into the wife and mother who leant on Prince Albert, into the middle-aged widow who pulled wires behind the scenes while refusing to be seen and therefore believed, and into the overweight old lady in the black bonnet who drove her family and ministers to distraction.

She is most interesting when married to Albert, forming a powerful double act. The Prince Consort would attend prime-ministerial audiences and used the royal “we” even when alone with ministers.

V&A shared an acute concern about Palmerston, when he was reinstalled as Foreign Secretary under Lord John Russell. His bullying foreign policy was anathema to them. They expected to be deferred to over diplomatic appointments, much to Palmerston’s annoyance. He scribbled in the margins of a missive from Albert: “HRH seems . . . to have forgot that that there is a responsible secretary of state for foreign affairs which however I am not likely to forget.”

Yet, as in several other instances, Victoria’s antipathy to Palmerston and his dodgy private life melted into appreciation when he became Premier and showed more tact than might have been expected.

Poverty, Chartism, and Ireland are not excluded from this book, but are dealt with briskly. Like Victoria herself, the author is mainly interested in foreign affairs. In chapter five, for example, which covers the premierships of Palmerston, Derby, and Palmerston again (1855-61), she provides careful accounts of Napoleon III, the Indian rebellion of 1857, Italy, and the French-invasion scare of 1860. Albert’s fatal illness deprived Victoria and the nation of a remarkable model of creative thinking and a disciplined commitment to duty, and yet it is covered in just a couple of pages.

AlamyA Punch cartoon of 1876, “Empress and Earl”, shows Victoria honouring Disraeli, who had created the title Empress of India for her. From the book

Although the “personal” side, highlighted in the subtitle, is often secondary to the sweep of European history, the author is skilful in her use of snippets from the 60 million words that are said to have come from Victoria’s pen. Much is summed up in these words from a letter to her daughter Vicky in November 1862: “for me my very misery is now a necessity. . . Yes, I long for suffering almost.”

A great underliner and double-underliner, Victoria claimed not be be partisan, having “all along felt [it] . . . my duty . . . never to mix up personal sympathies with the question at issue”. The author’s laconic comment says it all: “This was something her chief minister would have disputed.” Her narcissism and self-pity bloomed as the years went by, illustrated in this reflection on her loss of her Tory Prime Minister in 1885: “What a dreadful thing to lose such a man as Lord Salisbury for the country, the world, and me.”

In her conclusion to a book of 600 pages, the author states that Victoria “did not have a subtle intellect, and it is undeniable that emotion, prejudice, preconceptions and family feeling” guided her for much of the time. Her “analytical powers”, however, “enriched by accumulated experience and an excellent memory”, remained considerable.

The reader will find virtually nothing here on Victoria’s low churchmanship, which shaped many a wrangle over preferment in the Church of England, especially with Gladstone. Foreign affairs, particularly associated with Germany and the British Empire, predominate.

Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and the author of
The Year That Shaped the Victorian Age: Lives, loves and letters of 1845 (Books, 31 March 2023).

Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers: A personal history
Anne Somerset
HarperCollins £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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