When you think “Queen Victoria” what do you think of?
The first thing that pops into my mind is the quote: “We are not amused.” Even though she might not have actually said it, the line captures a lot of how we think about Queen Victoria, more than a century after her death: as severe, formal and prudish.
When you visualize Queen Victoria, what image comes to your mind? I’m willing to bet it’s not the image of the girl on the cover of this book. Odds are you’re thinking of her in her later years, dressed in a high-necked and long-skirted black gown with lace around the neck, a small crown and white veil over her hair.
If you’re a fan of British comedy like me, something like this:
It’s not hard to guess that Victoria was more complex than that, with a reign of nearly 64 years. So what factors set in motion the way she is perceived today?
In Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon, historian Yvonne M. Ward looks at the role of two men who were tasked with editing and publishing Victoria’s correspondence after her death. The final product (coupled with Victoria’s daughter Princess Beatrice acting as her “literary executor” and editing her mother’s memoirs and burning the originals) influenced generations to come.
“Queen Victoria, as she has come down to us, is the product of her biographers. For over sixty years these biographers did not have access to the Queen’s original correspondence…they had to rely instead on the published selections of letters produced by ‘royal command’ of Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, and her grandson, George V,” writes Ward.
The two gentlemen appointed by King Edward VII to take on selecting and editing the correspondence were Lord Esher and Arthur Benson, both well-connected and trusted to show discretion. Ward examines their life stories to show how their backgrounds, perspectives and political interests influenced the choices they made.
Ward’s book is hits a sweet spot in terms of scope. She doesn’t attempt more than she can cover; instead of trying to correct things Esher and Benson got wrong, she focuses on pointing out the gaps and contradictions in what they included and connecting that to their own biases and the society they were working in. For example, the final correspondence is missing a lot of Victoria’s correspondence with women and her pregnancies and children are hardly referenced. For all we know from Esher and Benson’s collection, this Hark, a Vagrant comic strip could be close to reality.
Ward explains: “Benson found women’s letters to be ‘very tiresome’. Consequently very few of the thousands of letters Victoria exchanged with her female relations and friends were included.” And:
“In 1905, no published letters by a woman would have included references to pregnancy or personal health, so ti is not surprising to find that Benson and Esher omitted nearly all mentions of these matters. Their belief that they could show the ‘full development of the character of the Queen’ without these topics also reflected their particularly narrow understanding of female experience.”
Censoring Queen Victoria is a very intriguing, entertaining, well-organized and accessible 173 pages (not counting references). I highly recommend it.
I do have to raise one issue though, which is Ward’s choice to describe Esher and Benson as “gay”. Not only did I not see that either self-identified with the labels “gay” or “homosexual”, but both men had sex with schoolboys who would not have be considered able to consent by today’s standards. Esher even committed incest with his son, Maurice. Ward does refer to pedophilia in her analysis, but social scientists have rejected a connection between pedophilia and sexual orientation and I thought more care and specificity was needed, especially when we still see anti-gay “family values” groups conflating the two.
Ultimately, Ward’s final product surely invites her audience, from academic historians to recreational readers, to question what they’ve been taught about Queen Victoria,