Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I think I mentioned that I saw The Young Victoria on Saturday night. I seem to remember that it got lukewarm reviews, but I rather loved it, and it ignited in me a burning desire for further reading. The mad thing is that Victorian England really was my period; at university, the only things that excited me more than the Napoleonic Wars were the great Reform Act and Peel splitting the party over the Corn Laws. (Also: the real significance of Gladstone and all that chopping down of the trees.) But I suddenly realised that, through all this, I was so furiously concentrated on the politics that Queen Victoria herself was no more than a shadowy liminal figure. I knew about her famous dislike of Gladstone, of whom she was rumoured to have said: 'he always addresses me as if I were a public meeting', and her flirty adoration of Disraeli. Apart from that, I think I considered her a rather dull, dumpy figure, holed up at Balmoral in her unending widow's weeds.
It appeared I had no biography of her in the house, so I thought I would go back to David Cecil's classic biography of Lord Melbourne, a perfect place to start until the library could come to my rescue. (Part of the reason I have such a huge collection of books is that I get these sudden, imperative freaks: I must read about string theory, or Seabiscuit, or Coco Chanel, right now, this minute.) But the lovely Lord M was nowhere to be found. I was still searching last night, in a furious dogged manner, when my eye lighted on a battered blue hardback, so old that the title had been rubbed off the spine. Even though I have about a thousand books, I know them all by sight - Melbourne is yellow cloth, for example - but this one was unfamiliar to me. I wonder what that might be, I thought, distracted for a moment from my pursuit.
I took it down, opened it up, and to my absolute amazement it was Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. I had no memory of ever buying such a book. I have certainly never read it. It must have been sitting there for years, overlooked in its dowdy blue coat, until a cold Sunday night in 2010, when the only thing in the world I wanted to read about was Queen Victoria, and, in some inexplicable act of serendipity, my fingers fell on it, and a mild sense of curiosity led me to take it down from the shelf.
Well my darlings, it is an absolute barn burner. I cannot put it down. Here is a sample:
'The Duke of York, whose escapades in times past with Mrs Clarke and the army had brought him into trouble, now divided his life between London and a large, extravagantly ordered and extremely uncomfortable country house, where he occupied himself with racing, whist, and improper stories. He was remarkable among the princes for one reason: he was the only one of them -so we are informed by a highly competent observer - who had the feelings of a gentleman. He had long been married to the Princess Royal of Prussia, a lady who rarely went to bed and was surrounded by vast numbers of dogs, parrots, and monkeys. The Duke of Clarence had lived for many years in complete obscurity with Mrs Jordan, the actress, in Bushey Park. By her he had a large family of sons and daughters, and had appeared, in effect, to be married to her, when he suddenly separated from her and offered to marry Miss Wykeham, a crazy woman of large fortune, who, however, would have nothing to say to him. Mrs Jordan died in distressed circumstances in Paris. The Duke of Cumberland was probably the most unpopular man in England. Hideously ugly, with a distorted eye, he was bad-tempered and vindictive in private, a violent reactionary in politics, and was subsequently suspected of murdering his valet and of having carried on an amorous intrigue of an extremely scandalous kind…Of the Duke of Cambridge, the youngest of the brothers, not very much was known. He lived in Hanover, wore a blonde wig, chattered and fidgeted a great deal, and was unmarried.'
Isn't it perfect?
So, in honour of fate and Lytton Strachey, his old book, published by Chatto and Windus in 1921, is my picture of the day, because it was what I gazed on with the most delight:
See how old and unassuming it looks?
Possibly the chicest dedication ever:
The chapter on Lord Melbourne:
The poor old bashed spine: