Monday, 11 January 2010

In which serendipity rules

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:

Queen Victoria 003

See how old and unassuming it looks?

Queen Victoria 010

Possibly the chicest dedication ever:

Queen Victoria 006

The chapter on Lord Melbourne:

Queen Victoria 012

The poor old bashed spine:

Queen Victoria 014


  1. Blimey, what a book to own. Strachey is one of my absolute GODS: If you like Queen Victoria, I can heartily recommend Eminent Victorials: Cardinal Manning is particularly superb

  2. Lovely Mrs T - I realise to my shame and chagrin that Strachey has been one of those writers I always loved the idea of, instead of actually reading. Can't wait for Cardinal Manning. Queen Vic is so brilliant I have to keep stopping for fear of finishing it too soon. xx

  3. Oh for dukes that fidget and chatter and do away with dodgy man-servants - they're all far too dull now. I expect he might even have owned a pink velvet jacket, although I'm not quite sure why.

    I am about to start 'Woman's Experience of the Male' by Sofie Lazarsfeld, an Adlerian psychotherapist who wrote it strongly believing such a book should be written by a woman for women and get over all those terrible Freudian precepts and give a female perspective on seemingly every male/female topic. I shall need strong coffee this afternoon when I start.

  4. Oh, the bliss of Queen Victoria! Have your read her correspondence with her daughter Vicky, edited I think by Roger Fulford? I came across it in the library years ago, loved it - and now that I think of it, must discover a copy and re-read.

  5. What a beautiful book- must have been like finding treasure- the dedication is wonderful. I did all the political stuff for my A level and really enjoyed it but likewise we never really covered Victoria and I thought she was a bit twee and frumpy in her early years and then a bit of an effort in her later ones.

    I liked the film too- I quite wished they had carried it on but I can see why they didn't. I enjoyed the details like not being allowed to walk down stairs alone- it must have been utterly suffocating.

  6. That's a lovely story and I can't believe the quote - small wonder that even I have heard of Strachey, although never made it as far as to check him out.
    Now will make mental note to check him out next time I pass a library or 2nd hand book shop. If I buy anymore new books I will be ousted by my husband, I'm afraid!

  7. Jo - Experience of the Male sounds so up my street; am going to see if I can track it down.

    Anonymous - am going straight to the library to find the correspondence.

    Rose - so agree about the stairs. I thought they were making it up in the film, but I find from Mr Strachey that it was quite true.

    Nene - so know about the out of control book buying. I do now goodly use my lovely local library and save actual purchasing for very, very special occasions.


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