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Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon.

Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon, by Yvonne M. Ward. London, Oneworld Publications, 2014. 208 pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling], $22.99 US (cloth).

We don't lack books on Queen Victoria, but this one is original, engagingly written, and short. And its subtitle is commendably accurate. Shortly after Queen Victoria's death a Memorial Committee was given the task of commemorating her life. Its secretary was the court's go-to man for all matters requiring tact, discretion, and connections--that ultimate insider, Lord Esher. Hitherto no monarch had ever received an official biography, and yet, at the end of the great century of tombstone biographies, not to give one to the queen who gave her name to an epoch was surely unthinkable. But Esher was against an official life, and one can understand why. For a start, who would write it? Who could be trusted to write it--to the taste of her son, now Edward VII? Esher's solution was to publish her correspondence. This would result in a book with no apparent author, one which would recount Queen Victoria's life in her own voice and the voices of those who knew her. What could be more authentic, and authoritative? Gently and impersonally steering the reader through the queen's life would be the editors, who chose the appropriate letters, and the appropriate parts of those letters. Who better for that delicate task than Lord Esher himself? But being a busy man, he needed someone to do actual work of combing through the queen's enormous correspondence and writing up the notes and the continuity. For this he chose another gentleman of impeccable establishment credentials--Arthur Benson, a son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, an Eton housemaster, and a popular author of ghost stories.

Ward's biographical sketches of these men are fascinating. Both were homosexual, and though they were both closeted, Ward views their sexual orientation as relevant to understanding the approach they took to the queen's life. Her view is that this orientation affected their ability to appreciate the nature of her marriage and its implications for her queenship. Perhaps, but I am not persuaded that had both editors been heterosexual the work they produced would have been significantly different. Had they been women--of whatever sexual orientation--that might well have made a difference. The two editors had a good working relationship on the whole. Esher was the dominant partner (there appears to have been no sexual relationship between them: the great love of Lord Esher, for whom marriage was the best closet, was his youngest son Maurice). Benson, the experienced author, was particularly concerned that their book be interesting to the general reader as well as useful to the historian, and he appears often to have argued for inclusion of material that illustrated Queen Victoria's personality and character against Esher who was concerned above all with strict propriety and opposed to the inclusion of what he considered trivial--often of course the best indicator of personality.

Ward has clearly spent considerable time with Victoria's voluminous correspondence in attempting to ascertain what her editors put in, what they left out, and above all, why. Ward suggests that Benson particularly, an experienced writer, wanted to find a dramatic story line for Victoria's life up to the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, the period covered by the three volume work. That idealised story that emerged was in Ward's words, "of a young girl pure petite and innocent, under some duress, then ... awakening as she flowered as a constitutional monarch, under the fortunate tutelage of particular and gifted gentlemen" (p. 91). Chief among these was her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, whose correspondence with the young queen captivated the editors just as that avuncular old buck had Victoria herself. As for what the editors left out, the story they constructed had virtually no women in it. Among the Queen's numerous female correspondents, was the uniquely comparable Dona Maria da Gloria II, Queen of Portugal--exactly the same age as Victoria, married to one of her cousins, and dealing with the same problems of reconciling the roles of wife, mother, both queen regnant and queen pregnant. Only one was selected by the editors. And only excerpts appeared from four of hundreds of deeply personal letters written by Victoria's lonely half-sister Princess Feodore, languishing in her German ducal backwater. Benson considered women's letters "very tiresome" (p. 125). As Ward remarks, convention and propriety prohibited any mention of pregnancy, a staggering barrier to any realistic portrait of a woman who was pregnant or confined for exactly a third of the 21 years covered by the three volumes. Yet they became a best seller when published in 1907, and would be the prime authority for Lytton Strachey's celebrated demolition of Queen Victoria published fourteen years later. Esher and Benson's portrait effectively reigned for almost sixty years (almost as long as the queen herself) until finally deposed by the publication of Elizabeth Longford's monumental archive-based biography. Its story is worth telling.

Christopher Kent

University of Saskatchewan
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Author:Kent, Christopher
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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