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Victoria’s Reign

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Queen Victoria and Her Ministers. By Sir John A. R. Marriott. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.50. The Queen and Mr. Gladstone. By Philip Guedalla. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

If there were any necessity for doing it, Sir John Marriott’s “Queen Victoria and Her Ministers” and Philip Guedalla’s “The Queen and Mr. Gladstone,” the thoroughly agreeing products of historians widely separated in attitude and method, would utterly dispel the notion that in England in the nineteenth century the Crown was not politically important. They show over and again, and in great detail, the vast authority that Victoria possessed and used. Quite apart from her rank, she had one source of enormous superiority, particularly over any of her late Prime Ministers. There were some instances of remarkable periods of service among them—Gladstone, for one, dead in 1898, had begun as a colleague of Wellington—but none of them approached the Queen. Gladstone and Disraeli, Lord Derby and Lord Salisbury, could go and come back, and go again; there was always ready at Windsor or Buckingham Palace, to receive them and to dismiss them, the same enduring little figure, always shrewder and wiser as the years went by, and always a little more conscious, particularly since the arch-charmer Disraeli, that there was no great distinction between herself and the Empire. By Gladstone’s first premiership in 1868 she had presided over thirteen governments ; by the time of her death she had had twenty changes of ministry and ten separate Prime Ministers: Gladstone four times; Derby and Salisbury three times; Palmerston, Peel, Lord John Russell, and Disraeli twice; and Aberdeen, Melbourne, and Lord Rosebery. From the birth of her first Prime Minister to the death of her next-to-last stretches a span of a century and a half: Melbourne was born in 1779, Lord Rosebery died five years ago. Rosebery was fifty years old when he was Prime Minister; Victoria had been trained, drilled, and coached six hours a day by Lord Melbourne, and had had as Prime Minister “the greatest member of Parliament that England ever saw,” Sir Robert Peel, before Lord Rosebery was born. Add that she was vigorous, determined, and arbitrary, had the strongest convictions on what was right and what had to be done, and for sixty-odd years faithfully and carefully read every important state paper. She was the Queen, but, more important, she knew. She had the vast superiority of long and continuous service.

Sir John Marriott’s plain and unvarnished work gives the essential facts and dates, the leading events of each ministry, its policies or lack of them, the causes of its downfall, and the character of each Prime Minister. It is a well-ordered and deceptively simple narrative of the political changes of the reign, from Melbourne to Salisbury. Without any rhetorical flourishes or adornments, it makes an admirable introduction to its subject. There are no attempts in it to deduce ironical inconsistency, hidden cause, secret motive, or psychological conflict, or in short to present anything but the facts intelligently ordered—although it contains a good deal of incidental but erudite information. Of the Ladies of the Household, for example, the Mistress of the Robes changes with the Ministry, but the Ladies in Waiting do not; and the Queen may consult private individuals on political matters, but only provided that they are not in opposition.

Mr. Guedalla’s work is that of an editor, but an unusually energetic one. He has published here some twelve hundred letters and telegrams—three hundred more in the English edition seem to have been omitted, for some reason—between Gladstone and the Queen and her private secretaries. Five-sixths of them are hitherto unpublished. In addition we are given a fifty-thousand word narrative, analysis and running commentary, compact, lucid, and dramatic, covering all the important problems of the reign—though not, like the letters, a vast number of its unimportant problems. There is more than politics in the story; there are humor, pathos, and drama, and the clash of personality, training, and ideas. Mr. Guedalla does not miss any of it, particularly the humor. “It is a sobering reflection that for some years the general view of Mr. Gladstone was that he was flighty.”

His chief concern is to rectify the injustice done his leading characters by certain clever-shallow literary operators, one of whose major errors has been to describe them as unchanging, not subject to growth—reducing them for the sake of expediency to an impossible simplicity, and hence quite failing to solve the problem to which Mr. Guedalla sets himself, the slow but emphatic and at last complete divergence between the Queen and Gladstone. To his mind the problem is explained by the growth of the two. There were three Victorias: the blushing and laughing girl described by Creevey, the wife of Albert, the Queen-Empress; and there were four Gladstones: the Oxonian, the Peelite, the Liberal, and finally the Grand Old Man, “half Major Prophet, half force of nature,” leaning more and more, with all his towering strength of will and purpose, towards Radicalism—and away from Victoria.

Mr. Guedalla sees the gradual but at last entire conflict between the two as a result of that natural divergence of attitude and purpose. The divergence was natural enough, but it had definite agents, chief among them the Earl of Bea-consfield. When Albert died, the Queen, lonely, sought shelter and support, and in particular wanted to share in a reciprocal sympathy. Mr. Gladstone was sympathetic, but, as Guedalla says, it was unfortunate that he was not himself lonely. Then the Queen found a celebrated widower. In addition to being quite willing to be lonely, Disraeli was unusual—and the unusual always interested her. Interest, solicitude, courtly tenderness, and consummate flattery soon led to fascination. It was not until Victoria knew Disraeli that she had fully realized what a Queen was—and then, by a crowning and supreme act of the most felicitous diplomacy, he made her Queen-Empress. “Monarchs have often raised their ministers a step in the peerage; but what minister before Disraeli bestowed a step in the monarchy upon his sovereign?” From then on Victoria, born and bred a Whig, was a Conservative, and from then on any minister who disagreed with her, and any member of Parliament who was in opposition, was simply and entirely a wrong-headed man. Dead in 1881, Disraeli had done his work; he had created a new Victoria, as Albert had done. Do what he would, Gladstone, when he came back, could not put himself in sympathy with the Queen, nor could she understand or like him. The second Victoria had admired and liked the young Peelite. To the third, Gladstone was not a Grand Old Man; he was “an old, wild and incomprehensible man.”


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