Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Book Review: Victoria Victorious

Title: Victoria Victorious

Author: Eleanor A. Hibbert (1906-1993) as Jean Plaidy

Date: 1985

Publisher: Robert Hale / Putnam

ISBN: 0-609-81024-3

Length: 549 pages

Quote: “Albert and I clasped hands and looked at each other in wonderment. Everything is going to be perfect for ever more, I thought!”

Three of the most prolific English women novelists in twentieth-century libraries, Philippa Carr, Victoria Holt,  and Jean Plaidy, were the pen names of a single woman. In real life her name was Eleanor A. Hibbert. As Carr she wrote novels, as Holt she wrote Gothic romances, and as Plaidy she wrote novelized biographies of famous European women. Victoria Victorious is one of those.

So, first, the warning. This is not a real biography based entirely on documentation. Queen Victoria and the people she knew wrote (and saved) hundreds of letters, stories about them leaked into the newspapers, and Victoria even allowed a few biographies of her departed friends to be published during her lifetime, so there’s no shortage of documentation, or of real biographies. If I really wanted to know something about Queen Victoria, I would have read the real biographies, and not just the section of Lytton Strachey’s biography that was in my high school literature book. I read Victoria Victorious first because it was on sale for a good cause and because I was lazy. I would probably have enjoyed the fiction more if I’d read straight facts first.

The U.S. paperback edition contains study questions. One of the questions suggested for studying Victoria Victorious is: what made Victoria victorious? In what way? Over what? This is an interesting question to bear in mind while you read this book, because Queen Victoria was an icon for tradition, domesticity, stability, security...even stuffiness; her life was not characterized by conflict, but this was not perceived as a personal victory of her own so much as a profit of the success Britain had been enjoying for centuries. Plaidy, however, gives Victoria an internal conflict between wanting the publicity of being Queen and wanting to be alone. It’s possible to read Victoria Victorious as a story about the quest of an introvert (LBS, not HSP) for the balance between privacy and publicity that suits her.

The great challenge to any biographer of Queen Victoria must be finding a way to describe Prince Albert that doesn’t turn readers’ stomachs. Albert’s parents’ life was rather scandalous, and Albert seems to have chosen to make his life a perfect model of temperance and rationality, so some readers might be able to pardon his piosity...until the biographer has to address the question of his opposing his wife’s using an anesthetic during childbirth (women were meant to suffer), or dismissing a tutor the young Prince of Wales liked (obviously the tutor wasn’t beating the boy enough). By the standards of my generation he was a repulsive man who lived far too long. How, then, is a writer to present the documentation that Victoria claimed to have loved him?

Without studying the primary documents in any depth, I would have considered her alternatives. Unwillingness to take a vow of perpetual virginity meant that she had to marry someone of royal blood, which at that point in European history meant a cousin, if not an uncle. She had a few other male relatives who were available, and her beloved uncle, Leopold of Belgium, told her Albert would probably be the best of the lot for her to marry. This was probably true, because European royalty had by this time become appallingly inbred; some of the others were or became insane, and some infected their wives with sexually transmitted diseases. At least Albert didn’t have those liabilities.

Plaidy, however, chooses to emphasize Albert’s unlovable qualities. In the framework of a memoir Queen Victoria might have written just after the turn of the century, she lets her fictional character based on Victoria keep repeating what a perfect husband Albert was while consistently remembering only the scenes that would have prompted any other woman to throw something at his head. Her fictional version of Prince Albert constantly addresses Victoria (who was three months older than he was) as “my child” and cheerfully makes peace, after every little disagreement, by putting all the blame entirely on her. The price of peace is self-blame, and Victoria pays it. “He was so good,” the fictional Victoria agrees with this fictional verbal abuser, forty years after his death. “He was a saint. He was right. He always was.” Only at the end of the book does she admit any “disloyal thoughts” like “But was he perfect?”

It’s an interesting fictional device. If you think about it, it’s almost interesting enough to motivate you to read a real biography and look for any evidence that supports this view of the royal marriage.

After the real Prince Albert died, for the next twenty years the real Queen Victoria retreated into Deep Mourning. She wore only black clothes, maintained a mourning atmosphere in the palace, and showed a clear preference for people who were “sensitive” enough to wear black when they visited her. The Prince of Wales moved out and set up his own household, a more cheerful place. The younger children married early and moved out too. Victoria still did her “work” of consulting with the Prime Ministers and signing documents (Plaidy suggests that she didn’t even read them; historians have described her reactions to some of them), and the palace was still well guarded, but the Queen had lots of time to mourn in solitude.

Was her prolonged mourning exacerbated by guilt? Was she consciously aware of having hated Albert or wished he would die, even though she never said so? Or did she just like having some time, each day, to be alone? In a period when people really tried to believe that natural feelings were meant to be suppressed, how can we tell? What is known is that people actually complained. Why did the country still have a Queen, if she wasn’t going to stage any glitzy ceremonies? Eventually Victoria was persuaded to make appearances wearing rubies, diamonds, and ermine trimmings on her black clothes, and celebrate a Silver and then a Diamond Jubilee. Were these compromises signs of a victory over excessive grief...or evidence that Victoria had found the balance between privacy and publicity at last?

And meanwhile, what about the country? Plaidy takes some liberties here, to make her point. Her fictional Victoria reminisces about her feelings about the Prime Ministers, as men, but doesn’t go into any detailed explanations of any proposed legislation they discussed; there are only very brief and detached “memories” of times when Britain actually went to war. The real Victoria might have felt that legislation was more Parliament’s achievement than her own, but somehow I suspect that that obsession with “I liked him...I didn’t like him” tells us more about Plaidy than about Victoria, that the real Queen Victoria would have been able to tell us more about what went on in Parliament, as well as “I hadn’t thought I would like him, but by that time I did.” 

Actually, the pattern of “I hadn’t thought I would like him (or her), but I did” gets to be a running joke.  Introverts typically don’t commit even to liking anyone right away. Apart from Prince Albert, the babies, and the staff of the brand-new royal residence at Balmoral, every new acquaintance Plaidy’s Victoria mentions making is someone who’s there to replace someone she did like, and misses. Her main objection to new people is always that they’re not the person they’re to replace. This emotional reaction continues throughout the book, but she learns to recognize it and take it less seriously as she matures. So there is a valid reason for Plaidy to let her character say so much about it; I merely wonder whether this is the way the real Victoria would have remembered the Prime Ministers.

The part of Victoria Victorious that overlaps with the part of Strachey’s biography I studied sounded familiar as I read it. I happen to have kept the old literature book, so I looked it up. Strachey: “Then she reappeared, and gave a significant order: her bed was to be moved out of her mother’s room.” Plaidy (page 130): “I said to her, ‘Lehzen, my bed is to be removed from my mother’s room.’” Strachey’s account of this period of Queen Victoria’s life moves faster, is more tightly written, summarizes facts in one clause where Plaidy expands them into several scenes, but this resonance of factual details persists throughout this section.

I also spotted resonances with other works of fiction in Victoria Victorious...the kind one expects to see when an incident is factual, but was used in fiction until it became a cliché. As a child Plaidy’s Victoria saved her pennies to buy a big doll, and was taking it home when she saw a beggar who looked so pitiful that she returned the doll and gave the beggar her money. “Like Sara Crewe,” I immediately thought, although of course Sara Crewe kept her doll but gave the beggar the bread. Victoria’s half-sister was sent out of town, and one of their governesses was dismissed, because the sister had been talking to a commoner. “Like several thousand young ladies in cheap romance novels,” I thought. The clichés persist, too.

And of course Plaidy’s Victoria never mentions finding out about the tortured laborers in the Congo, and quickly loses her early interest in child laborers in England. To give the real Victoria credit, the child laborers were Parliament’s problem, but the real Victoria would probably have remembered when some legal protections were conceded to them. The fictional Victoria quickly shows disillusionment with all “reforms,” but the real Victoria presided over several of them and even supported some. Plaidy makes the Queen’s Whig/Liberal sympathies strictly a matter of personal feelings for the group in which she made more friends first; the Queen was supposed to be above politics. I’m not sure how accurate this interpretation was. The real Queen Victoria wanted to be “good,” and although her zest for life could border on greediness (even and especially when it came to mourning), by and large she was “good.” I would have welcomed more attention to the question of how her understanding of “goodness” related to the social reforms that took place during her reign. Perhaps there’s not enough historical evidence to support an answer.

To whom is Victoria Victorious recommended? To readers more conscientious than I’ve been. If you read the nonfiction biographies of Queen Victoria first, you’ll be in a better position to evaluate what Plaidy did in this novel. If not, if you read it strictly as a novel, it will be long. Plaidy’s intended audience seems to have been the reader who is so fascinated with this period that the novel could hardly contain too many scenes imaginatively reconstructed in lifelike detail, or give enough of a sense of how all those charming formalities slowed things down. I’m not sure how many readers like that exist, or how many of them use the Internet...but if you’re one of them, this book is for you.

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