Saturday, 22 February 2014

Queen Victoria

Published 1935
(First read 22/02/2014)

A clever and witty biography in which Benson deals mainly with Victoria as woman and wife rather than queen and empress.  The tone is light, anecdotal, even a bit gossipy; there's humour, some of it ever-so-gently in mock of Her Royal Shortness and killer consort; EFB doesn't bore the pants off us with endless politics and politicians, instead sketching them in with a few skilled strokes; in short, the reader's left feeling that he probably knows enough about Queen Victoria now.  (The edition I have ~ Chatto & Windus, 1987 ~ also has the advantage of being 'lavishly illustrated', which always helps ...)  Not available online.

I just came across this in Mother (1925):
Once only had I seen [the Queen] close and quietly.  For one year, towards the end of the eighties, my father had taken a house on Deeside for August, and we were all invited to Balmoral.  And the diminutive old lady with the prominent blue eyes that looked very fixedly at you and the really beautiful voice, who was so small and so significant, was the head of everything, the incarnation of stability and security, something cosmic. ...  There was, too, something vividly individual about her, and if, never having seen her before, I had observed her walking into some very unexpected place, like a small restaurant in Soho, I verily believe I should have known her for Queen Victoria: nobody else could possibly be quite like that, nor could she possibly have been anyhow different.

Other critics

As a biographer, Mr. Benson has several outstanding qualities, all of which were won, perhaps, from his long apprenticeship to the novel. He has a remarkable ease of narrative, which makes event follow event with precision and grace; he has the collector's fancy for knowing all the facts, no matter how trivial; he has a quiet humor, quite free from any bitterness of wit, that enjoys gossip for its own sake and savors it as a kind of art in itself; and, most important of all, he has the suavity and gentleness of the born spectator, whom nothing can move very deeply but who understands even themost extraordinary aberrations of conduct without feeling contempt for their authors. These are very great gifts for a biographer, since they lead almost inevitably to the production of books which are rich in entertainment and full of information, books that have charm and vivacity and the polish that marks the elegant drawing-room. If they lack power and compelling prophetic insight, it is because they have the defects of their virtues.
~Charles David Abbott in The Saturday Review, 20/04/1935
There is no end to books on Queen Victoria, as, stunned, we contemplate the decay of her world. It is much as if admirers of the full-rigged ship devoted their talents to minute descriptions of the figurehead at the bow. Benson cannot possibly lend her life the acid contrast necessary to such a work, for he is the chief dispenser of Victorian memorabilia, and his volume, As We Were, successfully concealed, with innate charm, just what the Victorians were.
The chief interest to be found in a biography of Victoria is the attitude of the biographer. Granted that Lytton Strachey presented her unfairly, it must be admitted in the concession that he made a brilliant job of it. Benson treads in fearfully, being of angelic disposition, and sets about gracefully admitting the basis of Strachey’s libel, mitigating it with an amused tolerance which never swerves from printing, when pressed, the approximate truth. Where the author of Eminent Victorians once toyed wittily with a vast machine of politics, Benson is more concerned with giving a domestic background to Victoria’s life, though the facets of her career which must delight all amateur psychologists glitter occasionally by reflection in Benson’s amused eyes. Just why such a lush field is permitted to lie fallow, when the psychologists are so thorough in digging into the past, must be only a matter of diminishing royalties if such liberties are ever taken with a Royalty considerably diminished herself.
I read the book with interest chiefly in perusing an estimate of England’s queen by a gentleman antithetical to Lytton Strachey’s attitudes. Though it may be true that the latter lost considerable esteem in the obituaries the English critics paid him, Benson’s work, with its access to official archives, at least absolves Strachey of mendacity and rehabilitates much that the wittier man belittled. Benson’s book is the last word in gentleness. Until another Strachey - preferably John, or any other good Marxian - cares to survey the past of this remarkable queen, Benson’s biography will remain a standard work.
~Laurence Stallings in The American Mercury, 06/1935

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