For a decade, Yvonne M. Ward’s Ph.D. thesis sat in a drawer of her desk. Now it’s been dusted off, polished and published as Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon. Ward, a research associate at Australia’s La Trobe University, reveals how Victoria’s early image—an innocent being guided by strong men—was shaped by two gentlemen, charged with creating a three-volume set of her correspondence. Once they had their thesis, they included letters to bolster their argument, and omitted others that would have portrayed the sovereign as a more rounded figure.
In addition to this Q&A with Yvonne Ward, my review of the book is here.
Q: Queen Victoria died in 1901, the book Letters of Queen Victoria was published in 1907. Why create a three-volume set so soon after her death?
A: They wanted to do something. There had been a whole spate of monuments created for the Golden Jubilee, then she lived on, so at the Diamond Jubilee another lot of commemorative buildings and institutions were put up all over the Empire. So the idea of erecting a monument to mark the end of her life and her reign, was a bit superfluous to many of them. Esher had this idea that people should hear her words, hear her speak, to have something of “her.” To his mind, it had the merit of offering the mourning citizens something of the dear old Queen and perhaps a chance of restoring some of the quiet dignity and majesty to the Crown in a noisy, and rapidly-changing Edwardian world.
Q: These three volumes were everything you could read about her early years. When were more documents available to researchers?
A: The first three volumes were produced, instead of an official biography. Esher decided, “Why not let the queen speak for herself,” That was how he pitched it to the king. They didn’t know how many volumes of letters there really were upon which to draw. For safety sake, they made a cut-off date of Prince Albert’s death in 1861, so it wasn’t too close to living people. They needed distance to protect Edward’s reputation.
The second series, which went to the 1880s, were done in the 1930s by George Buckle, while another three volumes covering the letters of her last years were done immediately after that. So the post-1930s biographers had nine volumes of published letters upon which to draw.
Q: So for a long time researchers didn’t have access to the originals?
A: No. After 1912 researchers did have two volumes of Queen Victoria’s girlhood diaries that Esher had edited. They are much more readable in a lot of ways. It’s fortunate that he did that because they are more reliably in Victoria’s own words. The journal—from the time of the Queen’s marriage in 1840 through the rest of her life—has been rewritten by her daughter, Princess Beatrice, and the originals all burned. So the work he did with those early volumes was invaluable. In fact at the time of editing the letters he was arguing, gently, with Princess Beatrice, and enlisted the help of Queen Mary and King George V to stop her burning the originals. But they couldn’t persuade her.
Q: You recount in Censoring Queen Victoria that Beatrice was going through 122 volumes of Victoria’s diaries, editing, cutting and burning as she went.
A: Yes, she copied or rewrote her mother’s journal into uniform blue volumes, in word total at least matching the size of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. The handwriting is fantastic, clear and legible, much better than Victoria’s, but there are no errors. There is hardly any scratching out. I can’t understand how she did that. Fancy spending 28 years rewriting someone’s diary… But no one knows how much was altered or what was omitted.
Q: It’s almost the worst arson of all time, isn’t it?
A: It was a terrible thing. When I mention it to people, they gasp. What a loss! She couldn’t be persuaded even to lock it away for 100 year—she insisted that it be burnt.
Q: Victoria lived for so long, more than 80 years, a prolific writer. How many of her letters survive?
A: Thousands! She wrote three, four, five, ten letters a day plus her journal. Lots would have been returned to the archive upon her death, as is the tradition when the addressee dies. So a lot of the letters she wrote have been returned to the archives but many others still remain in private collections.
Q: What was the state of the letters when Esher and Benson started thinking about the project?
A: Before Prince Albert came there was a chaotic system of keeping letters. He put in place a system of cataloguing them, and putting them into folders, and that’s the system that stayed until Victoria died. They really needed a few more headings and categories during that 40 years but she wouldn’t let anything be changed. But generally his system had held fairly well. There was a certain degree of order, however more letters surfaced from various places during the editing.
Q: How did they censor Queen Victoria and create an icon?
A: Esher had a much firmer idea about that than Benson, who wanted to show a much broader sense of the personage of the queen. The way they did it was to exclude some letters and highlight other sets of correspondence to create particular images of the queen.
They highlighted the political and disregarded most of her correspondence with women deeming it ‘trivial’. The question people pose is: would the general public have wanted to read all those women’s letters to Queen Victoria? In 1904? Probably no. The editors thought it would not have made her look significant. It was more important to depict her dealing with political issues—which she spent a lot of time doing in reality—than to have her dealing with personal domestic things, or to show that she had a personal, domestic side.
My initial work began with the question: “How do you raise heirs to the throne?” but when I went through the published letters there was basically nothing on that aspect of her life. Even though she had people caring for her children, she had to make decisions and there was hardly any time or space given to those issues, and the births of the babies were mostly just footnotes on the pages. For example after reading about a series of complex political issues, such as the revolution in France in 1848 and the subsequent granting of asylum to the king and his large family, Victoria then faced prospective Chartist protest marches in April. But what is not obvious to the reader is that during this time she has given birth to her fifth child. The discomforts and worries of the weeks before birth are totally ignored or disregarded. When you come across those footnotes, you are jolted into retracing the previous weeks and marvel at what she dealt with, or if you dislike footnotes, you would ignore that detail. Benson and Esher effectively edited that aspect of her life out.
On the other side, they wanted to show King Edward VII how a monarch works with his or her ministers, so a lot of the political stuff of how the queen and Prince Albert dealt with Lord Palmerston, for example, was really designed to instruct Edward how he should deal with his ministers. They didn’t feel he was dealing firmly enough with them, Esher especially. But parliamentary and cabinet government had evolved during her reign and many people believe Edward would not have had the possibility to direct ministers as had Albert and Victoria.
Q: You say they created a “romantic idealization” of her as a young girl with all these strong men around her, and that is our impression of her today?
A: It has stayed, and one of the reasons it stayed is because of a very influential biography by Lytton Strachley in 1921 that won awards and has been in print ever since. He only had access to those Esher volumes, and nearly two thirds of his book is taken up with those years. His chapters, for example, are headed “Lord Melbourne,” “Prince Consort” and “Lord Palmerston.” It wasn’t until Elizabeth Longford’s biography in 1964, when she had access to Queen Victoria’s journal—albeit the one Princess Beatrice rewrote—that she could show a Queen who had had children, a much more rounded figure. They didn’t just appear as footnotes, as in Benson and Esher’s work.
Q: Still, most biographies only partly round her personality?
A: After 100 years and hundreds of biographies, and still more being researched and written, her life is much more fully described now. Benson and Esher had to construct her life, probably with some reliance upon the Dictionary of National Biography entry. But Esher made the decision not to include the Lady Flora Hastings affair, a famous instance. He even suggested to the king that the correspondence relating to that episode be burned, and he burned it. He showed it to the king, who had never heard of it even though political memoirs published in the 1870s had mentioned it. Edward famously didn’t read very much. No one said to him: “Did you know your mother accused this girl of being pregnant and she had cancer?” Even as an enthusiast himself, I think he was uncomfortable to think that his mother knew anything about sex.