What the editors of Queen Victoria’s letters left out

A review of ‘Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon’ by Yvonne Ward

MAC15_BOOK_COVERS01Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon

By Yvonne Ward

By reigning longer than any previous monarch, Queen Victoria had been transformed from a sovereign to mother of the empire by the time she died in 1901. Yet, for all the monuments that dot the world, those tributes are dwarfed by that created in paper and ink by Viscount Esher and Arthur Benson. Their work—a three-volume selection of the monarch’s early correspondence—forged a “romantic idealization” of Victoria: the pure, innocent girl who “flowered as a constitutional monarch, under the fortunate tutelage of particular and gifted gentlemen,” including her prime ministers and her husband, Prince Albert. Though the authors desperately wanted it to be a bestseller, they couldn’t risk alienating the one person who could nix the project: Edward VII. “We are between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Benson wrote. “The king will be furious if we violate confidence, and displeased if the book is dull.”

The idea for the project came from Esher, who lived from one royal patronage appointment to another. Work started in 1904 under the day-to-day editorship of Arthur Benson, a teacher at Eton who’d written the stirringly patriotic lyrics for Land of Hope and Glory. It was an enormous task. Victoria was a prolific letter writer. In addition to 460 “roughly catalogued” volumes, letters kept being discovered throughout Windsor Castle, including those from her eldest daughter found in a vault under the Grand Staircase. As Ward explains in her enjoyable, meticulously researched book, pruning Victoria’s immense correspondence down to a coherent three-volume book gave the editors the freedom to “tell a dramatic story, the shape and significance of which they would determine.”

Anything that didn’t follow their central thesis was eliminated, including Victoria’s notorious impetuosity: Lost was the damaging scandal that enveloped the teenage monarch in 1839 after she gossiped that Lady Flora Hastings, a lady of the bedchamber to her estranged mother, was pregnant and that she suspected the father was John Conroy, whom Victoria had hated for his control over her mother’s household. In fact, Hastings had a fatal liver tumour.

They also excised anything of political consequence in pre-First World War Europe, including calling an Austrian emperor “an utter nullity.” In the end, their tactics paid off. Published in 1907, the book has been treated as gospel by historians, creating a Victoria legend that lives on.

PATRICIA TREBLE




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