There is a famous portrait of Queen Victoria and her ministers on the day of her accession in 1837. In “Victoria holding a Privy Council meeting,” Sir David Wilkie depicted Victoria as a childlike young woman in white, surrounded by her older, more experienced ministers in dark suits and dress uniforms. The eighteen year old Queen appears ready to be instructed in the business of government by the elder statesmen. The published volumes of the Queen’s correspondence, edited by Viscount Esher and Arthur Benson, seem to confirm the impression created by Wilkie’s art. Just as the painting is not entirely accurate – the new Queen was actually wearing black to mourn the passing of her uncle, King William IV – the edited correspondence presents a distorted portrait of the Queen’s reign. In Censoring Queen Victoria, Yvonne Ward demonstrates how Esher and Benson shaped the Queen’s image, influencing generations of her biographers.
The censorship imposed on Queen Victoria’s journals is well known: her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice rewrote most of the entries and destroyed the originals. The choices made by Esher and Benson in the publication of selections from the Queen’s correspondence are more obscure. Ward convincingly argues that some of Victoria’s most influential biographers treated the published letters as representative first hand sources without considering what was missing. After biographical chapters on Esher and Benson, Ward turns to analysis of the Queen’s original letters, in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, revealing how much the editors omitted from their final publication.
Ward demonstrates that Benson and Esher had little interest in “women’s business.” The depiction of Victoria in Wilkie’s painting as a lone female political figure surrounded by powerful men suited the worldview of the editors. The full range of the Queen’s correspondence, however, reveals that Victoria had numerous female friends and relatives who influenced her decisions. She reached out to other female political figures in her correspondence, most notably Queen Maria II of Portugal. Since Edwardian mores did not allow for the publication of letters discussing pregnancy and childbirth, Victoria’s experiences as a mother were equally censored for public consumption.
Esher and Benson also concealed the full scope of Victoria’s activities as a political figure. In addition to their own biases and Edwardian views of respectability, Benson and Esher also had to contend with the expectations of King Edward VII. The King was not a prolific reader and the editors knew it was unlikely that he would read the full volumes of edited correspondence before publication. Benson and Esher therefore attempted to anticipate the King’s concerns. Since Edward VII was content to be a comparatively impartial constitutional monarch within Britain, the editors omitted letters that revealed the full extent of Victoria’s political opinions and actions as Queen. Victoria the monarch, like Victoria the mother was obscured by the scope of the published correspondence.
Censoring Queen Victoria is fascinating look at the real Queen Victoria and her editors. 113 years after the Queen’s death, the last word on the longest reigning British monarch has yet to be written.
Next week’s Friday Royal Read: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport