Queen victoria

Letters | 22 September 2016

Remote control Sir: Rachel Wolf argues that in education policy ‘the trend, from Kenneth Baker onwards, has been towards giving schools autonomy and promoting a system where parents choose schools’ (‘Bad grammar’, 17 September). Unfortunately, freedom from local authority control has been replaced with unprecedented central interference and control. For teachers, the burdens created by Ofsted inspections far outweigh those imposed by councils. In real terms, education spending has doubled since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988, yet academic standards have at best stayed still. Wolf cites the success of a few academy chains, ignoring the indifferent performance of most. Her hero Michael Wilshaw has admitted that academies are

Diary – 15 September 2016

The borderline between fact and fiction becomes ever hazier, I find. Last February, Daisy Goodwin — the author of the brilliant new Victoria drama on ITV — took me to an aircraft hangar near Leeds. Cold fog hugged the tarmac and grass outside. We stepped over cables and squeezed past screens. A ringletted woman in a severe dress of the 1830s passed us and said, ‘Guten Morgen!’ As we spoke, our breath made clouds in the freezing Yorkshire air. Wasn’t that the Baroness Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s governess, whom we just passed? A moment later, as the dream continued, we saw the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, another German lady.

James Delingpole

Victoria’s secret: none of it’s true

Did you know that Queen Victoria might never have married Prince Albert had it not been for an amazing stroke of luck on a woodland walk in Windsor Great Park, involving the queen’s beloved spaniel Dash. Dash, as good fortune would have it, managed to break his leg on a handy knife that someone had left lying around. And the hitherto remote and stuffy German princeling, carelessly ripping yet another of his shirts (the second in about a week) to create a makeshift bandage, splinted Dash’s leg with such tender care that flighty Emma knew at once that cold, disapproving Mr Knightley was the man for her. And that, I’m

Super Norma

The Royal Opera has opened the season with a triumph, and in one of the most difficult of operas, Bellini’s Norma. Not only is the work itself extraordinarily demanding on its three leading singers, but it is the one opera which is now so indelibly linked to one singer that all later performances are defined by whether they are in the same mould or whether they are resolutely different. One can’t envy listeners who have never heard Callas, in one or another of her many recordings of Norma, because it is so overwhelming an experience, but it would make life less disappointing than it already tends to be. I preferred

Out of this world | 16 June 2016

It is London in the summer of 1871. Queen Victoria has just opened the Royal Albert Hall in memory of her beloved husband; Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland has just been published, and French refugees from the Franco-Prussian war continue to arrive in the capital. Among them is Claude Monet, who is having a miserable time in the fog and mist. Not far from the Thames views that he had been painting, a fellow artist has just opened her first exhibition of 155 ‘Spirit Drawings’ in a gallery on Old Bond Street, in the heart of London’s art quarter. She was Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), a 57-year-old London-based middle-class

The sport of kings

Queen Victoria disapproved heartily of the racing set and of her son Bertie’s involvement in the sport. But she must have noted a dinner conversation with Bismarck reported to her by Disraeli. The German Chancellor had asked if racing was still encouraged in England. Never more so, said Disraeli, to which Bismarck responded: There will never be socialism in England. You are safe so long as the people are devoted to racing. Here a gentleman cannot ride down the street without 20 persons saying to each other, ’Why has that fellow a horse and I have not one?’ In England the more horses a nobleman has, the more popular he

Away with the fairies | 10 March 2016

As an erstwhile obituarist, I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy (and the subject of Bart Casey’s biography) — when he died, aged 59, in 1888. The first paragraph should (according to the well-seasoned formula) contain some characterising incident or achievement, giving the measure of the man, the impact he made on the world and those around him, and an indication of his interior life. The anecdote must — like cherry-picked quotations for a Shakespeare exam — inform more than one facet of a broader narrative. Any runner-up contenders can be dropped into paragraphs four,

A new track record

Simon Bradley dates the demise of the on-board meal service to 1962, when Pullman services no longer offered croutons with the soup course. That may be a touch fanciful— there were other reasons for the decline, such as faster trains, cost cutting and the growth of fast food. Nevertheless, it is the type of anecdote that illustrates the thoroughness and depth of Bradley’s research. It is indisputable that the railways were the most important invention of the early 19th century. Before their creation, travel between towns and cities was a desperately slow and difficult enterprise and moving goods around was even harder, given the terrible state of the roads. Railways

The bravest of the brave

‘It is the task of a Patton or a Napoleon to persuade soldiers that bits of ribbon are intrinsically valuable. The historian’s job, in part, is to spot contradictions and unravel obfuscations, and the history of the VC is steeped in both.’ To this job of de-obfuscating, Gary Mead, former journalist and military historian, might well add ‘though the heavens fall’. For although he concedes that, remarkably, the Victoria Cross remains ‘one of the few British institutions that is untarnished by accusations of corruption, scandal, political intrigue or manipulation’, the procedure for awarding the highest British decoration for courage in the presence of the enemy is ‘peppered with anomalies, contradictions,

When we were very young

Few monarchs could become novelists. They wouldn’t be able to develop the practice, or possess the necessary temperament. No monarch could sit in the corner of a room observing, or walk the streets unnoticed. They don’t have much of a chance of a long morning working quietly, without interruption, or of seeing what ordinary people are like at their most natural and unselfconscious. (Imagine what changes would have had to take place in Edward VII’s life before he could have thought of writing fiction.) If they are never going to have the chance to observe and to write, they are also unlikely to have the disposition to do so. The

How long is it since anniversaries stopped being measured in years?

‘You must promise to be with us for our silver wedding D.V. which will be in four years,’ wrote Queen Victoria in February 1861 to her daughter Vicky in Prussia, where her husband had just become Crown Prince. But D was not V, and dear Albert was dead before the year was out. I think the German connection is relevant here to the use of silver wedding, for mother and daughter would both have been familiar with the notion of a silberhochzeit. Silver wedding had not long been in English usage, although, in the late 18th century, some people aware of German customs used the phrase silver feast. I was

Sculpture Victorious at Tate Britain reviewed: entertainingly barmy

In the centre of the new exhibition Sculpture Victorious at Tate Britain there is a huge white elephant. The beast is not, I should add, entirely colourless. On the contrary, it has a howdah richly decorated in gold and green, and numerous trappings, and tassels covering its pale grey hide. Its whiteness is entirely proverbial. After all, what can you do with a porcelain pachyderm, standing over seven feet tall? The Victorian period, a text on the wall proclaims, was ‘a golden age for British sculpture’. This is perfectly true, in the sense that a colossal amount of the stuff was turned out during Victoria’s reign. But, as the exhibition

The first Lord Dufferin: the eclipse of a most eminent Victorian

The first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava is largely forgotten today — rotten luck for the great diplomat of the Victorian age. In the second half of the 19th century, Dufferin zoomed around the empire, hoovering up the sweetest plums in the diplomatic service: Governor-General of Canada, ambassador to the courts of Russia, Turkey and Italy, ambassador to France, Viceroy of India. Why did Queen Victoria’s proconsul slip into oblivion? Andrew Gailey, the Vice-Provost of Eton — until now best known as housemaster to Princes William and Harry — answers the question, telling not just Dufferin’s sad, dazzling story but the story of the empire at its high point, before

Sophia Duleep Singh: from socialite to socialist

Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh (1876–1948) had a heritage as confusing as her name. Her father was a deposed Indian maharajah who had been exiled to England, her mother the Cairo-born illegitimate daughter of a German merchant and an Abyssinian slave. The young princess was brought up in considerable splendour on a vast Suffolk estate as a thoroughly anglicised aristocrat who would be presented at court and become an enthusiastic participant in the Season before unexpectedly joining the battle for women’s suffrage. Anita Anand traces what she calls the ‘roots of rebellion’ to Sophia’s father. Duleep Singh had been proclaimed maharajah of the Punjab at the age of six, after

Politics as an aphrodisiac: the secret of the Disraelis’ happy marriage

The long, happy and unlikely marriage of the great Conservative leader Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne, 12 years his senior, is analysed thoughtfully in Daisy Hay’s new book. Reading between the lines, it is possible to see the Disraelis as a Victorian power couple not unlike the Underwoods in Netflix’s remade House of Cards — he, high on his own oratory; she, a valuable campaign asset; together, a marriage that is child-free and (with his sexuality in question) built on blackberries at bedtime. Yet — here’s the twist — they truly loved one another. The Underwoods are bound together in sinister ambition, but the Disraelis make an inspiring emblem

Spectator letters: Scottish Tories, ambulances and Florence Nightingale

The other Tory split Sir: With regard to the article by James Forsyth (‘The great Tory split’, 6 September), there is another dimension to the future of the Conservative party of which the Scottish independence vote is symbolic. The Conservative and Unionist party looks as though it lacks the leadership and the political skills to keep the Union together, certainly to make a convincing job of it. Whichever way the vote goes, it will not reflect well on the Conservative leadership. They are seen as part of an ‘out of touch’ Westminster elite which has neglected not just Scotland but much of England, becoming a party of the south-east rather than

Is there anything left to say about Queen Victoria? A.N. Wilson has found plenty

Do we really need a thumping new life of Queen Victoria? She seems to be one of our most familiar figures, the subject of countless books; but the surprising fact is that there hasn’t been a full, authoritative study since Elizabeth Longford’s life of 1974. A.N. Wilson has spent many years thinking and reading about Queen Victoria, and this superb revisionist biography is the book that he was born to write. In Wilson’s view there are two Victorias. The young Victoria was always someone’s pawn, trying to be a person that she wasn’t. She was in thrall first to Lord Melbourne and then to Baron Stockmar and Prince Albert. Only

A.N. Wilson’s diary: The book that made me a writer – and the pushchair that made me an old git

Like many inward-looking children, I always doodled stories and poems. Knowing one wanted to be a writer is a different matter altogether. That moment came when I read Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. I was sitting in the Temple Reading Room at Rugby. The final paragraph, in which Strachey imagined the dying Victoria at Osborne House, sinking out of consciousness as the scenes of her past life flitted through her brain, struck me as one of the best pieces of writing I had ever encountered. Fifty years on, an unworthy successor, I am about to publish my own life of Victoria. Mine is not hagiography but, like Strachey, and like almost

Queen Victoria with the naughty bits put back

Queen Victoria was the inventor of official royal biography. It was she who commissioned the monumental five-volume life of Prince Albert, a controversial and revealing work. She wrote most of the personal sections herself. She also published bestselling volumes, such as Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. She was a gifted and prolific writer, penning an estimated 2,500 words a day. When she died in 1901, however, there was no authorised biography. Instead, the decision was made to publish her letters. People tend to assume that letters are the truth but, as Yvonne Ward shows in this original and engaging book, selection is everything. The idea

When Scotland goes, will England return?

Who, my husband asked, expects every man will do his duty? He was responding to the interesting and important question that Charles Moore raised last week about the name of the country if Scotland leaves. My husband, naturally, is all for calling it England. Even the Oxford English Dictionary defines England as ‘The inhabitants of England (sometimes also Britain) regarded collectively.’ The Welsh would certainly be aggrieved, and the Northern Irish up in arms. But we can’t include everyone in the national name. Even now, some of the Cornish are cutting up rough. As someone wrote in the Church Times not so long ago: ‘Our villages — Ingleby, Irby, Saxton,