Thursday, 26 February 2009

Length and Breadth

The year 1817 brought the deaths of two prominent English women: Jane Austen, in July, and Princess Charlotte, in November. No surer death knell of an age, still rural and feudal, could have sounded, nor could a new era have been so hurriedly, so unexpectedly, ushered in. Jane, after all, was but 42; Charlotte a mere 21. And yet both, in their way, succumbed to the most mundane, most expected, of conditions. Childbirth took Charlotte, after fifty long hours and a small, still born son. Jane, for her part, combined an array of complaints that, separately and in milder doses, she had visited with irony upon a host of her fictional women: faintness and wan looks, lethargy and headache, loss of appetite and recollection. (On Jane they worked without irony, to the death, and their toll on her looks, as her face lost her bloom to black and white blotches, would not do for romance.) Victims of their female condition, at its most pervasive and most ordinary, these two nonetheless brought an age to its close.

For who would rule England now? George III, with all his fifteen legitimate offspring, had now none with an heir to the throne; Charlotte had been one of a kind, and with her died the hope of royal, permissive, continuance. But her agonizing labour almost literally yielded Victoria, for the vacuum created at its close gave rise to such a flurry of jiltings of mistresses and marryings of eligibles and such a rush of pregnancies, among George's until now rather licentious sons, that Victoria's christening table might almost have coldly been furnished with the meats baked for young Charlotte's wake.

And who would write England now? Jane's tiny round table - placed by the window of her cottage, situated at the turn in the road through Chawton, with green open aspect without and crisp painted wood round within - is larger than two inches square, but not much; and the epigrammatical style of her novels more expansive than daubing on ivory, but not much. What could her offspring possibly be?

Yet, as sovereignty grew constrained and its power contracted, the novel swelled out and its impact expanded: no less did Charlotte's lengthy labour straighten England's rule than Austen's tiny worktop swelled out England's fiction.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Progress

In the very last year of her life; when her legs would not walk and her eyes would not see; when news from the front was bewilderingly bad and even triumph seemed protracted and bloody; when her eldest daughter, Empress of Germany, wrote of all but her own fatal illness; and her eldest son, Prince of Wales, was not ripe for the throne despite bearded and bald middle age; when children and grandchildren were dying before her: Victoria resolved to retrench. It was not forced upon her; the day's government, prematurely nostalgic for her dignified rule and somewhat wary of Edward's succession, had grown indulgent. But the country was broken by war with the Boers, in money and in spirit. And the queen would partake of the cost.

But here arose a great disparity between the plethora of expenses incurred by a state that would not relinquish its monarchy - expenses reluctantly borne because so often the price of uncecessary flourish - and the range of tiny outgoings that, by virtue of their nearness to the queen whose vista contracted with age, occurred as occasions for the proper self-mortification. Her bed, she declared, would not yet be mended; and the selection of bread on her table at breakfast would be taken to serious review. Her bed and her bread: small change for an empire, no help to the war; but the greatest sacrifices conceived by a queen, aged, infirm, and so born to her station that its great and costly indulgences came not before her to question, perhaps because even they, at their surface, produced kinds of discomfort.

Her bed and her bread: privation came to her as it came to the many; for the Queen goes a-progress through the lives of her people.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


"Victorian" is the byword for prudery; yet, Victoria was far from a prude. The era is famous for moral constraint; yet, Victoria would not be constrained. During a neverending reign, she never relinquished her infantile will, though - refracted through sovereignty - this might be taken for royal command. And despite expansions of empire, family, and waistline, she never outgrew the flattery of gallant and powerful men.

Lord Melbourne was first: Prime Minister at succession, he was father, advisor and lover all in one, spending hours of most days in her company, instructing her, explicitly, in the business of government and, implicitly, in the pleasures of courtship when one rules in the court. Albert next - intensified Melbourne - in whom Victoria took a marked and persistent physical pleasure and to whom she turned for all cues to her rule. John Brown after that, the warmth and strength of whose broad kilted body grew necessary to the Queen, over 2o years of her widowhood in which he carted her weight into carriages and onto horsebacks and entered her bedroom at will; soon, no intercessions might be made with her that were not passed by this loyal, alluringly impudent, servant.

Last was Disraeli, his part played out so late that it needed the momentum of 35 years of courtship to suspend disbelief. Victoria: increasingly immobile, red-nosed, more like a cook than a queen; Disraeli: bronchial and ageing. But he smoked nonchalantly in defiance of health, and dyed his hair black in defiance of age, and altogther did for the final hurrah. She was his Faery Queen: boxes of primroses went to his door, notes of submission made their humble reply, and courtship continued, as nervous of Gladstone and his plans for reform as it was dimmed by the shade of the last curtain fall.

Disraeli would not see the Queen at his deathbed, though she made the request.