An Australian historian’s study of the two men who edited Queen Victoria’s letters and how their methods and choices affected posterity’s view of her.
Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was a remarkably prolific correspondent. According to some historians, she produced upward of “two and half thousand words each day of her adult life [and] sixty million words in the course of her reign.” When she died, her son, Edward VII, commissioned a well-respected official, Reginald Brett, otherwise known as the second Lord Esher, to produce a memorial biography of the late queen. Esher in turn decided to create a publishable collection of her letters up to the death of Albert in 1861. Realizing he could not do the task alone, Esher hired noted essayist, poet and Eton academic Arthur Benson to assist. Esher wanted to create a two-volume collection that focused on Victoria’s relationship to the men who shaped her as a ruler. Benson, however, sought to emphasize the historical and social events in which the queen participated and proposed adding up to two more volumes. Neither sought to consider Victoria’s roles as wife, mother and friend to other women. In her analysis of these two biographers, Ward examines the complex working relationship between them. In particular, she focuses on their internal power plays, which stemmed from their very different temperaments and social classes. Wealthy, charming and polished, Esher had all the advantages, including access to, and influence over, King Edward. Though born to an upper-middle-class family with good connections, the depressive Benson often found himself at odds with aristocrats, even as he struggled to gain acceptance into their circles.
Rich in intrigue, Ward’s book offers not only an enlightening look at the two men who defined Queen Victoria to the future, but also the ways that notions about gender influenced early-20th-century biographical portraiture.