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Queen of an Age and an Empire

PASSIONATE, strong-willed, resolute, impetuous, unpredictable, yet deeply loyal, the queen who gave her name to an age wrongly identified with hypocrisy, was a woman almost incapable of telling a lie - even if she was sometimes too blinded by the power of her emotions to see anyone's viewpoint but her own.

"If Princess Victoria had been the child of obscure parents, her forceful and intriguing character would have left its mark on those who came across her," writes Giles St. Aubyn in his biography "Queen Victoria: A Portrait."

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"But what made her unique was ... that she was Queen.... Indeed," he goes on to point out, "she was only brought into the world because her father, the Duke of Kent, deemed it his duty to ensure the survival of the House of Hanover, which in 1817 appeared to be threatened with extinction."

Victoria's father died the year after her birth. She was brought up in a largely German household at Kensington Palace to be an English queen. By the time she ascended the throne in 1837, the inexperienced but spirited 18-year- old queen found an ally, friend, and father figure in her wise, worldly prime minister, Lord Melbourne, the first of several men to win her affectionate, mildly romantic regard.

By the time Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister three decades later, Victoria was as ardent and partisan a Tory as she had formerly been a Whig.

Victoria did not lack specific political beliefs: She was pro- imperialist, concerned about the poor, and strongly in favor of religious and racial tolerance. She was diligent, intelligent, and knowledgeable. But her response to her ministers was also intensely personal; Victoria warmed to people who addressed her directly and personally, while she disliked those who addressed her as if she were a public meeting, as she accused Gladstone of doing.

The most important personal and political relationship in Victoria's life was her marriage to her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Although Albert was one of several possible hand-picked candidates groomed to be suitable royal bridegrooms, theirs was also a love match. "It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert - who is beautiful," she declared with her characteristic gusto. But far from settling gracefully into the supporting role of devoted wife, Victoria refused to subordinate herself a nd insisted on her royal prerogatives and powers, even when this relegated her adored husband to secondary status.

Yet the Prince Consort's influence gradually made itself felt. Convinced that the Crown should be above taking sides, Albert worked to move the queen away from partisan politics. He also reformed the wasteful and rather licentious Court that had flourished under the Hanoverians, introducing "what came to be termed Victorian values, though it would no doubt be more exact to speak of them as Albertian," as Victoria's French biographer, Monica Charlot, aptly observes in "Victoria: The Young Queen."

From the sober, high-minded German Albert, the Victorian court learned the values of thrift, hard work, moral fervor, domesticity, and reverence for culture - musical, artistic, literary, and scientific. But he also put a damper on Victoria's love for dancing, theatricals, and staying up late.

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His death in 1861 (he was only 42) left her devastated. Charlot's book, the first of a projected two-volume biography, breaks off at this point, with the queen's sorrowful words, "There is no one to call me Victoria now."

With nine children to look after and a country (indeed, an empire) to help govern, life went on. Although Victoria used her widowhood as an excuse (not all that unjustifiable) to retreat from the public eye, she continued to be a hard-working, well-informed monarch. But it was the dashing Benjamin Disraeli who truly helped restore her spirits and confidence in herself. "During six enhancing, glorious years of partnership [1874-1880], he set the stage for her final apotheosis," notes St. Aubyn. The old Qu een who drove through the clamorous streets of imperial London in 1897 was very much his masterpiece.

A former teacher at Eton and the author of biographies of Macaulay, Edward VII, and others, St. Aubyn has produced a vivacious and engaging portrait of the queen that is knowledgeable and familiar without being patronizingly over-familiar. He has an excellent grasp of detail and a gift for making almost anything, from a political crisis to a domestic dispute, thoroughly fascinating. For some reason, however, he does not provide reference notes, and - worse yet - is prone to strewing his chapters with quo tations from sources identified neither in notes nor in the text itself. His otherwise sound and judicious book boasts well-chosen, interesting illustrations, a chronology, genealogical tables, and a helpful bibliographical essay that pays tribute to earlier works, such as Lady Longford's magisterial biography of Victoria.

Because Charlot's "Victoria: The Young Queen" is more detailed and leisurely, one is tempted to say that it is a little less lively - although more scholarly in manner - than St. Aubyn's study. But in point of fact, it is just as readable and enjoyable in its way. Charlot, a professor of politics at the University of Paris III, has translated and revised this English edition of the book herself - with the appropriate reference notes. She demonstrates a keen understanding of Victoria's difficult and endea ring personality, and writes with a kind of dry wit that enhances rather than undermines the reader's sympathy for this flawed, but admirable woman. Anyone interested in Victoria, the Victorian age, or royal history will enjoy either of these first-rate biographies, and many devotees of Victoriana will probably want to read both.

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