21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 16

Pomp and circumstance

Philip Ziegler

Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times Vol. 1 1819-1861 Cecil Woodham-Smith (Harnish Hamilton £4.50)

Can there be anything new to 'say about Queen Victoria? Each generation, we know, must re-interpret the heroes of former ages, but in this case the job has been more than adequately done by Lady Longford only a few years ago. Of course there is always room for the specialist study, the academic monograph, but can there really be a case for another full-dress biography intended for the general reader? Mrs Woodham-Smith's quality as an historian and a writer is too well known to require extolling, yet when she undertakes this enterprise she must expect to run the gauntlet of captious critics intent on establishing in what way her Victoria differs from earlier models.

Her pace is leisurely. We have reached page 52 before Victoria has passed her second birthday, page 138 before she accedes to the throne, the end of this volume with Albert barely lowered into the grave. On the whole the tempo is justified. Mrs Woodham-Smith's description of the Queen's youth is the most rewarding part of this book. The story has, of course, all the qualities of a high-class pantomime specially staged for the readers of Woman's Own. Cinderella Victoria, the dim but plucky little Princess, is held

captive by her mother, the Ugly Duchess, who has fallen under the spell of the Wicked Stepfather, Sir John Conroy. Together this dastardly pair plot to bend the Princess to their will. Indomitably the Princess holds out, helped only by Faithful Family Retainer, I,ehzen, and occasional off-stage interventions by the Good Fairy, Leopold. In the end, of course, comes the Transformation Scene. Dim but plucky little Princess blossoms forth as refulgent Majesty, the Wicked Stepfather is banished and the Ugly Duchess kindly but firmly put in her place.

It is vastly to Mrs Woodham-Smith's credit that she makes this hackneyed tale fresh and interesting. The Kensington System has never been better described, there is much material about Conroy which has not been used before and the excitement is well maintained even though the end of the plot will be known to every reader. The author's technique of accumulating a mass of minor but picturesque details around a strong story-line has rarely been used to better advantage.

The technique serves rather less happily when it comes to the reign itself. Though foreign affairs are generously covered there is an almost total lack of discussion or, still more strangely, of any serious consideration of Victoria's role as monarch. When politics do stray in, their treatment is somewhat slapdash, even indifferent. It is startling to read that William IV greeted the Reform Bill with "furious and hysterical opposition" or that Feargus O'Connor was "the Nationalist leader." We are told that Melbourne instructed the young Queen in contempo rary politics, yet given no hint as to what he might have told her; that Albert was given the key to the Cabinet boxes, yet not what might have been inside them. When the Tories replace the Whigs the affair is presented uniquely in terms of the personalities involved; there is no suggestion that ideas or principles might have played a part. In a sense this last is fair enough: the Queen undoubtedly saw the issue in terms of Peel against Melbourne, as later she was to see it as Gladstone against Disraeli. But she was not blind to other questions; still less did she neglect the problems of her own constitutional position. One is all too well used to those biographers who eschew personalities and sweep the comic or revealing details under the carpet with the distaste of a vengeful charwoman.

"Professor Ragbag," one comments in mingled awe and dismay, "is very much a political biographer." Heaven forfend that Mrs Woodham-Smith should emulate the doughty professor but one may still wish that she had not written quite so resolutely non-political a book. Victoria was too important a Queen to consider exclusively in personal terms.

This one reservation apart there is much to enjoy and admire in these pages. The author has sifted diligently through the mountainous archives, the narrative flows with pace and animation, the detail is telling and skilfully selected. Surprisingly it is Albert and not the young Queen who emerges as the more interesting figure. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for this Prince Hamlet perplexedly trying to find his role among the cast of Henry the Fourth, Part One. His moods and his toothaches, his stiff formality and torturing shyness, his foreign ways and his operatic airs, all made him a figure of fun in the eyes of the native aristocracy. His conscientiousness, his good sense, his usually admirable taste, his sensitivity, were misunderstood or, more damaging still, dismissed as un-English. In time he was tolerated, but he was never admired or loved. Yet his contribution to the national life was great, his qualities imposing. The Queen grew to depend on him absolutely and he never let her down.

And so one returns to the original question: can there be anything new to say about Queen Victoria, or at least anything which is not to be found in Lady Longford's earlier biography? The latter takes some 300 pages to cover the period which Mrs Woodham-Smith deals with in 430. This means that we gain much extra detail, some of it important and much of it entertaining. We have, for instance, the text of an extraordinary letter which the Prince Consort wrote to his eldest son when the latter was inveigled into bed with an actress and which Lady Longford merely refers to as "long, reproachful but forgiving." Albert visualized his son in the witness box, hearing "before a greedy Multitude disgusting details of your profligacy . . . cross-examined by a railing indecent attorney and hooted and yelled at by a Lawless Mob!! Oh horrible prospect . . . " Almost as extraordinary is Victora's reaction: "Oh! that boy . . . I never can or shall look at him without a shudder." But it is fair to say that such moments of new illumination come rarely. For those who want to read the best biography of Queen Victoria, Lady Longford's more incisive study is still to be preferred. Yet no admirer of Mrs Woodham-Smith or aficionado of the Great Queen need fear disappointment in this handsome volume.

Philip Ziegler is currently at work upon a biography of Lord Melbourne.