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She Was No Victorian : QUEEN VICTORIA; A Portrait, By Giles St. Aubyn (Atheneum: $24.95; 672 pp.)

February 02, 1992|Florence King | King's new book, "With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy" (St. Martin's Press), will be published in March

Toward the end of Queen Victoria's 64-year reign, an elderly English gentlewoman attended a performance of the tempestuous Sarah Bernhardt in "Antony and Cleopatra." When the final curtain was rung down, the old lady turned to her companion and said: "How different, how very different, from the home life of our dear Queen."

The monarch who came to symbolize traditional family values and middle-class morality grew up under conditions that today's social workers would find disturbingly familiar. The child of a late second marriage, she had two much older half-siblings; her father died when she was 8 months old, and until she married, she shared a bed with her mother. Worst of all, she had three uncles who gave "dysfunctional" new meaning: One was a bigamist, another fathered 10 illegitimate children by his mistress, and the third raped his sister and murdered his valet.

Uncles George IV and William IV both died without legitimate heirs. The third uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, "the most hated man in England," would have succeeded to the throne if his older brother, the Duke of Kent, had remained single and gone on living with his French mistress in Paris. But the middle-aged Kent married a widow, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg, and sired a daughter. According to the English law of succession, the daughter of an older brother takes precedence over his younger brothers and their sons, so the psychotic Cumberland was shunted aside in favor of Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837 at age 18.

Her middle name was Alexandrina after her godfather, Czar Alexander I. Her nanny tied a sprig of holly under her chin to make her hold her head high, one source of the overpowering "presence" that atoned for her lack of beauty. Her mother was once eyed by Napoleon as a possible successor to Josephine, but Victoria, less than five feet tall and cursed with coarse ruddy skin, "looked like a cook." Her best feature was her voice; "like a silver stream flowing over golden stones," according to actress Ellen Terry, though a lady-in-waiting testified that she spoke with a peculiar accent, part Scottish and part foreign, and had a habit of stringing her thoughts together with a German so , pronounced tzo .

In a perceptive new biography, Giles St. Aubyn, author of several other books on the period, including "Infamous Victorians," paints a subtle but lively portrait of a woman composed of equal parts masochism and egotism, who made the seemingly impossible combination work. Never having known her father, "she had an appetite for submission to dominant males." The moment one entered her life she eagerly adopted his ideas, convincing herself that he could do no wrong--which meant that she could do no wrong.

Her first influential father figure was her first prime minister, the cynical Lord Melbourne (husband of the wacky Lady Caroline Lamb, Lord Byron's mistress), whose stern political advice--"For God's sake, don't do that, Ma'am"--was balm to Victoria's paternal yearnings even as it sharpened her governing talents. This irresistible psychological twofer started something that is with us yet. Melbourne, not Prince Albert, was the first male to find himself on the receiving end of those exalted gazes, "with adoring eyes like one of Landseer's spaniels," that Victoria perfected and American political wives try so hard to duplicate. She did it so often and so publicly that the populace nicknamed her "Mrs. Melbourne."

She switched her allegiance the moment "dear, dear Albert" arrived from the German duchy of Saxe-Coburg, the tiny exporter of royal consorts that Bismarck called "the stud farm of Europe." She had met him once before when he was 16 and very fat, but at 20 he was a "beautiful, perfect angel ," though some crusty confreres of the old Duke of Wellington said he looked like a tenor.

Albert's plain living and high thinking did not come naturally to the night-owl Victoria ("danced til quarter to three," she noted in her diary). She abhorred long sermons and Sunday blue laws, and held to "a Christology so reductionist as to verge on Unitarianism." She was also remarkably indulgent toward certain Highland habits:

"The Gillies' Ball at Balmoral was notoriously bacchanalian. The Queen's dinner began about two hours after the festivities began and many of those who waited on her were clearly the worse for drink. Loud crashes could be heard off stage as plates and dishes were dropped, and footmen would often pour wine all over the table in their effort to fill a glass. The Queen, however, would keep the conversation going as if nothing whatever was wrong, rather as a military chaplain might say prayers while shells exploded round him."

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