Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Place, Certainly Another Time

Queen Victoria
by Lytton Strachey

This book was a favorite of my late mother-in-law's. I loved her dearly, but did not get to know her very well, as illness began to take her from us by inches around the time I came into the family. I do remember a couple of cozy conversations that we had in her home, discussing books and music. When I learned from E. that this was one she had enjoyed, I resolved to read it, thinking it would give me a window into her reading life. E. also has said that for years this book reigned as an epitome of biographical literature. Even though it is available online, I made sort of a quest out of obtaining this book, inquiring in used bookstores whenever I was browsing. Everyone knows of it, but would say that it sells out quickly, so for years I could not find it. Happily, a copy turned up in a local used bookstore, and E. found it one day when we were dropping off some things to trade in.

Sadly, the quest was more rewarding than the book. It is not terrible, but with a 1921 copyright it is terribly dated. I can deal with an archaic writing style - after all, much of classic literature is not written in the vernacular that we use on a daily basis. What bothered me was that Lytton Strachey tells most of Queen Victoria's story through the sequence of her relationships with various men. First and foremost is her husband Albert, but also the various Prime Ministers and other political leaders who served during her 60+ year reign. He makes patronizing statements about her - she was "diligent and conscientious" but "of limited imagination" and "incapable of grasping the finer points of the British Constitution." He acts like England would have crumbled into the sea without the men behind the scenes, steering the ship. At the same time he praises her devotion to domestic life. It was a different era, and no doubt she did rely on men who could wield their power in more aggressive ways. However, I have to think she was a more interesting woman in her own right than Strachey portrays her. I wanted to know more about Queen Victoria, a woman whose influence still reverberates in our world today. I feel like Strachey gives us a carboard cutout wrought by the culture of the time that she lived in (and maybe some of the time that HE lived in) and expects us to believe that that is the real person.

A little bit of internet searching shows that there are some more recent books about Victoria and her descendants that look to be worth pursuing. Someday soon, perhaps. I was moved by her dedication to her work, and her sense of duty that trumped everything else in her life. I wonder if any of us have that devotion to anything anymore. If anyone out there has read any of the more current literature on Queen Victoria, I would love to know what is worth reading.

Reverent Reader


At 11/19/07, 5:25 PM , Blogger jbl said...

I am an avid reader of Willa Cather, who wrote in the same time frame. Her style, as I would think of most writers, is evolutionary, starting in the late 1800's to the 1940's. Her writing became more sophisticated, because of her broadened experience as time went on, I would guess. But it was all through the lens of the "man's world". So perhaps you should not be so hard on your author in the same time frame, or did I miss the point? I should read the book and make up my own mind, I'm sure.

At 11/19/07, 7:05 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hi JBL - You make a good point. I am used to the style and "lenses" of current biographers and may have been disappointed by this one partly because the world he depicts is so different from the one we live in now. However, Willa Cather and Charlotte Bronte and numerous others seem to be able to tap into the common experience of humanity, acknowledging the fact that it was a "man's world" but still letting the strength and ingenuity of the women shine through. Two things your comment inspires me to do: add Willa Cather to my "must read" list (E.loves her) and pick up some of Strachey's later writings and see if they evolve as you point out that Cather's do. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! LAK

At 11/19/07, 10:48 PM , Blogger jbl said...

Her best, in my estimation, is Song of the Lark, supposedly autobiographical. Written mid-career. It's about music (among a lot of other things), which is why I like it so much.

At 11/20/07, 1:08 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hmmm - interesting, "Song of the Lark" is not one I am familiar with. We have "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and "O Pioneers!" so will probably start with one of those. So many books, too little time!

At 11/20/07, 5:07 PM , Blogger ssf said...

I think it is all in the perspective and humor of the author. Like Bronte and Cather, I think of Trollope and Austen when they seem to poke fun at social confines. Song of the Lark is also a favorite of mine, it hits pretty close to home as the protagonist is an opera singer trying to make a career of it.

At 11/20/07, 9:34 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey SSF - well, this is two of my reader friends highly recommending "Song of the Lark." Definitely going to have to put it on the list to read, sooner rather than later. Also - I agree that Austen is a great example of a writer whose female characters are fascinating in their own right. I have not read Trollope, although I intend to at some point.

At 11/25/07, 8:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ex Libris Fides-
I have not read Victoria however your recap of the book today in light of "The Unearthly Emperor" really was thought provoking. Please read the article on the front page of the Washington Post by Laura Blumenfeld. It is called "A Time to Kill and a Time to Heal" about an Israeli surgeon who saves Palestinian babies by day and then bombs Palestinian terrorists by night (perhaps some of the babie's fathers). I am surprised that the man is not insane. He is literally torn in half by his desire to do God's work as a surgeon and then have to do the work of the Israeli Military by night.

At 11/25/07, 10:24 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hi Anonymous - I am just sitting down with the paper and will be sure to catch the article. Thanks for the recommendation.


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