Lord Palmerston’s laugh — a queer metallic “Ha! ha! ha!” with reverberations in it from the days of Pitt and the Congress of Vienna — was heard no more in Piccadilly; Lord John Russell dwindled into senility; Lord Derby tottered from the stage. A new scene opened; and new protagonists — Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli — struggled together in the limelight. Victoria, from her post of vantage, watched these developments with that passionate and personal interest which she invariably imported into politics. Her prepossessions were of an unexpected kind. Mr. Gladstone had been the disciple of her revered Peel, and had won the approval of Albert; Mr. Disraeli had hounded Sir Robert to his fall with hideous virulence, and the Prince had pronounced that he “had not one single element of a gentleman in his composition.” Yet she regarded Mr. Gladstone with a distrust and dislike which steadily deepened, while upon his rival she lavished an abundance of confidence, esteem, and affection such as Lord Melbourne himself had hardly known.
Her attitude towards the Tory Minister had suddenly changed when she found that he alone among public men had divined her feelings at Albert’s death. Of the others she might have said “they pity me and not my grief;” but Mr. Disraeli had understood; and all his condolences had taken the form of reverential eulogies of the departed. The Queen declared that he was “the only person who appreciated the Prince.” She began to show him special favour; gave him and his wife two of the coveted seats in St. George’s Chapel at the Prince of Wales’s wedding, and invited him to stay a night at Windsor. When the grant for the Albert Memorial came before the House of Commons, Disraeli, as leader of the Opposition, eloquently supported the project. He was rewarded by a copy of the Prince’s speeches, bound in white morocco, with an inscription in the royal hand. In his letter of thanks he “ventured to touch upon a sacred theme,” and, in a strain which re-echoed with masterly fidelity the sentiments of his correspondent, dwelt at length upon the absolute perfection of Albert. “The Prince,” he said, “is the only person whom Mr. Disraeli has ever known who realised the Ideal. None with whom he is acquainted have ever approached it. There was in him a union of the manly grace and sublime simplicity, of chivalry with the intellectual splendour of the Attic Academe. The only character in English history that would, in some respects, draw near to him is Sir Philip Sidney: the same high tone, the same universal accomplishments, the same blended tenderness and vigour, the same rare combination of romantic energy and classic repose.” As for his own acquaintance with the Prince, it had been, he said, “one of the most satisfactory incidents of his life: full of refined and beautiful memories, and exercising, as he hopes, over his remaining existence, a soothing and exalting influence.” Victoria was much affected by “the depth and delicacy of these touches,” and henceforward Disraeli’s place in her affections was assured. When, in 1866, the Conservatives came into office, Disraeli’s position as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House necessarily brought him into a closer relation with the Sovereign. Two years later Lord Derby resigned, and Victoria, with intense delight and peculiar graciousness, welcomed Disraeli as her First Minister.
But only for nine agitated months did he remain in power. The Ministry, in a minority in the Commons, was swept out of existence by a general election. Yet by the end of that short period the ties which bound together the Queen and her Premier had grown far stronger than ever before; the relationship between them was now no longer merely that between a grateful mistress and a devoted servant: they were friends. His official letters, in which the personal element had always been perceptible, developed into racy records of political news and social gossip, written, as Lord Clarendon said, “in his best novel style.” Victoria was delighted; she had never, she declared, had such letters in her life, and had never before known EVERYTHING. In return, she sent him, when the spring came, several bunches of flowers, picked by her own hands. He despatched to her a set of his novels, for which, she said, she was “most grateful, and which she values much.” She herself had lately published her “Leaves from the Journal of our Life in the Highlands,” and it was observed that the Prime Minister, in conversing with Her Majesty at this period, constantly used the words “we authors, ma’am.” Upon political questions, she was his staunch supporter. “Really there never was such conduct as that of the Opposition,” she wrote. And when the Government was defeated in the House she was “really shocked at the way in which the House of Commons go on; they really bring discredit on Constitutional Government.” She dreaded the prospect of a change; she feared that if the Liberals insisted upon disestablishing the Irish Church, her Coronation Oath might stand in the way. But a change there had to be, and Victoria vainly tried to console herself for the loss of her favourite Minister by bestowing a peerage upon Mrs. Disraeli.
Mr. Gladstone was in his shirt-sleeves at Hawarden, cutting down a tree, when the royal message was brought to him. “Very significant,” he remarked, when he had read the letter, and went on cutting down his tree. His secret thoughts on the occasion were more explicit, and were committed to his diary. “The Almighty,” he wrote, “seems to sustain and spare me for some purpose of His own, deeply unworthy as I know myself to be. Glory be to His name.”
The Queen, however, did not share her new Minister’s view of the Almighty’s intentions. She could not believe that there was any divine purpose to be detected in the programme of sweeping changes which Mr. Gladstone was determined to carry out. But what could she do? Mr. Gladstone, with his daemonic energy and his powerful majority in the House of Commons, was irresistible; and for five years (1869–74) Victoria found herself condemned to live in an agitating atmosphere of interminable reform — reform in the Irish Church and the Irish land system, reform in education, reform in parliamentary elections, reform in the organisation of the Army and the Navy, reform in the administration of justice. She disapproved, she struggled, she grew very angry; she felt that if Albert had been living things would never have happened so; but her protests and her complaints were alike unavailing. The mere effort of grappling with the mass of documents which poured in upon her in an ever-growing flood was terribly exhausting. When the draft of the lengthy and intricate Irish Church Bill came before her, accompanied by an explanatory letter from Mr. Gladstone covering a dozen closely-written quarto pages, she almost despaired. She turned from the Bill to the explanation, and from the explanation back again to the Bill, and she could not decide which was the most confusing. But she had to do her duty: she had not only to read, but to make notes. At last she handed the whole heap of papers to Mr. Martin, who happened to be staying at Osborne, and requested him to make a precis of them. When he had done so, her disapproval of the measure became more marked than ever; but, such was the strength of the Government, she actually found herself obliged to urge moderation upon the Opposition, lest worse should ensue.
In the midst of this crisis, when the future of the Irish Church was hanging in the balance, Victoria’s attention was drawn to another proposed reform. It was suggested that the sailors in the Navy should henceforward be allowed to wear beards. “Has Mr. Childers ascertained anything on the subject of the beards?” the Queen wrote anxiously to the First Lord of the Admiralty. On the whole, Her Majesty was in favour of the change. “Her own personal feeling,” she wrote, “would be for the beards without the moustaches, as the latter have rather a soldierlike appearance; but then the object in view would not be obtained, viz. to prevent the necessity of shaving. Therefore it had better be as proposed, the entire beard, only it should be kept short and very clean.” After thinking over the question for another week, the Queen wrote a final letter. She wished, she said, “to make one additional observation respecting the beards, viz. that on no account should moustaches be allowed without beards. That must be clearly understood.”
Changes in the Navy might be tolerated; to lay hands upon the Army was a more serious matter. From time immemorial there had been a particularly close connection between the Army and the Crown; and Albert had devoted even more time and attention to the details of military business than to the processes of fresco-painting or the planning of sanitary cottages for the deserving poor. But now there was to be a great alteration: Mr. Gladstone’s fiat had gone forth, and the Commander-in-Chief was to be removed from his direct dependence upon the Sovereign, and made subordinate to Parliament and the Secretary of State for War. Of all the liberal reforms this was the one which aroused the bitterest resentment in Victoria. She considered that the change was an attack upon her personal position — almost an attack upon the personal position of Albert. But she was helpless, and the Prime Minister had his way. When she heard that the dreadful man had yet another reform in contemplation — that he was about to abolish the purchase of military commissions — she could only feel that it was just what might have been expected. For a moment she hoped that the House of Lords would come to the rescue; the Peers opposed the change with unexpected vigour; but Mr. Gladstone, more conscious than ever of the support of the Almighty, was ready with an ingenious device. The purchase of commissions had been originally allowed by Royal Warrant; it should now be disallowed by the same agency. Victoria was faced by a curious dilemma: she abominated the abolition of purchase; but she was asked to abolish it by an exercise of sovereign power which was very much to her taste. She did not hesitate for long; and when the Cabinet, in a formal minute, advised her to sign the Warrant, she did so with a good grace.
Unacceptable as Mr. Gladstone’s policy was, there was something else about him which was even more displeasing to Victoria. She disliked his personal demeanour towards herself. It was not that Mr. Gladstone, in his intercourse with her, was in any degree lacking in courtesy or respect. On the contrary, an extraordinary reverence impregnated his manner, both in his conversation and his correspondence with the Sovereign. Indeed, with that deep and passionate conservatism which, to the very end of his incredible career, gave such an unexpected colouring to his inexplicable character, Mr. Gladstone viewed Victoria through a haze of awe which was almost religious — as a sacrosanct embodiment of venerable traditions — a vital element in the British Constitution — a Queen by Act of Parliament. But unfortunately the lady did not appreciate the compliment. The well-known complaint —“He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting-” whether authentic or no — and the turn of the sentence is surely a little too epigrammatic to be genuinely Victorian — undoubtedly expresses the essential element of her antipathy. She had no objection to being considered as an institution; she was one, and she knew it. But she was a woman too, and to be considered ONLY as an institution — that was unbearable. And thus all Mr. Gladstone’s zeal and devotion, his ceremonious phrases, his low bows, his punctilious correctitudes, were utterly wasted; and when, in the excess of his loyalty, he went further, and imputed to the object of his veneration, with obsequious blindness, the subtlety of intellect, the wide reading, the grave enthusiasm, which he himself possessed, the misunderstanding became complete. The discordance between the actual Victoria and this strange Divinity made in Mr. Gladstone’s image produced disastrous results. Her discomfort and dislike turned at last into positive animosity, and, though her manners continued to be perfect, she never for a moment unbent; while he on his side was overcome with disappointment, perplexity, and mortification.
Yet his fidelity remained unshaken. When the Cabinet met, the Prime Minister, filled with his beatific vision, would open the proceedings by reading aloud the letters which he had received from the Queen upon the questions of the hour. The assembly sat in absolute silence while, one after another, the royal missives, with their emphases, their ejaculations, and their grammatical peculiarities, boomed forth in all the deep solemnity of Mr. Gladstone’s utterance. Not a single comment, of any kind, was ever hazarded; and, after a fitting pause, the Cabinet proceeded with the business of the day.
Little as Victoria appreciated her Prime Minister’s attitude towards her, she found that it had its uses. The popular discontent at her uninterrupted seclusion had been gathering force for many years, and now burst out in a new and alarming shape. Republicanism was in the air. Radical opinion in England, stimulated by the fall of Napoleon III and the establishment of a republican government in France, suddenly grew more extreme than it ever had been since 1848. It also became for the first time almost respectable. Chartism had been entirely an affair of the lower classes; but now Members of Parliament, learned professors, and ladies of title openly avowed the most subversive views. The monarchy was attacked both in theory and in practice. And it was attacked at a vital point: it was declared to be too expensive. What benefits, it was asked, did the nation reap to counterbalance the enormous sums which were expended upon the Sovereign? Victoria’s retirement gave an unpleasant handle to the argument. It was pointed out that the ceremonial functions of the Crown had virtually lapsed; and the awkward question remained whether any of the other functions which it did continue to perform were really worth L385,000 per annum. The royal balance-sheet was curiously examined. An anonymous pamphlet entitled “What does she do with it?” appeared, setting forth the financial position with malicious clarity. The Queen, it stated, was granted by the Civil List L60,000 a year for her private use; but the rest of her vast annuity was given, as the Act declared, to enable her “to defray the expenses of her royal household and to support the honour and dignity of the Crown.” Now it was obvious that, since the death of the Prince, the expenditure for both these purposes must have been very considerably diminished, and it was difficult to resist the conclusion that a large sum of money was diverted annually from the uses for which it had been designed by Parliament, to swell the private fortune of Victoria. The precise amount of that private fortune it was impossible to discover; but there was reason to suppose that it was gigantic; perhaps it reached a total of five million pounds. The pamphlet protested against such a state of affairs, and its protests were repeated vigorously in newspapers and at public meetings. Though it is certain that the estimate of Victoria’s riches was much exaggerated, it is equally certain that she was an exceedingly wealthy woman. She probably saved L20,000 a year from the Civil List, the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster were steadily increasing, she had inherited a considerable property from the Prince Consort, and she had been left, in 1852, an estate of half a million by Mr. John Neild, an eccentric miser. In these circumstances it was not surprising that when, in 1871, Parliament was asked to vote a dowry of L30,000 to the Princess Louise on her marriage with the eldest son of the Duke of Argyle, together with an annuity of L6,000, there should have been a serious outcry9.
9 In 1889 it was officially stated that the Queen’s total savings from the Civil List amounted to L824,025, but that out of this sum much had been spent on special entertainments to foreign visitors. Taking into consideration the proceeds from the Duchy of Lancaster, which were more than L60,000 a year, the savings of the Prince Consort, and Mr. Neild’s legacy, it seems probable that, at the time of her death, Victoria’s private fortune approached two million pounds.
In order to conciliate public opinion, the Queen opened Parliament in person, and the vote was passed almost unanimously. But a few months later another demand was made: the Prince Arthur had come of age, and the nation was asked to grant him an annuity of L15,000. The outcry was redoubled. The newspapers were filled with angry articles; Bradlaugh thundered against “princely paupers” to one of the largest crowds that had ever been seen in Trafalgar Square; and Sir Charles Dilke expounded the case for a republic in a speech to his constituents at Newcastle. The Prince’s annuity was ultimately sanctioned in the House of Commons by a large majority; but a minority of fifty members voted in favour of reducing the sum to L10,000.
Towards every aspect of this distasteful question, Mr. Gladstone presented an iron front. He absolutely discountenanced the extreme section of his followers. He declared that the whole of the Queen’s income was justly at her personal disposal, argued that to complain of royal savings was merely to encourage royal extravagance, and successfully convoyed through Parliament the unpopular annuities, which, he pointed out, were strictly in accordance with precedent. When, in 1872, Sir Charles Dilke once more returned to the charge in the House of Commons, introducing a motion for a full enquiry into the Queen’s expenditure with a view to a root and branch reform of the Civil List, the Prime Minister brought all the resources of his powerful and ingenious eloquence to the support of the Crown. He was completely successful; and amid a scene of great disorder the motion was ignominiously dismissed. Victoria was relieved; but she grew no fonder of Mr. Gladstone.
It was perhaps the most miserable moment of her life. The Ministers, the press, the public, all conspired to vex her, to blame her, to misinterpret her actions, to be unsympathetic and disrespectful in every way. She was “a cruelly misunderstood woman,” she told Mr. Martin, complaining to him bitterly of the unjust attacks which were made upon her, and declaring that “the great worry and anxiety and hard work for ten years, alone, unaided, with increasing age and never very strong health” were breaking her down, and “almost drove her to despair.” The situation was indeed deplorable. It seemed as if her whole existence had gone awry; as if an irremediable antagonism had grown up between the Queen and the nation. If Victoria had died in the early seventies, there can be little doubt that the voice of the world would have pronounced her a failure.
But she was reserved for a very different fate. The outburst of republicanism had been in fact the last flicker of an expiring cause. The liberal tide, which had been flowing steadily ever since the Reform Bill, reached its height with Mr. Gladstone’s first administration; and towards the end of that administration the inevitable ebb began. The reaction, when it came, was sudden and complete. The General Election of 1874 changed the whole face of politics. Mr. Gladstone and the Liberals were routed; and the Tory party, for the first time for over forty years, attained an unquestioned supremacy in England. It was obvious that their surprising triumph was pre-eminently due to the skill and vigour of Disraeli. He returned to office, no longer the dubious commander of an insufficient host, but with drums beating and flags flying, a conquering hero. And as a conquering hero Victoria welcomed her new Prime Minister.
Then there followed six years of excitement, of enchantment, of felicity, of glory, of romance. The amazing being, who now at last, at the age of seventy, after a lifetime of extraordinary struggles, had turned into reality the absurdest of his boyhood’s dreams, knew well enough how to make his own, with absolute completeness, the heart of the Sovereign Lady whose servant, and whose master, he had so miraculously become. In women’s hearts he had always read as in an open book. His whole career had turned upon those curious entities; and the more curious they were, the more intimately at home with them he seemed to be. But Lady Beaconsfield, with her cracked idolatry, and Mrs. Brydges–Williams, with her clogs, her corpulence, and her legacy, were gone: an even more remarkable phenomenon stood in their place. He surveyed what was before him with the eye of a past-master; and he was not for a moment at a loss. He realised everything — the interacting complexities of circumstance and character, the pride of place mingled so inextricably with personal arrogance, the superabundant emotionalism, the ingenuousness of outlook, the solid, the laborious respectability, shot through so incongruously by temperamental cravings for the coloured and the strange, the singular intellectual limitations, and the mysteriously essential female elements impregnating every particle of the whole. A smile hovered over his impassive features, and he dubbed Victoria “the Faery.” The name delighted him, for, with that epigrammatic ambiguity so dear to his heart, it precisely expressed his vision of the Queen. The Spenserian allusion was very pleasant — the elegant evocations of Gloriana; but there was more in it than that: there was the suggestion of a diminutive creature, endowed with magical — and mythical — properties, and a portentousness almost ridiculously out of keeping with the rest of her make-up. The Faery, he determined, should henceforward wave her wand for him alone. Detachment is always a rare quality, and rarest of all, perhaps, among politicians; but that veteran egotist possessed it in a supreme degree. Not only did he know what he had to do, not only did he do it; he was in the audience as well as on the stage; and he took in with the rich relish of a connoisseur every feature of the entertaining situation, every phase of the delicate drama, and every detail of his own consummate performance.
The smile hovered and vanished, and, bowing low with Oriental gravity and Oriental submissiveness, he set himself to his task. He had understood from the first that in dealing with the Faery the appropriate method of approach was the very antithesis of the Gladstonian; and such a method was naturally his. It was not his habit to harangue and exhort and expatiate in official conscientiousness; he liked to scatter flowers along the path of business, to compress a weighty argument into a happy phrase, to insinuate what was in his mind with an air of friendship and confidential courtesy. He was nothing if not personal; and he had perceived that personality was the key that opened the Faery’s heart. Accordingly, he never for a moment allowed his intercourse with her to lose the personal tone; he invested all the transactions of State with the charms of familiar conversation; she was always the royal lady, the adored and revered mistress, he the devoted and respectful friend. When once the personal relation was firmly established, every difficulty disappeared. But to maintain that relation uninterruptedly in a smooth and even course a particular care was necessary: the bearings had to be most assiduously oiled. Nor was Disraeli in any doubt as to the nature of the lubricant. “You have heard me called a flatterer,” he said to Matthew Arnold, “and it is true. Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” He practiced what he preached. His adulation was incessant, and he applied it in the very thickest slabs. “There is no honor and no reward,” he declared, “that with him can ever equal the possession of your Majesty’s kind thoughts. All his own thoughts and feelings and duties and affections are now concentrated in your Majesty, and he desires nothing more for his remaining years than to serve your Majesty, or, if that service ceases, to live still on its memory as a period of his existence most interesting and fascinating.” “In life,” he told her, “one must have for one’s thoughts a sacred depository, and Lord Beaconsfield ever presumes to seek that in his Sovereign Mistress.” She was not only his own solitary support; she was the one prop of the State. “If your Majesty is ill,” he wrote during a grave political crisis, “he is sure he will himself break down. All, really, depends upon your Majesty.” “He lives only for Her,” he asseverated, “and works only for Her, and without Her all is lost.” When her birthday came he produced an elaborate confection of hyperbolic compliment. “To-day Lord Beaconsfield ought fitly, perhaps, to congratulate a powerful Sovereign on her imperial sway, the vastness of her Empire, and the success and strength of her fleets and armies. But he cannot, his mind is in another mood. He can only think of the strangeness of his destiny that it has come to pass that he should be the servant of one so great, and whose infinite kindness, the brightness of whose intelligence and the firmness of whose will, have enabled him to undertake labours to which he otherwise would be quite unequal, and supported him in all things by a condescending sympathy, which in the hour of difficulty alike charms and inspires. Upon the Sovereign of many lands and many hearts may an omnipotent Providence shed every blessing that the wise can desire and the virtuous deserve!” In those expert hands the trowel seemed to assume the qualities of some lofty masonic symbol — to be the ornate and glittering vehicle of verities unrealised by the profane.
Such tributes were delightful, but they remained in the nebulous region of words, and Disraeli had determined to give his blandishments a more significant solidity. He deliberately encouraged those high views of her own position which had always been native to Victoria’s mind and had been reinforced by the principles of Albert and the doctrines of Stockmar. He professed to a belief in a theory of the Constitution which gave the Sovereign a leading place in the councils of government; but his pronouncements upon the subject were indistinct; and when he emphatically declared that there ought to be “a real Throne,” it was probably with the mental addition that that throne would be a very unreal one indeed whose occupant was unamenable to his cajoleries. But the vagueness of his language was in itself an added stimulant to Victoria. Skilfully confusing the woman and the Queen, he threw, with a grandiose gesture, the government of England at her feet, as if in doing so he were performing an act of personal homage. In his first audience after returning to power, he assured her that “whatever she wished should be done.” When the intricate Public Worship Regulation Bill was being discussed by the Cabinet, he told the Faery that his “only object” was “to further your Majesty’s wishes in this matter.” When he brought off his great coup over the Suez Canal, he used expressions which implied that the only gainer by the transaction was Victoria. “It is just settled,” he wrote in triumph; “you have it, Madam . . . Four millions sterling! and almost immediately. There was only one firm that could do it — Rothschilds. They behaved admirably; advanced the money at a low rate, and the entire interest of the Khedive is now yours, Madam.” Nor did he limit himself to highly-spiced insinuations. Writing with all the authority of his office, he advised the Queen that she had the constitutional right to dismiss a Ministry which was supported by a large majority in the House of Commons, he even urged her to do so, if, in her opinion, “your Majesty’s Government have from wilfulness, or even from weakness, deceived your Majesty.” To the horror of Mr. Gladstone, he not only kept the Queen informed as to the general course of business in the Cabinet, but revealed to her the part taken in its discussions by individual members of it. Lord Derby, the son of the late Prime Minister and Disraeli’s Foreign Secretary, viewed these developments with grave mistrust. “Is there not,” he ventured to write to his Chief, “just a risk of encouraging her in too large ideas of her personal power, and too great indifference to what the public expects? I only ask; it is for you to judge.”
As for Victoria, she accepted everything — compliments, flatteries, Elizabethan prerogatives — without a single qualm. After the long gloom of her bereavement, after the chill of the Gladstonian discipline, she expanded to the rays of Disraeli’s devotion like a flower in the sun. The change in her situation was indeed miraculous. No longer was she obliged to puzzle for hours over the complicated details of business, for now she had only to ask Mr. Disraeli for an explanation, and he would give it her in the most concise, in the most amusing, way. No longer was she worried by alarming novelties; no longer was she put out at finding herself treated, by a reverential gentleman in high collars, as if she were some embodied precedent, with a recondite knowledge of Greek. And her deliverer was surely the most fascinating of men. The strain of charlatanism, which had unconsciously captivated her in Napoleon III, exercised the same enchanting effect in the case of Disraeli. Like a dram-drinker, whose ordinary life is passed in dull sobriety, her unsophisticated intelligence gulped down his rococo allurements with peculiar zest. She became intoxicated, entranced. Believing all that he told her of herself, she completely regained the self-confidence which had been slipping away from her throughout the dark period that followed Albert’s death. She swelled with a new elation, while he, conjuring up before her wonderful Oriental visions, dazzled her eyes with an imperial grandeur of which she had only dimly dreamed. Under the compelling influence, her very demeanour altered. Her short, stout figure, with its folds of black velvet, its muslin streamers, its heavy pearls at the heavy neck, assumed an almost menacing air. In her countenance, from which the charm of youth had long since vanished, and which had not yet been softened by age, the traces of grief, of disappointment, and of displeasure were still visible, but they were overlaid by looks of arrogance and sharp lines of peremptory hauteur. Only, when Mr. Disraeli appeared, the expression changed in an instant, and the forbidding visage became charged with smiles. For him she would do anything. Yielding to his encouragements, she began to emerge from her seclusion; she appeared in London in semi-state, at hospitals and concerts; she opened Parliament; she reviewed troops and distributed medals at Aldershot. But such public signs of favour were trivial in comparison with her private attentions. During his flours of audience, she could hardly restrain her excitement and delight. “I can only describe my reception,” he wrote to a friend on one occasion, “by telling you that I really thought she was going to embrace me. She was wreathed with smiles, and, as she tattled, glided about the room like a bird.” In his absence, she talked of him perpetually, and there was a note of unusual vehemence in her solicitude for his health. “John Manners,” Disraeli told Lady Bradford, “who has just come from Osborne, says that the Faery only talked of one subject, and that was her Primo. According to him, it was her gracious opinion that the Government should make my health a Cabinet question. Dear John seemed quite surprised at what she said; but you are used to these ebullitions.” She often sent him presents; an illustrated album arrived for him regularly from Windsor on Christmas Day. But her most valued gifts were the bunches of spring flowers which, gathered by herself and her ladies in the woods at Osborne, marked in an especial manner the warmth and tenderness of her sentiments. Among these it was, he declared, the primroses that he loved the best. They were, he said, “the ambassadors of Spring, the gems and jewels of Nature.” He liked them, he assured her, “so much better for their being wild; they seem an offering from the Fauns and Dryads of Osborne.” “They show,” he told her, “that your Majesty’s sceptre has touched the enchanted Isle.” He sat at dinner with heaped-up bowls of them on every side, and told his guests that “they were all sent to me this morning by the Queen from Osborne, as she knows it is my favorite flower.”
As time went on, and as it became clearer and clearer that the Faery’s thraldom was complete, his protestations grew steadily more highly — coloured and more unabashed. At last he ventured to import into his blandishments a strain of adoration that was almost avowedly romantic. In phrases of baroque convolution, he conveyed the message of his heart. “The pressure of business,” he wrote, had “so absorbed and exhausted him, that towards the hour of post he has not had clearness of mind, and vigour of pen, adequate to convey his thoughts and facts to the most loved and illustrious being, who deigns to consider them.” She sent him some primroses, and he replied that he could “truly say they are ‘more precious than rubies,’ coming, as they do, and at such a moment, from a Sovereign whom he adores.” She sent him snowdrops, and his sentiment overflowed into poetry. “Yesterday eve,” he wrote, “there appeared, in Whitehall Gardens, a delicate-looking case, with a royal superscription, which, when he opened, he thought, at first, that your Majesty had graciously bestowed upon him the stars of your Majesty’s principal orders.” And, indeed, he was so impressed with this graceful illusion, that, having a banquet, where there were many stars and ribbons, he could not resist the temptation, by placing some snowdrops on his heart, of showing that, he, too, was decorated by a gracious Sovereign.
Then, in the middle of the night, it occurred to him, that it might all be an enchantment, and that, perhaps, it was a Faery gift and came from another monarch: Queen Titania, gathering flowers, with her Court, in a soft and sea-girt isle, and sending magic blossoms, which, they say, turn the heads of those who receive them.
A Faery gift! Did he smile as he wrote the words? Perhaps; and yet it would be rash to conclude that his perfervid declarations were altogether without sincerity. Actor and spectator both, the two characters were so intimately blended together in that odd composition that they formed an inseparable unity, and it was impossible to say that one of them was less genuine than the other. With one element, he could coldly appraise the Faery’s intellectual capacity, note with some surprise that she could be on occasion “most interesting and amusing,” and then continue his use of the trowel with an ironical solemnity; while, with the other, he could be overwhelmed by the immemorial panoply of royalty, and, thrilling with the sense of his own strange elevation, dream himself into a gorgeous phantasy of crowns and powers and chivalric love. When he told Victoria that “during a somewhat romantic and imaginative life, nothing has ever occurred to him so interesting as this confidential correspondence with one so exalted and so inspiring,” was he not in earnest after all? When he wrote to a lady about the Court, “I love the Queen — perhaps the only person in this world left to me that I do love,” was he not creating for himself an enchanted palace out of the Arabian Nights, full of melancholy and spangles, in which he actually believed? Victoria’s state of mind was far more simple; untroubled by imaginative yearnings, she never lost herself in that nebulous region of the spirit where feeling and fancy grow confused. Her emotions, with all their intensity and all their exaggeration, retained the plain prosaic texture of everyday life. And it was fitting that her expression of them should be equally commonplace. She was, she told her Prime Minister, at the end of an official letter, “yours aff’ly V. R. and I.” In such a phrase the deep reality of her feeling is instantly manifest. The Faery’s feet were on the solid earth; it was the ruse cynic who was in the air.
He had taught her, however, a lesson, which she had learnt with alarming rapidity. A second Gloriana, did he call her? Very well, then, she would show that she deserved the compliment. Disquieting symptoms followed fast. In May, 1874, the Tsar, whose daughter had just been married to Victoria’s second son, the Duke of Edinburgh, was in London, and, by an unfortunate error, it had been arranged that his departure should not take place until two days after the date on which his royal hostess had previously decided to go to Balmoral. Her Majesty refused to modify her plans. It was pointed out to her that the Tsar would certainly be offended, that the most serious consequences might follow; Lord Derby protested; Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, was much perturbed. But the Faery was unconcerned; she had settled to go to Balmoral on the 18th, and on the 18th she would go. At last Disraeli, exercising all his influence, induced her to agree to stay in London for two days more. “My head is still on my shoulders,” he told Lady Bradford. “The great lady has absolutely postponed her departure! Everybody had failed, even the Prince of Wales . . . and I have no doubt I am not in favour. I can’t help it. Salisbury says I have saved an Afghan War, and Derby compliments me on my unrivalled triumph.” But before very long, on another issue, the triumph was the Faery’s. Disraeli, who had suddenly veered towards a new Imperialism, had thrown out the suggestion that the Queen of England ought to become the Empress of India. Victoria seized upon the idea with avidity, and, in season and out of season, pressed upon her Prime Minister the desirability of putting his proposal into practice. He demurred; but she was not to be baulked; and in 1876, in spite of his own unwillingness and that of his entire Cabinet, he found himself obliged to add to the troubles of a stormy session by introducing a bill for the alteration of the Royal Title. His compliance, however, finally conquered the Faery’s heart. The measure was angrily attacked in both Houses, and Victoria was deeply touched by the untiring energy with which Disraeli defended it. She was, she said, much grieved by “the worry and annoyance” to which he was subjected; she feared she was the cause of it; and she would never forget what she owed to “her kind, good, and considerate friend.” At the same time, her wrath fell on the Opposition. Their conduct, she declared, was “extraordinary, incomprehensible, and mistaken,” and, in an emphatic sentence which seemed to contradict both itself and all her former proceedings, she protested that she “would be glad if it were more generally known that it was HER wish, as people WILL have it, that it has been FORCED UPON HER!” When the affair was successfully over, the imperial triumph was celebrated in a suitable manner. On the day of the Delhi Proclamation, the new Earl of Beaconsfield went to Windsor to dine with the new Empress of India. That night the Faery, usually so homely in her attire, appeared in a glittering panoply of enormous uncut jewels, which had been presented to her by the reigning Princes of her Raj. At the end of the meal the Prime Minister, breaking through the rules of etiquette, arose, and in a flowery oration proposed the health of the Queen–Empress. His audacity was well received, and his speech was rewarded by a smiling curtsey.
These were significant episodes; but a still more serious manifestation of Victoria’s temper occurred in the following year, during the crowning crisis of Beaconsfield’s life. His growing imperialism, his desire to magnify the power and prestige of England, his insistence upon a “spirited foreign policy,” had brought him into collision with Russia; the terrible Eastern Question loomed up; and when war broke out between Russia and Turkey, the gravity of the situation became extreme. The Prime Minister’s policy was fraught with difficulty and danger. Realising perfectly the appalling implications of an Anglo–Russian war, he was yet prepared to face even that eventuality if he could obtain his ends by no other method; but he believed that Russia in reality was still less desirous of a rupture, and that, if he played his game with sufficient boldness and adroitness, she would yield, when it came to the point, all that he required without a blow. It was clear that the course he had marked out for himself was full of hazard, and demanded an extraordinary nerve; a single false step, and either himself, or England, might be plunged in disaster. But nerve he had never lacked; he began his diplomatic egg-dance with high assurance; and then he discovered that, besides the Russian Government, besides the Liberals and Mr. Gladstone, there were two additional sources of perilous embarrassment with which he would have to reckon. In the first place there was a strong party in the Cabinet, headed by Lord Derby, the Foreign Secretary, which was unwilling to take the risk of war; but his culminating anxiety was the Faery.
From the first, her attitude was uncompromising. The old hatred of Russia, which had been engendered by the Crimean War, surged up again within her; she remembered Albert’s prolonged animosity; she felt the prickings of her own greatness; and she flung herself into the turmoil with passionate heat. Her indignation with the Opposition — with anyone who ventured to sympathise with the Russians in their quarrel with the Turks — was unbounded. When anti-Turkish meetings were held in London, presided over by the Duke of Westminster and Lord Shaftesbury, and attended by Mr. Gladstone and other prominent Radicals, she considered that “the Attorney–General ought to be set at these men;” “it can’t,” she exclaimed, “be constitutional.” Never in her life, not even in the crisis over the Ladies of the Bedchamber, did she show herself a more furious partisan. But her displeasure was not reserved for the Radicals; the backsliding Conservatives equally felt its force. She was even discontented with Lord Beaconsfield himself. Failing entirely to appreciate the delicate complexity of his policy, she constantly assailed him with demands for vigorous action, interpreted each finesse as a sign of weakness, and was ready at every juncture to let slip the dogs of war. As the situation developed, her anxiety grew feverish. “The Queen,” she wrote, “is feeling terribly anxious lest delay should cause us to be too late and lose our prestige for ever! It worries her night and day.” “The Faery,” Beaconsfield told Lady Bradford, “writes every day and telegraphs every hour; this is almost literally the case.” She raged loudly against the Russians. “And the language,” she cried, “the insulting language — used by the Russians against us! It makes the Queen’s blood boil!” “Oh,” she wrote a little later, “if the Queen were a man, she would like to go and give those Russians, whose word one cannot believe, such a beating! We shall never be friends again till we have it out. This the Queen feels sure of.”
The unfortunate Prime Minister, urged on to violence by Victoria on one side, had to deal, on the other, with a Foreign Secretary who was fundamentally opposed to any policy of active interference at all. Between the Queen and Lord Derby he held a harassed course. He gained, indeed, some slight satisfaction in playing on the one against the other — in stimulating Lord Derby with the Queen’s missives, and in appeasing the Queen by repudiating Lord Derby’s opinions; on one occasion he actually went so far as to compose, at Victoria’s request, a letter bitterly attacking his colleague, which Her Majesty forthwith signed, and sent, without alteration, to the Foreign Secretary. But such devices only gave a temporary relief; and it soon became evident that Victoria’s martial ardour was not to be sidetracked by hostilities against Lord Derby; hostilities against Russia were what she wanted, what she would, what she must, have. For now, casting aside the last relics of moderation, she began to attack her friend with a series of extraordinary threats. Not once, not twice, but many times she held over his head the formidable menace of her imminent abdication. “If England,” she wrote to Beaconsfield, “is to kiss Russia’s feet, she will not be a party to the humiliation of England and would lay down her crown,” and she added that the Prime Minister might, if he thought fit, repeat her words to the Cabinet. “This delay,” she ejaculated, “this uncertainty by which, abroad, we are losing our prestige and our position, while Russia is advancing and will be before Constantinople in no time! Then the Government will be fearfully blamed and the Queen so humiliated that she thinks she would abdicate at once. Be bold!” “She feels,” she reiterated, “she cannot, as she before said, remain the Sovereign of a country that is letting itself down to kiss the feet of the great barbarians, the retarders of all liberty and civilisation that exists.” When the Russians advanced to the outskirts of Constantinople she fired off three letters in a day demanding war; and when she learnt that the Cabinet had only decided to send the Fleet to Gallipoli she declared that “her first impulse” was “to lay down the thorny crown, which she feels little satisfaction in retaining if the position of this country is to remain as it is now.” It is easy to imagine the agitating effect of such a correspondence upon Beaconsfield. This was no longer the Faery; it was a genie whom he had rashly called out of her bottle, and who was now intent upon showing her supernal power. More than once, perplexed, dispirited, shattered by illness, he had thoughts of withdrawing altogether from the game. One thing alone, he told Lady Bradford, with a wry smile, prevented him. “If I could only,” he wrote, “face the scene which would occur at headquarters if I resigned, I would do so at once.”
He held on, however, to emerge victorious at last. The Queen was pacified; Lord Derby was replaced by Lord Salisbury; and at the Congress of Berlin der alte Jude carried all before him. He returned to England in triumph, and assured the delighted Victoria that she would very soon be, if she was not already, the “Dictatress of Europe.”
But soon there was an unexpected reverse. At the General Election of 1880 the country, mistrustful of the forward policy of the Conservatives, and carried away by Mr. Gladstone’s oratory, returned the Liberals to power. Victoria was horrified, but within a year she was to be yet more nearly hit. The grand romance had come to its conclusion. Lord Beaconsfield, worn out with age and maladies, but moving still, an assiduous mummy, from dinner-party to dinner-party, suddenly moved no longer. When she knew that the end was inevitable, she seemed, by a pathetic instinct, to divest herself of her royalty, and to shrink, with hushed gentleness, beside him, a woman and nothing more. “I send some Osborne primroses,” she wrote to him with touching simplicity, “and I meant to pay you a little visit this week, but I thought it better you should be quite quiet and not speak. And I beg you will be very good and obey the doctors.” She would see him, she said, “when we, come back from Osborne, which won’t be long.” “Everyone is so distressed at your not being well,” she added; and she was, “Ever yours very aff’ly V.R.I.” When the royal letter was given him, the strange old comedian, stretched on his bed of death, poised it in his hand, appeared to consider deeply, and then whispered to those about him, “This ought to be read to me by a Privy Councillor.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00