An ever-amusing and not-so-Victorian Queen

Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals, by Christoper Hibbert. New York: Viking. 374 pp. $25. Queen Victoria doesn't exist. Or at least not the stolid, humorless sentimental supporter of the family too many of us have taken for granted. (``We are not amused'' must be the most quoted comment made by any member of the British royal family ever.) That stereotype collapses in the face of the exuberant, highly individual letters and diary entries Christopher Hibbert has chosen for us out of the 60 million words the Queen jotted down in the course of her lifetime. Her style is vigorous, opinionated, irritated, irritating, often very shrewd, always revealing.

Put together in one volume like this, these excerpts give a fascinating picture of the Queen's evolution from a shy (``I will be good'') young princess to the powerful Victoria, grandmother of Europe. But even in her apparently complacent old age she continued to look for someone to lean on, as she had on her husband, Prince Albert.

Every time a prop was removed, she was plunged into grief, though naturally none of it so intense, or so harmful to herself, her children, and her country as her mourning for the Prince Consort. This probably justifies Mr. Hibbert for including so many nearly hysterical expressions of her grief. But they do grow tedious, even wearing down our compassion for a lonely woman facing an executive role totally alien to most of her generation.

This book also provides us with a refreshing antidote for any sense of inferiority the thought of the good old days gives us. Here are some of Victoria's un-Victorian comments:

``I think people marry far too much,'' she says.

``I fear the seventh grand-daughter and fourteenth grandchild becomes a very uninteresting thing -- for it seems to me to go on like the rabbits in Windsor park.''

Nor is she uncritical about the church:

``The only objection I have to him [Prince Leopold's tutor] is that he is a clergyman.''

``You know I am not at all an admirer or approver of our very dull Sundays. . . .''

And what about these comments from those good old days:

``This frightful bloodshed is really too horrible in Europe in the 19th century. With the weapons of today it is really too ghastly, and when this war is at an end, there ought to be some attempt made to find means of preventing such wars once and for all. Otherwise the peoples will become extinct.''

``The Queen has been much distressed by all she has heard and read lately of the deplorable condition of the Home of the Poor in our great towns. . . . She cannot but think that there are questions of less importance than this, which are under discussion, and might wait till one involving the very existence of thousands, nay millions -- had been fully considered by the government.''

Of course, the Queen doesn't always appear in such a sensitive light. And some passages about the affairs of her day are eminently skippable. All the same, we can certainly say yes, we are amused. Very.

Pamela Marsh is the former editor of the Monitor's International Edition.

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