Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Michael Ledger-Lomas's "Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown"

Michael Ledger-Lomas is a visiting research fellow at King’s College London.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book just consists of endnotes to a chapter, so I've turned to page 89 instead. On page 89, I describe how Protestant moral reformers in Victorian Britain came to regard Queen Victoria as the patron of their determined efforts to rid the land of such social evils as prostitution. I quote the famous purity campaigner W.T. Stead, who described Victoria as the 'incarnate Genius of Womanly Compassion'. I then note though that the very zeal with which such people identified their moralizing passions with Queen Victoria was in some ways a mixed blessing to the royal family. I note that her son Albert Edward the Prince of Wales was constantly being criticised for his defective morals, with such criticism powering the republican movement in the 1860s and 1870s. I finally note that Protestant puritans on occasions criticised the Queen herself for setting a bad moral example. I cite a Canadian temperance journal criticising her published journals for revealing the heavy whisky consumption of her court at her Scottish home, Balmoral Castle.

This page is an excellent illustration both of my book's sources and its argument. My book is a biographical account of Queen Victoria's religious interests and enthusiasms from the beginning of her reign in 1837 to her death in 1901, and it is based to a large extent on the evidence of her private diaries and correspondence. But because Victoria was a Queen who became part of the iconography of not just the British state but the British Empire, it's also a study of the outsized presence that she enjoyed in the lives and imaginations of religious people. Throughout the book, I use the preoccupation of religious people with the religiosity of Queen Victoria to make the broader point that many Victorians regarded reverence for God and reverence for the monarchy as interlocking sources of social power and stability. In my quest to chart religious representations of Victoria, I make much use of printed primary sources of the kind I employ on this page: articles from the religious press and sermons, of which a vast amount survive. These sources often work the same kind of trick that Stead's rhetoric does: they use religious emotion to recast Victoria not as a ruler with distinct powers and duties, but as an inspiration or a friend to her subjects.

I am careful throughout the book though to stress that Victorian religious feeling was never simple, unitary or uncritical. It was not a bottomless well on which the monarchy could draw at its convenience. It was often defined by polemic and controversy - over the right way to worship, on the proper relationship between a Protestant monarchy and other Christian confessions and religions and on how far religious people might go in imposing their principles on society. The result was that Victoria's authority was often invoked to support religious positions that she did not share, such as Sabbath observance. At other times, it was challenged by people, such as High Church Ritualists, who rightly regarded her as hostile to their opinions.

It is finally typical of my book that one of the voices quoted on this page comes from a Canadian journal. I seek throughout the book to show that a generally respectful interest in Victoria's morals and religiosity came to be an important form of imperial solidarity. I draw a lot on the growing body of scholarship which represents both Protestant and Catholic churches in the nineteenth century as transnational forces which were held together by common beliefs but also by common sentiments, which were thought to span the English speaking and British world (overlapping but not synonymous terms). Victoria was by the end of her reign a symbolic catheter for the expressions of such feelings. Many godly people from Victoria, British Columbia to Sydney in New South Wales felt about Victoria as Stead did, even if they might not have expressed themselves with quite such weird fervour.
Learn more about Queen Victoria: This Thorny Crown at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue