2013, 173 p.
We’re told that it’s all about controlling the narrative. Politicians all do it, it seems; and we risk losing control of our narrative by putting too much of our lives onto the internet, we’re told. All this might seem far removed from good old Queen Victoria, but on reading Unsuitable for Publication, I’ve realized that it isn’t. Then and now, it’s all about image creation and the interplay between the image we think we have constructed and the image that others might massage or manipulate from our words.
Queen Victoria was a huge correspondent. She wrote 122 volumes of her diaries over her long life and she maintained a large correspondence with her family members so widely dispersed amongst the royal families of Europe, as well as a vast network of communication amongst politicians, and other notables. It has been estimated that she wrote an average of 2500 words each day of her adult life, and perhaps sixty million words in the course of her reign (p.9). What to do with all this writing? Her daughter Princess Beatrice thought that she knew. Queen Victoria had appointed her as her literary executor, and after her mother’s death and over 30 years she copied the entries of the 122 diary volumes into 111 thick exercise-books, altering and censoring anything liable to ‘affect any of the family painfully’, then burnt the originals. Interestingly, Victoria herself had published extracts from her own journals while she was on the throne, so she wasn’t beyond a bit of image-creation herself.
Immediately after Victoria’s death, Lord Esher, the Secretary of the Office of Works was charged with organizing the funeral and the subsequent coronation of Edward VII. But he had other plans as well: most importantly, to publish the Queen’s correspondence. There was the problem, of course, of Princess Beatrice the Diary Burner, but also of King Edward VII himself who needed to be brought round to the idea and wished to ‘control the narrative’ himself (without doing any of the work himself, of course). Lord Esher was appointed editor and he himself subcontracted the school-master A.C.Benson to do much of the grunt-work. The result was the three-volume publication in 1907 of Victoria’s letters which has been the main source for scholars ever since.
So, who were these two editors? As the blurb on the back of the book says:
The Queen’s two editors, Viscount Esher and Arthur Benson, were deeply eccentric men. Both old boys of Eton, they moved in a world of gentlemen’s clubs, passionate male relationships and hidden political networks. Benson, a schoolmaster and author, suffered badly from depression. Esher was a calculating and ambitious politician, a powerful puller of royal strings- and wrote incestuous letters to his son. Together, they would decide how the Queen was remembered.
This book is not so much about Queen Victoria, as the way that these two eccentric, homosocial men edited Queen Victoria’s correspondence and the effect that their selections and excisions have had on the image of Queen Victoria that has come to us today. The book is written in two parts. Part I ‘The Editors’ examines the task at hand and the men chosen to complete it. It commences with the manoeuvres undertaken to gain approval to embark on publication, then the next two chapters deal in turn with the two editors themselves. These are, indeed, strange, strange men. Chapter 4 describes the convoluted process of locating the letters, cataloguing them, making selections, retyping, typesetting and then submitting them to the successive editing eye of the biographer John Morley, followed by Queen Victoria’s erstwhile private secretary Arthur Bigge, then finally the King himself. Chapter 5 describes the editing process itself, and the practical difficulties of coping with excisions made at a late stage on pages that had already been typeset without disrupting the pages that followed.
Part II examines the nature of the excisions and the way that they influenced the image that was created of Queen Victoria. It was not consciously duplicitous, but it was not accurate either. As 19th century literary gentlemen, Lord Esher and Arthur Benson were oblivious to the contacts that Queen Victoria had with other women, seeing only the powerful men who surrounded her. They were keen to underplay the European influence on the British Queen especially through King Leopold of Belgium; the foreignness of Prince Albert was always a bit awkward; there were the political sensitivities to be stepped around regarding Victoria’s mother and Sir John Conroy her advisor, and Victoria’s ministers and their heirs (both political and natural) had to be considered. Queen Victoria’s fecundity is widely acknowledged, but the practical consequences of long years of successive pregnancies was beyond the ken of her gentleman editors. In the second half of the book Ward explores these blind spots, and the effect that they would have on the portrayal of Queen Victoria through the selection of letters to be published. Through gaining access to the correspondence passing between the editors and the publisher, and by reference to existing letters in other collections, she has been able to reconstruct some of originals before the excisions were made by the editors and stripped back further still by courtiers and the King himself on grounds that were not clearly specified. It’s a fascinating story.
All this talk of publication has turned my attention to the format and marketing of this book itself, especially as I’ve been thinking recently (and rather prematurely I suspect) about publication of Ph.D theses in a digital age. Unsuitable for Publication is published by Black Inc, a lively and large Australian general publishing firm. In her acknowledgments, Ward particularly mentions the historian John Hirst, who has himself published with Black Inc. thereby probably reaching many more readers than he had previously with his articles in academic journals and earlier books. Yvonne Ward says of John Hirst “Not only was he persistent in convincing me that the thesis should be published but he did the initial abridgement to persuade Chris Feik [of Black Inc.,] as well. Without his efforts the book would have remained in the thesis”.
There are no footnotes in the text itself, although there are notes at the back that I did not find at first. There is a reference list of archives consulted, but the secondary and more academic literature is listed only in the notes rather than an alphabetical bibliography. The index is very useful: there wasn’t a single thing that I looked for afterwards that I wasn’t able to locate. The text itself is large and widely spaced. The narrative moves along at a good clip, and certainly all the theoretical discussion that would have been in the original thesis has been stripped away for a more general readership.
So did I miss these academic conventions? At times, yes. Perhaps this is where digital repositories of academic works might come into their own: to provide the ‘academic’ version of a work available commercially for a broader general readership. Although it is quite clear that the editors were strange men, even for then, I felt as if I needed more guidance about what was beyond the pale in terms of masculine and gentlemanly expectations at the time. I would have been interested to have heard more about her own methodology in reconstructing the excisions- not necessarily as the ‘methodology chapter’ of a PhD thesis but as a human story. I have heard her speak about this (see this interview) , and particularly given the general readership, I think that she as historian and writer could be more present as “I” in the text- especially as it’s a good story, and well within the ‘history detective’ mode popular in television media today.
In some of the reviews I have read of the book, the reviewers were disappointed that she didn’t ‘dish the dirt’ on Queen Victoria. I don’t think that it was ever her intention. In this regard, I think that perhaps the cover of the book, striking though it is, has not served her well. It shows the beautiful Winterhalter portrait of Queen Victoria from 1843 which Victoria herself commissioned as a surprise birthday present for Albert in the fourth year of their marriage- a very deliberate bit of image-making on Victoria’s part within the intimacy of her relationship with her husband. A piece of black tape covers Victoria’s eyes. The title ‘Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria’ is exactly what this book delivers, but the picture is so alluring and suggestive that for some readers it might arouse expectations of scandal that are not met and, indeed, were never intended to be met.
Her blurbs are garnered from two well known British historians (Robert Lacey and David Cannadine) but Robert Lacey’s in particular also suggests a salaciousness that is not found in the book: “exposed the gentlemanly networks that tried to hide the truth about Queen Victoria”. Other comments on the back cover also hint at a ‘sexy’ story: “it was not the full story” and “intimate friendships with other royal European women”. Each of these comments is true, but perhaps rather misleading. I’m very much aware that authors have little say over the marketing aspects of their work.
That said, I found this book absolutely fascinating. The ease of its telling almost belies the depth of research that has gone into it. It has been carefully reshaped for a general readership, while retaining fidelity to the academic task that it undertook to complete, and I hope that many readers enjoy it on its own terms.