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The Revealing Tale of Queen Victoria's Early Biography

The Queen, her biographer and 'not one word of truth'

Date: 24 May 2024

Author: Gabrielle Fields

In November 1839, two years into her reign, Queen Victoria announced her engagement to Prince Albert. The couple had met at Kensington Palace, and Victoria had soon proposed marriage to the handsome man she called 'an angel'.

It was a big moment for Victoria, and for the country. The engagement prompted one of the first biographies of the young Queen: Agnes Strickland’s Queen Victoria from her Birth to her Bridal.

But the book's release was a disaster. Victoria disliked it so much that she sent detailed notes on its flaws to the author, and it's thought that most existing copies were destroyed. Only a few copies survive, including one now on display in Victoria’s rooms at Kensington Palace.

Here, PhD student Gabrielle Fields explores what the book's inaccuracies meant then for the young Queen, and what they mean now for researchers. 

The Queen, in a black evening dress with a black and silver head-dress, wears the ribbon and star of the Garter and the Garter round her left arm. She stands with her hand resting on a letter on the table. Royal Collection Trust /© His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Image: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) by John Partridge (1790-1872). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

A book open at a page that reads 'Queen Victoria from her Birth to her Bridal'

Image: A copy of Queen Victoria from her Birth to her Bridal, now on on display at Kensington Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Princess Victoria is a sweet smiling girl as yet unsmitten by the storms that ere long will be beaten into her heart and brain.

Agnes Strickland, after seeing Victoria returning to Kensington Palace in 1836

Biography of a Young Queen

Queen Victoria was aware (sometimes too aware) of her own importance. After becoming Queen aged 18, she found that her youth and gender were frequently appropriated by the media to suggest inexperience and feebleness. But she was determined that her account would become the prevailing narrative. She ensured that her own private journals were ‘delicate and proper’, knew well that there was ‘nothing in my letters to alarm anyone’ and consigned her corpus of journals to a rigorous, destructive editing process carried out by her youngest daughter, Beatrice.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Victoria was one of the first readers of Agnes Strickland’s Queen Victoria from her Birth to her Bridal, eager to see how her childhood and first years as Queen were represented.

I have been very lucky to spend some time with Victoria’s own copy of this book in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, exploring in every detail how she engaged with it. She crossed out whole paragraphs, corrected every perceived inaccuracy, and – as was her habit – wrote dozens of corrective comments in the margins.

Our author dresses up matters in the most ornate style.

Literary Gazette review, 1840.

Princess Victoria hears of her accession to the throne. She recorded the incident which took place at Kensington Palace in her journal; 'I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mamma who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham (the Lord Chamberlain) then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning and consequently that I am Queen '.

Image: Victoria Regina: Queen Victoria receiving the news of her Accession (1887) by Henry Tanworth Wells (1828-1903). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Queen Victoria's handwriting

Queen Victoria's Marginalia. Image: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

'Not one word of truth'

The most exciting thing about Victoria's library is her habit of creating 'marginalia' (marking a book). She did this often, to personalise a book, note a relevant passage, or  in the case of Strickland’s biography – to correct its contents.

It is particularly interesting to see what Victoria altered. To combat any notion of vulnerability or naivety, she wrote that she ‘never had a fall’, and added ‘NB, never had suffered’ from seasickness. She distanced herself from her mother, the Duchess of Kent, confirming Strickland’s assertion that the Duchess came to her first Privy Council meeting, but specified it was 'to the door only'.

Although the impassioned Victoria took issue with almost every sentence in the book, she did not finish it. The final pages of the second volume were left unopened – they are still joined together at the top. The absence of modification on these final pages is equally revealing, suggesting how much Victoria disapproved of Strickland’s version of events. A letter from her aunt, Queen Adelaide, in September 1841 explaining that if ‘the gross errors’ in Strickland’s book went uncorrected, they would ‘go down to posterity’ may have added to Victoria's anxiety about Strickland’s work.

Never. The Duchess of Kent never knew anything of it, until the Queen told her a few days before the Prince went.

Queen Victoria’s annotation.

Agnes Strickland, the Victorian Historian

We know that Agnes Strickland was a devoted supporter of Queen Victoria, and wrote the biography out of pure admiration and affection for the Queen. So why were there so many inaccuracies?  

Strickland received a commission from publisher Henry Colburn after Victoria and Albert announced their engagement, and it was published in July 1840; the entire process of conceiving, researching, writing and publishing took a maximum of eight months. With only anecdotes, newspaper cuttings, and gossip to work from, and with such a quick turnaround, it is perhaps no wonder that Colburn and Strickland missed the mark.

Although the mortified Strickland chose not to write about Victoria again, hoping to avoid further damage, she was an extremely important and interesting figure in the development of women’s history, both as a female professional historian herself, and by addressing female subjects in her works. With the help of her sister, Elizabeth, she wrote the hugely successful 12-volume Lives of the Queens of England (1840-1848), and the eight-volume Lives of the Queens of Scotland (1850-1859). Both are still used by historians today.

Unwittingly, she had offended the person on whom all her loyal affection was centred.

Una Pope-Hennessey, biographer of Agnes Strickland.

A rare survivor

Historians believe that Victoria's vehement disapproval of Strickland’s biography led to the publisher buying up as many copies as possible and destroying them. This is most likely accurate: despite the great publicity splash at initial publication in 1840, the book has almost disappeared today. 

We know of two copies annotated with Victoria’s notes: the first – with rough comments pencilled in Victoria’s hand – is held by the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, and the second, ink-inscribed, neater version was sent back to Strickland, thus beginning the process of its ruin. 

The Whole Story...?

The longstanding trope that Queen Victoria was a passive character in her own reign is subsiding. Instances such as the pulping of Strickland’s biography – which correlated directly with Victoria’s disapproval – demonstrate that she was very much in control of the image that the public received. So can historians rely on her narration in Strickland’s biography for their research?

A long time has passed since our only source of information about a public figure was a single poorly-researched biography. In 2024, thousands of letters and all of Victoria's journals are easily accessible online, offering us more insight into her private life than ever before. We can also cross-reference Victoria’s notes with her own journal, which she began in 1832, aged 13. The first years, up until 1837, remain unedited, and are written in her own hand. But even these we must approach with caution, since they contain several fibs, oversights and sometimes puzzling sentences, which don’t quite line up with other trustworthy sources.  

On display in the first case of our exhibition Victoria: A Royal Childhood at Kensington Palace, Strickland’s biography reminds us from the beginning that telling Queen Victoria’s story is a careful balancing act.

Gabrielle Fields
PhD student
Historic Royal Palaces

The figure of the Queen is close to the figure in the finished picture. The Prince, however, is sketched in a standing position (he is seated in the finished version) and in ordinary clothes, not sporting dress, with the ribbon of the Garter just indicated. The pale blue background behind the Queen may suggest an outdoor setting and the couple seem to be looking at a parrot on a stand lightly sketched on the left.

Image: Queen Victoria and Price Albert study for 'Windsor Castle in Modern Times' by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73). Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Photograph of the Educating Victoria Room in Kensington Palace showing a desk and coffee table.

Explore Victoria: A Royal Childhood

Discover the story of Princess Victoria, the young girl destined to be queen, in the rooms where she was born and raised at Kensington Palace.

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