Queen Victoria and John Brown


Victoria progress Jan 2018

I’ve been reading Victoria: a Life by A N Wilson and writing an occasional post as I’m reading this long book.

One of the things that interests me is Victoria’s relationships with the men around her – such as with Albert, Lord Melbourne, Gladstone and Disraeli. But there is also her relationship with John Brown. Years ago I saw the excellent film Mrs Brown with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as John Brown and I was wondering what Wilson would make of their relationship.

She first met John Brown when he was one of the gillies at Balmoral in 1848. He also worked in the stables. In 1864, still grieving for Albert, Victoria found Balmoral a place that brought consolations. In the happy days of her marriage she had taken a great shine to John Brown.

By the end of 1864, Princess Alice, who had noticed that rides in the pony cart at Balmoral were almost the only things which made her mother half cheerful, recommended that they brought Brown to England. She put the idea to Dr Jenner and to Colonel Phipps, Keeper of the Privy Purse. They both agreed that it was an admirable idea. So it was, in December 1864, that John Brown came to Osborne House.

From now onwards, Brown would be he constant companion. At Osborne, he brought in her correspondence at 10 am, and took her for a morning ride. This was repeated in the afternoon. At Balmoral, he stayed with her while she did her correspondence and took it upon himself to post her letters. At Windsor, he would stand guard in the corridor outside her room, ‘fending off’, as one courtier put it, ‘even the highest in the land’.

The very qualities which others found irritating in Brown were ones which made him an ideal companion for Queen Victoria. (page 286)

Brown was humorous, abrasive with pompous courtiers, but above all he treated her like a human being and was devoted to her. But the amount of time he spent with the Queen alarmed the Establishment and the Court – his lack of side, his directness and his breeziness, all of which Victoria liked, offended them:

And of course they suspected him of sleeping with her. Lord Stanley, Foreign Secretary in his father Lord Derby’s Third Cabinet, asked in his journal, ‘Why is the Queen penny wise and pound foolish? Because she looks after the browns and lets the sovereigns take care of themselves.’ (pages 321-2)

Wilson considers that whatever the situation was between them, Victoria’s infatuation with Brown and his unruly behaviour at Court were enough to cause the scandal:

‘It was the talk of all the Household,’ said that notoriously unreliable tittle-tattler Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, ‘that he was “the queen’s stallion” … he was a fine man physically, though coarsely made and had fine eyes (like the late Prince Consort’s, it was said) and the Queen, who had been passionately in love with her husband, got it into her head that somehow the prince’s Spirit had passed into Brown and after four years of widowhood, being very unhappy allowed him all privileges … She used to go away with him to a little house in the hills where, on the pretence that it was for protection and to “look after the dogs”, he had a bedroom next to hers, ladies in waiting being put at the other end of the  building … [There could be] no doubt of his being allowed every conjugal privilege.’ (page 323)

Scawen Blunt’s tittle-tattle was not proven.

Despite having worked on the subject of Queen Victoria for many years Wilson concluded that he felt unable to make up his mind about the nature of the Queen’s relationship with Brown. His instinct is

to believe that it was what it appears in her letters to Vicky: namely an embarrassingly close monarch-and-servant relationship.Brown meant it when he said he would die for her, and the Queen meant it when she called him her ‘treuer’ Brown. If I were forced to say what did or did not happen, I would point out the impossibility of carnal relations between them in her early days of widowhood, when she was plainly fixated on the memory of Albert, and he was plainly no more than her Highland servant. (page 325)

But then Wilson records the words of Lewis Harcourt, who was the son of Gladstone’s Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer quoting from Lady Ponsonby in 1885 – wife of the Queen’s Private Secretary who

… ‘told the Home Secretary a few days ago that Miss Macleod declares that her brother Norman Macleod confessed to her on his deathbed that he had married the Queen to John Brown and … had always bitterly regretted it. Miss Macleod could have no object in inventing such a story, so that one is almost inclined to believe it, improbable as it sounds.  (page 326)

Norman Macleod was the Minister at Crathie, on the edge of the Balmoral estate, where the Royal Family worshipped.

However, the truth about their relationship remains a mystery – there was a file containing all the letters from John Brown to Queen Victoria  but they were destroyed (page 422). After Victoria’s death, her daughter Princess Beatrice copied her diaries and censored them as she did so and Bertie went round rooms at both Windsor and Buckingham Palace ‘destroying as he went‘. ‘Busts and statues of John Brown were smashed. (His statue at Balmoral was removed to a remote corner of the estate.)’ (page 574)

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index

The Fear Index by Robert Harris is a fast-paced story set in the world of high finance and computer technology but it didn’t appeal to me as much as the other books by him that I’ve read. It’s about scientist Dr Alex Hoffman, who together with his partner Hugo Quarry, an investment banker, runs a hedge fund based in Geneva, that makes billions. Alex has developed a revolutionary form of artificial intelligence that tracks human emotions, enabling it to predict movements in the financial markets. It’s built around the standard measure of market volatility: the VIX or ‘Fear Index’.

Alex wakes up one morning in the early hours to find an intruder has managed to bypass the elaborate security of the house. He challenges him only to receive a blow to his head that knocks him out and the intruder escapes. That is just the start of his troubles. A brain scan indicates he may have MS or possibly dementia and he is advised to take further advice, which of course, he doesn’t want to do. It appears that someone is out to destroy him and his company and even worse it soon looks as though this will cause a major global economic crisis. He is at a complete loss as to who it can be. It’s someone who has infiltrated into all areas of his life, affecting his marriage as well as his business.  He even begins to doubt his sanity.

On the one hand it helped me understand a bit more about hedge funds and how they operate but I got lost in the computer technology details. The characters are all not particularly likeable, but it’s definitely a page turner with plenty of suspense as the story raced to a conclusion, and it kept me puzzling over what or who was really causing the paranoia and violence. I thought it began well but didn’t find the ending very illuminating or satisfying and was left wondering what it was really all about.

I liked the chapter headings with extracts from books such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which made me wonder if the book was about the evolution of man into machine. Just an idea – if you’ve read the book what did you make of it all?

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Hutchinson; First Edition, First Printing edition (29 Sept. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091936969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091936969
  • Source: Library book
  • My rating: 3*

Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean

Notes on Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family by Alasdair Maclean (1926 – 1994).

Alasdair Maclean was a Scottish poet, born in Glasgow. He left school at fourteen to work in the Clydeside shipyards. In his late thirties he read English at Edinburgh University, later returning to the family croft at Sanna in Ardnamurchan to write. His father had worked as Deputy Harbour Master in the Greater Glasgow docks until he retired in the 1950s and moved back to take over the croft from his father.

What their life was like on the croft is captured in detail in Maclean’s only book of prose Night Falls on Ardnamurchan: the Twilight of a Crofting Family.

The main section of the book is made up of extracts from his father’s journals forming a factual account of his daily life on the croft covering two years, a decade apart: 1960 and 1970, for the same three days at the beginning, middle and end of every month in those years, with explanatory comments where he thought necessary.

I  enjoyed this section together with the Prologue and two introductions – the first about his father and their relationship and the second, a brief history of Ardnamuchan – more that the section on Alasdair’s own journal of 1979 – 1980.

I quoted the opening of the book with an extract from page 56 in this earlier post. Here are a few more extracts to give a flavour of the book:

Due to Father’s complete lack of push, coupled with his unwillingness to flatter or connive, he was passed over for promotion on several occasions. In the early 1950s he retired, somewhat prematurely, and came back to Ardnamurchan to operate the family croft, which my grandparents were getting too old to look after. Poverty accompanied him north and this lasted till a state pension at sixty-five brought some slight ease. He died five months after my mother of a coronary, they said, but of being worn out and heartbroken, say I. (page 23)

Each journal entry begins with a description of the weather and its effects. This is a typical example:

November 15 1969

Moderate to fresh Southerly wind became strong in evening. Drizzle in early forenoon. Dry for an hour in the middle of the day. In the afternoon the sleety rain became torrential and continued into the night. Did a little more to a new house for Tilly. Gave cattle a little hay. Managed across river at Cnoc Brac peats.

Alasdair commented: Tilly was a pet sheep, the first of many orphans we hand-reared. She was a privileged character (I tell her story later) and no ageing butler, slopping sherry around the salver on his tottering passage between pantry and drawing room, could have been more conscious of possessing security of tenure or more determined to exploit it. The ‘house’ that was being built for her was but one indication of her status. Your ordinary sheep shivers it out on the hillside all night, having no roof but the low cloud of winter. (pages 84-85)

The state of the weather had great importance. To the crofter:

…  clinging by a mixture of instinct and experience to the remote fringes of these islands, the weather is a god. It is the difference not merely between a pleasant and an unpleasant life, but between success and failure, until the advent of the welfare state between – possibly – living and dying.  (page 52)

Winter is hard on Sanna:

Gales often blow for days on end, accompanied for much of the time by rain. The ground around house and outbuildings, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of animals and people becomes a churned-up quagmire, a constant drag and hindrance to everything one tries to do.

… Even to enter or leave one’s house, if it lacks a back door – and most of the old cottages did – may be a hazardous operation in a gale and a door once opened may not be easy to shut again. I have seen old people in Sanna go from house to steading on hands and knees, being unable to proceed any other way. (page 52)

This is an unusual book describing not only life in a dying community but also revealing the relationship between children and parents, particularly in an isolated community. I was fascinated.

I was also interested to know what Ardnamurchan is like today. The Ardnamuchan website states it is on the most westerly peninsular of the British mainland, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean and with views from every shore of islands, castles, lochs and wilderness, an amazing part of the West Coast of Scotland.

File:Sanna Bay - geograph.org.uk - 354282.jpg
Sanna Bay (The copyright on this image is owned by Stuart Wilding and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

Amazon UK –  only available from third-party sellers

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (22 Feb. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140108122
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140108125
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 3.5 stars

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See


A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six. Her father builds a perfect miniature of their Paris neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. But when the Nazis invade, father and daughter flee with a dangerous secret.

Werner is a German orphan, destined to labour in the same mine that claimed his father’s life, until he discovers a knack for engineering. His talent wins him a place at a brutal military academy, but his way out of obscurity is built on suffering.

At the same time, far away in a walled city by the sea, an old man discovers new worlds without ever setting foot outside his home. But all around him, impending danger closes in.

Doerr’s combination of soaring imagination and meticulous observation is electric. As Europe is engulfed by war and lives collide unpredictably, ‘˜All The Light We Cannot See’ is a captivating and devastating elegy for innocence.

I have just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m not going to write a review but want to jot down some thoughts:

  • It began well and I liked it straight away – see this Friday post.
  • There are three story lines – that of Marie-Laure, of Werner, and of a diamond that has magical powers.
  • But my overall picture of the book is of a blur, of confusion as it moved not only between characters but also backwards and forwards in time and I couldn’t work out the time sequence. I kept going back to the contents list to try to work it out was I in 1944 when the book began or in 1942, or 43. Had I met this character before in the future, or in the past and where was I -in France, Germany, Vienna or Russia? How did the characters relate to each other? I was hopelessly puzzled for quite a large portion of this book. For a while the fog in my mind cleared and I thought I’d got it, only to find a few chapters later I was lost again.
  • So I gave up trying to work out dates; places and people became clearer to me and I did (I think) follow the story, but it wasn’t easy as Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s time-lines were so fragmented.
  • The writing in parts is beautiful, great descriptions giving me some insight into what it was liked for ordinary people from both sides during the 2nd World War and what it must be like to be blind.
  • I liked all the detail of the model of Saint-Malo that Marie-Laure’s father made to help her find her way around, models of the buildings and roads.
  • The title refers (I think) to the how the brain, which is enclosed within the scull – ie in darkness – is yet full of light, brimming with colour and movement. And also to the light transmitted by radio wavelengths; light caught from the sun within plants and within gem stones such a diamonds; light beyond our ability to see it within the electromagnetic spectrum.
  • I was glad to get to the end. I think it is over-long, and very slow. But overall, mainly because of its descriptive prose; the way it conveys what being involved in war is like; and the character of Marie-Laure, I liked it and gave it 3 stars on Goodreads.

A book for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, a book I’ve owned since 2016.

A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

I’ve taken quite a long time (nearly two months) to read Andrew Marr’s A History of Britain, which covers the post World War II period up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. This is a brief review of a very long and detailed book – too long and detailed for me to sum up meaningfully in a few paragraphs.

So, here is the blurb from the back cover:

This is an account of great political visions – and how they were defeated – and of the resilience, humour and stroppiness of the British public. From the Second World War onwards, Britain has been a country on edge: first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War, and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world. This history follows all the political and economic stories, but deals too with comedy, cars, the war against homosexuals, Sixties anarchists, oil-men and punks, Margaret Thatcher’s wonderful good luck, the true heroes of British theatre, and the victory of shopping over politics.

I wanted to read this book after watching Andrew Marr’s BBC 2 series, History of Modern Britain, which was first shown in 5 episodes in 2007 –  but it was the EU Referendum that nudged me into reading it this year. Like many others, I’ve now become addicted to news and comment programmes, but my knowledge of modern history, even though, or maybe because, I’ve lived through a lot of it, is sketchy, so it was fascinating, if somewhat scary, to read about events I remembered or had half-forgotten.

It’s an obvious statement, but still true, that Britain has changed since 1945 to be almost unrecognisable today and inevitably it is still changing. This book shows how we were then and how we got to where we are today. It’s mainly a political and economic history, with short sections on social and cultural events thrown into the mix.

Despite its length and complexities it is a readable book, which doesn’t surprise me as Andrew Marr is a journalist, TV presenter and political commentator. He was born in Glasgow in 1959. He studied English at the University of Cambridge and has since enjoyed a long career in political journalism, working for the Scotsman, the Independent, the Daily Express and the Observer. From 2000 to 2005 he was the BBC’s Political Editor. He has written and presented TV documentaries on history, science and politics, and presents the weekly Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings on BBC1 and Start the Week on Radio 4.

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (6 Mar. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330511475
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330511476
  • Source: my own copy

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Read Scotland.

A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell

Once more I’m trying to catch up writing about the books I’ve read recently so this is just a short post about A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell. It’s the sixth book in the series featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, but it’s only the second one that I’ve read (I previously read the seventh book, The Ghosts of Altona). Craig Russell has now joined my list of favourite authors and I think Fabel now equals Rebus as one of my favourite police detectives.

In A Fear of Dark Water a massive storm hits Hamburg, flooding the city, just as a major environmental summit is about to start.  A serial rapist and murderer is still at large in the city and when the flood waters recede a headless torso is found washed up. Initially it’s thought to be another victim of the killer, who had dumped his victims’ bodies in waterways around the city.

But there’s more to it than that as Fabel’s investigations dig up a secret environmental organisation/cult called ‘Pharos’, that demands its members hand over all their wealth to it, and with an aggressive and hostile approach to criticism. Fabel is drawn into the high-tech world of cyberspace, particularly the Virtual Dimension site, where people create personalities who only exist in cybre-space and who only interact through the internet – a world unfamiliar to Fabel, who denies he is technophobic, insisting he is a traditionalist.

This is a fast paced and complex, multi-layered crime novel that I thoroughly enjoyed and that kept me guessing right to the end.

The Author

Born in Fife, Craig Russell served for several years as a police officer in Scotland, before becoming an advertising copywriter and later creative director. His Fabel novels were inspired by his long-standing interest in the language, culture and people of Germany.

In addition to his Jan Fabel books Craig Russell also writes the Lennox thrillers set in 1950s Glasgow and I hope to get round to reading those too.

Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

This is a short post giving the synopsis of Blue Mercy by Orna Ross and my thoughts about the book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A literary family drama, with a murder at its heart, full of emotional twists and surprises
Will you side with mother or daughter? When Mercy Mulcahy was 40 years old, she was accused of killing her elderly and tyrannical father. Now, at the end of her life, she has written a book about what really happened on that fateful night of Christmas Eve, 1989. The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to protecting Star, especially from the father whose behavior so blighted her own life. Yet Star vehemently resists reading her manuscript. Why? What is Mercy hiding? Was her father’s death, as many believe, an assisted suicide? Or something even more sinister?

In this book, nothing is what it seems on the surface and everywhere there are emotional twists and surprises. (“Breathtaking, and I mean literally — actual gasps will happen” said one reader review).

Set in Ireland and California, Blue Mercy is a compelling novel that combines lyrical description with a page-turning style to create an enthralling tale of love, loss and the ever-present possibility of redemption.

My thoughts:

Blue Mercy has had a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and on Goodreads, so I am definitely in the minority in not being swept away by it. I enjoyed some of it, thought some parts were OK and didn’t like other parts, but I didn’t find it compelling or enthralling and I certainly did not gasp at the revelation that Mercy had been lying to her daughter and to the reader. It confirmed my suspicion that she was not a reliable narrator in writing about her life.

I thought the setting in Ireland was vivid and came to life. However, although there is a mystery about how Mercy’s father died and what had happened to Star’s father, the plot is definitely secondary to the various themes running through this book – such as family relationships, particularly but not solely the mother/daughter relationship, abuse and assisted dying. But there is also so much detail about feelings, personal development, women’s studies, childhood and teenage problems, eating disorders, and exploration of Mercy and Star’s psyches and perceptions, that the characters and plot were almost drowned in emotion, pain and angst.