Was Queen Victoria a Victorian? The question is a complex and fascinating one to answer.
In the immediate response, Victoria would seem to typify what it meant to be ‘Victorian’ because her long reign straddled the nineteenth century, and the age was accordingly named after her. It begs then the further question of what a Victorian was if Queen Victoria wasn’t one, as well as what it meant to be a ‘Victorian’ at all.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as an adjective ‘relating to the reign of Queen Victoria’, ‘relating to the attitudes and values of society during Queen Victoria’s reign, regarded as characterised especially by prudishness and a high moral tone’. As a noun, it is defined as ‘a person who lived during the Victorian period’.
When Victoria died in 1901, the British nation not only lost a queen and a self-confident Empire its Empress, but her death heralded the end of an epoch. Her subjects were forced to look ahead with probable fear at the new century that she had safely taken them into but without their matriarch. The nineteenth century had been a going-forward age, which came to a final halt with Victoria’s death. Few alive at her death would have been able to remember an England without her as its Queen; not for nothing did the sons of her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, Prince Alexander and Prince Leopold of Battenberg, tell their tutor, G. R. Theobald, ‘It is all over. We saw her die’, as if there had been some kind of royal apocalypse (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 661).
But at Osborne on 22 January 1901, there was no comet in the sky. When the Queen died and the shutters were pulled down in her bedroom at Osborne, the curtain also came down on an era. The event of Queen Victoria’s death had a power all of its own. It was an opinion shared by many that knew her, in particular, her family, who could not imagine England without her. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, her granddaughter, wrote to her eldest sister, Victoria’s namesake, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg with the same tone of stunned disbelief: ‘I cannot believe she is really gone… it seems impossible… The whole world sorrows over her. England without the Queen seems impossible.’ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 90).
There is the point, for her family as well as her subjects – whom she also regarded as her national (and international) children – England was Queen Victoria. What would the national identity be without her, if she was all they had ever known? It would continue to be British certainly, but no longer Victorian. For the great matriarch that Queen Victoria had undisputedly been, meant that her family, nation and empire naturally regarded itself as motherless at her death. Queen Victoria herself became motherless, when her remaining parent, the Duchess of Kent, died in 1861.
This feeling was echoed by her grandson, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine in his memoirs. He paralleled the great outpouring of grief at her death interestingly, with the vast imperial display of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, where the apogee of enthusiasm and belief of Britain and its Empire for the Queen (and itself) became one of intense sorrow and mourning a mere four years later: ‘The mourning of this same people was the most striking that I have ever experienced. [The moment] when her coffin was lowered in the mausoleum at Frogmore, remains unforgettable to me… I remained a moment there alone. When I looked about me, there were kneeling near me all of her ghillies [Highland servants] from Scotland, all strong, sturdy men, who were weeping there uncontrollably like sons for their mother…’ (cit., Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 84).What is certain, that without Victoria, there would have been no age to call Victorian. For, without the death of Princess Charlotte, the only (legitimate) daughter of the Prince Regent, there would have been no marriage race amongst the royal dukes to sire the next heir to the British succession. The ‘what if’s’ of history are powerful truths in themselves because although the answers can only be determined by what actually happened, the questions are still important to ask.
It was the sheer length of Victoria’s reign that created the age at all. Her death did not occur in 1900, at the start of a new age which would have made her in person seem like the royal closing of the century. Had she done so, it is possible that her subjects may just have viewed the new century as even more an object of fear because the woman who had presided over the age as they knew it, was not there to steer them into the unknown as they saw it. Fittingly for Queen Victoria, who died at Osborne and whose body would have to be transported back over the Solent to England, bound for Windsor, her death was the occasion for one of those great anecdotal proverbs that occurs on the passing of greatness, for she was compared to a great liner, going out to sea. Victoria had been the royal figurehead on the great ship of Britain and Empire. Although there was a new figurehead in the person of her son, the Prince of Wales – now Edward VII – he had not been all that England could remember, when it thought of itself.
On 1 February 1901, her coffin – covered in a white and gold pall – was put on board the smallest of the royal yachts (Longford, 615) Alberta and transported to Gosport. A crowd in black were awaiting the Queen who had lived out the second half of her life, wearing black for Prince Albert, with whom she was now reunited and all mourning at an end. Fittingly, the coffin then travelled by special train to London’s Victoria Station.
The popular mind regards the Victorian characteristic of reserve as being one of the nineteenth century’s most key traits. The humourless public image of a stern-faced Queen Victoria belongs somewhat more on the coin or postage stamp, because the truth was that she took her duties remarkably seriously and of course, had been hardened through the terrible loss of Prince Albert but also the deaths of numerous members of her family, which she was destined to outlive. Certainly, she could appear stern to those knew her at first. Behind this sternness, however, was also a girlish shyness she never lost. Contrary to general opinion, Queen Victoria loved to laugh and was on one occasion at luncheon, recorded as having laughed so heartily that she ‘put down her knife and fork, hid her face in her handkerchief and shook and heaved with laughter until the tears rolled down her face’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 474).
In private terms, Queen Victoria was anything but Victorian, if the term is understood as one of repression and reserved emotion. Certainly, she reflected the patriarchal values of her day, with Prince Albert as the acknowledged head of a family that was in all things to be ‘respectable’, in deliberate contrast to the profligate Georgian royal dukes.
Her love for Prince Albert was passionate and unrestrained. Queen Victoria has had to be rescued from the stern octogenarian of popular imagination and restored to the young bride and wife that remained her identity until 1861 when Prince Albert died. Despite stormy arguments and conflicting characteristics, theirs was nevertheless a marriage that was based on solid, mutual love. The ‘Victorian’ Queen of stereotype was deeply enamoured of her husband, writing on her wedding night at Windsor in her journal: ‘I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!…He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband!’ (cit., Ibid, 123). This same young Queen would delight in watching Prince Albert shaving in the morning, enjoy waking up with him ‘so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen’ (cit., Ibid, 123) and have the pleasure of him helping her on with her stockings. Gradually, she parted with her power and allowed him to share it. This was forced in many ways, through the fact that throughout the 1840s, she was almost constantly pregnant.
It is my view that we have to remove the widow’s cap from Queen Victoria to understand her and then respectfully, return it back to her head. The widowhood is important, but it is not the whole story. In many ways, much of her behaviour in the rawest period of the 1860s when her widowhood was at its severest, can be explained by the fact that her identity as a woman was firstly that of a wife. The simplicity of her wedding dress shows us that it was as a woman and not as a Queen that she wished to be married. The death of Prince Albert changed her forcibly from his wife into his widow, an identity that was first alien to her and she then had to accept, which in my view, is why she abandoned herself to it so totally. The passionate bride was the same woman as the mourning wife.
It is this literal contrast of not black or white, but the black and the white that helps us understand I think, Queen Victoria. Like her age, she mourned but to a degree that was even considered excessive by the standards of that same century which developed its own industrial cult of death. In this, Queen Victoria did reflect her age, especially regarding mourning objects such as hair, for example. Finally, when she was prepared for burial, she had left private instructions to her trusted doctor, Sir James Reid. A photograph of John Brown, her devoted Highland servant was placed in with her for her last journey, together with a lock of his hair. But Queen Victoria went further.
The Victorian age was an extraordinary one, even had Victoria not been its Queen. Without Victoria, it may simply have been part of the ‘Georgian’ period, ruled over by the Hanoverian royal house of her uncles, to which she belonged. It is part of the fascination I think, that the Victorian age was one of such innovative energy, technological advance and socio-political development. In this, the lively Queen, still strangely shy into old age, remains as ‘girl-like’ and despite her advancing age, a royal mirror to the vigour of her times.
In many ways, as her biographer Lady Longford skilfully pointed out, Queen Victoria could be behind her times, such as matters relating to women for example, but in racial questions, she was very much ahead of them (Longford, 1). That Queen Victoria should survive into the first year of the twentieth century, having herself still been able to remember George IV as a child, as well as a handful of the other surviving children of George III, makes it unremarkable that England couldn’t really remember itself without her. This is part of her mythology.
If Victoria was all of these things and more, then perhaps she was indeed a Victorian. She shaped an age and led a people, who unsurprisingly, as children-subjects taking on the characteristics of their monarch-mother, reflected her own tastes, behaviours and egocentricities. As a personality, she certainly embodied the nineteenth century’s manifold complexities. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter – one of her favourites – Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg and maternal grandmother to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, contested the term Victorian because she could not understand what it meant. She viewed it as an oddity because she simply lived in the age in which she was born, as the granddaughter of a Queen and Empress who like her subjects in a different sense, was one of the children (or grandchildren) of ‘VRI’. Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg mourned her grandmother’s passing deeply and wrote in her private memoirs:
‘People picture Queen Victoria to themselves as completely “Victorian”, but I do not know what Victorian means, when applied to a period extending over sixty years. Though in various details she adhered to the customs of her happy married life, yet, gradually, many little rules had been relaxed and had been adapted to the times she was living in…’ (cit., David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 270).
It is a testimony to the legacy of Queen Victoria that we too, cannot imagine England and for that matter, British history, without her. Her birth, however, could easily have never happened.