Liz Smith: Queen Victoria — Still Ruling, After All These Years!
Still Ruling, After All These Years!
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!
“CAN I have no more fun in bed?”
That was thirty-eight-year-old Queen Victoria, in response to her doctor’s suggestion that after bearing nine children, she and her husband, Prince Albert, might consider nine offspring (all of whom, amazingly, lived into adulthood) enough.
This is from Julia Baird’s 493-page biography “Victoria, The Queen.”
Thanks to PBS’s “Victoria” series, there is renewed interest in the woman who ruled England for 63 years (in 2015 Queen Elizabeth II overtook Victoria’s record.) The TV show’s first season ended with Victoria’s first pregnancy, her restlessness, boredom and increasing sense of her duties (and the duties she would share with Albert.) In many ways, if you watch the series, you’ve had the best of Victoria, from a standpoint of truly relating to her.
What is not to understand — as Ms. Baird’s book also emphasizes — about a high-spirited, attractive 18-year-old, elevated to the throne of England; a girl who dislikes her overbearing mother, loathes her mother’s abusive power-seeking “companion,” and falls somewhat in love with her much older, attentive, good-looking Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. (Victoria’s father Prince Edward, The Duke of Kent, had died when she was a year old.)
Young Victoria is also possessed of an extremely active libido, one that is fully aroused when her German cousin Albert shows up at court. (They’d met previously, but Victoria hadn’t been much impressed.) With Albert all filled–out, she writes passionately about the perfection of his looks, and his body — particularly, as per Baird — when he wears tight white pants “with nothing underneath.”
Queen Victoria and Albert in 1854.
She is affectionate, if willful, capricious but surprisingly adept at the work she is required to do, and most of all, she is very much her own person — not a pushover.
It is her overwhelming passion for Albert that changes the course of her life and alters, drastically, her personality. (Prior to her wedding, she writes in her diary: “I said to Albert we should be very very intimate together, and that he might come in and out when he pleased … Oh! How happy I shall be, to be very very intimate with him!”)
From the point of her marriage onward, Victoria becomes one of the most complex and frustrating characters in history. Author Julia Baird writes marvelously, and this is clearly a sympathetic portrayal of Victoria. It does not stint on supplying evidence of her least pleasing personality traits (for example, her remarks to and about some of her less favored children go beyond mere parental candor, and border on cruelty.)
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their eight children in Buckingham Palace Garden.
Notice the shrub that tapers above her head, creating the optical illusion that the Queen was taller than she was.
DURING the course of her marriage, Victoria, who’d given every indication that despite her youth and inexperience, she enjoyed power, was argumentative and considered herself the equal of any man, became “less than” in her efforts to shore up her husband’s ego. She made it her mission to be sure he was seen, and saw himself, as more than a consort, an adjunct to decision-making.
Albert was indeed intelligent, honest and a driven workaholic. He was also a man of his time, and when Victoria would stand in awe of him, declare he knew more than she, he did not object. He was also far more prudish and “Victorian” than she, although it is her name that evokes the strict — albeit inevitably hypocritical — moral code of the time.
While it is true they worked extremely well in tandem, Victoria increasingly allowed Albert to be the dominant partner. (“The higher Victoria pushed Albert, the lower she sank in her own estimation,” writes Baird.)
And it is here that we must consider the effects — physical and psychological — of Victoria’s nine pregnancies. Although she did indeed love her children, despite a sharp, critical tongue, she loathed and feared pregnancy itself. In remarks to her adult daughters and other women on the subject, there were no elevated paeans to the gravid state. It was something to be endured and avoided as long as possible. One might imagine that Victoria considered her body was made for love, but the consequences of love, was a betrayal and an inconvenience. What kind of a queen (and wife) would Victoria have been had her rapacious good health not assured her nine full-term pregnancies? “Anatomy is destiny” said Freud, and for better or worse, Queen Victoria’s anatomy channeled her own and England’s destiny.
Queen Victoria presides over a huge family.
AFTER 21 years of marriage Albert died, of what it was never quite determined — everything from typhoid to a gastrointestinal infection has been posited.
Now the image and mythology of Victoria becomes most imbedded — and, as author Baird reveals — largely misunderstood. It is true that Victoria threw herself into an epic bout of mourning. No widow was ever more widowed than Queen Victoria. None had ever suffered as she had, because, well, none had ever loved quite as she had. (Or so she believed.) She abandoned her corsets, draped herself in black, and became a virtual recluse from the public for years.
Queen Victoria’s daugthers Alice, Helena, Beatrice, Vicky, and Louise mourning their father.
For a time, she was extremely unpopular. (Not that there was ever a lack of protest to Victoria — she survived eight assassination attempts and/or assaults upon her person!)
It is commonly believed Victoria “did nothing” during this tiresome-to-all, seemingly endless wallow in self pity, but in fact, she went back to ruling, on her own. Not always wisely, but with vigor; her own work ethic was powerful, despite her pleas of feminine weakness and longing for Albert’s “guiding” hand.
Edward Oxford shooting at Queen Victoria, June 10, 1840.
England’s current queen, Elizabeth, is very much a figurehead, who does not involve herself in policy or politics. Victoria got involved, and the argumentative teenage girl of her pre-Albert years reasserts herself. (She openly disliked — to put it mildly — by one of her later Prime Ministers, William Gladstone — and clashed with him often.)
Gladstone and Victoria.
Being a professional royal widow did not stop the once (and perhaps still) passionate queen from embarking on a controversial friendship with one John Brown, a strapping Scotsman who became Victoria’s “dearest friend.” (As Baird notes, Victoria was unashamed to refer so familiarly to a servant, a man who essentially fetched and carried. But this was also in keeping with the queen’s remarkably democratic attitude toward those who served her, and an even more remarkable freedom from bigotry, in general.)
The author provides one particularly interesting, previously unpublished tidbit on the Victoria/Brown friendship, but because so much of the queens correspondence was destroyed or sanitized after her death, on this matter — and many others — there is only conjecture and educated guesses.
If not physical, Victoria’s relationship with John Brown filled her emotional desire for a man’s undivided attention, without the need to officially abandon or share her power — Brown could speak to her rudely, and he did, and she seemed to enjoy that, but he was not her master, she was his. And, as Julia Baird concurs, that’s how she actually liked it.
Queen Victoria with John Brown at Balmoral.
AS Queen Victoria lived on and on, ruled and reigned, she became an unlikely and unwilling symbol of female empowerment. Despite her own sensuality, she spoke out against “fast women” and deplored the suffrage movement. By the time the 20th century arrived, however, “the slow march toward women’s suffrage had begun. Victoria would inspire but not support it; she sat like a prickly muse, the most powerful woman in the world, who spent her days trying to control men.”
Julia Baird has written a marvelous history — Victoria reigned over many triumphs and some calamities in her time; Britain was in its often bloody expansionist glory. And Baird’s chronicling of this history is colorful and effective. But I have written here of Victoria the woman, because that is what Baird has tried to convey. It’s not easy, and even now I don’t know how much I like or approve of Victoria, though she was, after all, a woman of her time and station, and can only be judged by that era and what she was born and raised to be.
What struck me more forcefully than other books I’ve read on Victoria, was her life energy. Behind the weeping and widows weeds she always really wanted ‘more time.” More time to live and love and be loved. And to rule, as well.
Baird makes the point: “Three days before Victoria died, although fluid was filling her joints … she spoke to Dr. Reid about South Africa and worried about war … there were still more things to sort out, more disasters to prevent, more wars to fight, more soldiers to protect … she may have complained often, but she persisted … Victoria endured.”
Queen Victoria’s deathbed, overlooked by a picture of Prince Albert on his deathbed.