Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Downton Abbey Extra: Why Queen Victoria Was Awesome

Queen Victoria, date unknown.  PD-US
Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
But she doesn't have a lot to say.
Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day.
-- Beatles, "Her Majesty"*

Before I leave Downton Abbey for good until Series Four, I wanted to write a post that I had hinted at writing earlier about one of history's most misunderstood women.  Well maybe I shouldn't go quite that far, but there are definitely some preconceived notions about Queen Victoria that should be put to rest.  That she was a dull, pious person who always said "we" and who spent 40 years mourning her husband.  Well, that last one was true.

But she was also passionate, astute, and remarkably progressive for her time.  And where she wasn't progressive, her five daughters were.  In short, she was awesome.

First, a quick history of Queen Victoria.  She was born in 1819 to King George III's third son, Edward Duke of Kent, and christened Alexandrine Victoria.  When she was born, it was considered possible that she would ascend the throne, but far from certain.  Her father died when she was nine months old, and until she was 18, she was largely controlled by her mother.  Finally in 1837, Victoria ascended the throne, and in 1840, she married her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  They had nine children, and the marriage was very happy until its too-abrupt end, when Albert died of typhoid fever on December 14, 1861, a date that would live in infamy in Victoria's family.  Victoria then put on mourning for her "dearest Albert" and never took it off.  She is currently the longest-reigning ruler in British history, finally passing away in early 1901.

Second, I want to dispose of some common misconceptions about Victoria.

1.  Marrying Her First Cousin Caused Her to Pass On Hemophilia.  A lot of people blame Victoria's first-cousin marriage -- Albert was the second son of her Uncle Ernst -- for creating the defective gene that caused hemophilia in unlucky male carriers.  Victoria's youngest son, Leopold, had hemophilia, as did several grandsons and, most famously, her great-grandson Alexei, Tsesarevich of Russia.  Victoria's children and grandchildren had a tendency to marry their cousins as well, which did not help the perception of the illness.  However, it has been determined that Victoria's hemophilia gene was the result of a spontaneous mutation, possibly passed down from her father.  Edward of Kent was 52 years old when Victoria was born.  He most definitely was not her mother's first cousin.

2.  She Used the Royal "We" All the Time.  I don't have access to all of the records on Victoria, so I can't say how often she did use the royal "we."  However, I do know that she didn't always do so -- letters to her daughters demonstrate that she was very comfortable speaking in the singular.

3.  She Invented Victorian Morality.  Erm, no she did not.

While Victoria no doubt set trends -- she was the Queen -- she also followed them.  She became Queen during a time of reform and reaction to a past era believed to be wasteful and scandalous.  She and Albert were influenced by these trends as much as they helped set them when they married and raised their family.

And while Victoria was religious, that doesn't mean what you'd think it would.  She was the head of the Church of England, in an age where the church you attended was part of your identity.  To be an adult with full rights and privileges in Victorian England meant being a part of the "Church."  In fact, throughout much of the 19th century, even Christians who identified with other sects were discriminated against.  There was no space to recognize atheists, and even the suggestion that life developed differently from the Biblical account was scandalous.  Victoria was religious because it would have been unheard of for her not to be.  But there is no evidence that she was unusually devout or introspective.

So what made her awesome?  To me, it's that underneath her staid exterior, she held some sharp, passionate, untraditional views.  For instance, in letters to her eldest daughter Victoria (called "Vicky" within the family), she discussed her distaste for pregnancy.  Was it because she couldn't bear its association with sex and immorality?  No -- she just thought it was gross.  She complained that pregnancy robbed her of her freedom and that giving birth made her feel like "a cow or a dog."  Perpetually pregnant women were "disgusting," like "a rabbit or a guinea pig."  

Really, the whole marriage and motherhood thing irritated her.  Victoria thought that babies were ugly.  She hated the idea of breast feeding.  She was happiest when she saw her children as little as possible.  Yet if that were all, you could simply call her a crank and move on.            

Victoria's daughters.  From the left: Alice, Helena, 
Beatrice, Victoria, and Louise.
Disappointingly, Victoria never promoted her views to the public, and thus never used her influence to spur a much-needed reconsideration of a woman's role.  However, at least some of her views filtered down to her daughters, for they each seemed to realize that marriage was not the be-all-end-all for women.  They were still products of their time -- all five were married, with Beatrice, the youngest, actually fighting to get married in order to avoid having to care for her mother all her life.  All but Louise had children, and Louise's difference may have been due to medical reasons.  Yet they also pushed against the boundaries of marriage and family.

Vicky, highly intelligent and well educated, expected to influence politics in Prussia before her nasty in-laws and Otto von Bismarck shot her down.  Alice founded numerous organizations, with many geared toward nursing and helping widowed or "fallen" women learn a trade.  Queen Victoria had taken her daughters to visit wounded Crimean War soldiers, where they were also exposed to the revolutionary nursing practices of Florence Nightingale, and it left a great impression on Alice.  She also took an active interest in the human anatomy, and she and Vicky both defied Victorian "norms" -- and their own mother -- by choosing to breastfeed their children.  When Victoria learned about Alice's choice, she went and named one of her cows "Alice" in disgust.    

Helena, the third daughter, was also supremely active in founding charities, as well as a needlework school to give unemployed women a livelihood.  Meanwhile, Louise may have been the most unconventional of them all.  She attended art school and became a sculptor, sculpting a statue of her mother that stands to this day.  She also expressed an interest in politics and controversial movements like Irish Home Rule, while the rest of the family tried to keep a careful distance.
Victoria's daughters were taught to value their minds, unusual for that time.  Vicky was considered to be her brother "Bertie's" (Edward VII) intellectual superior, even though she was female and supposedly possessed a "weaker" mind.  It's difficult to say whether Albert was more responsible for the daughters' education than Victoria -- until his death, she gave him credit for nearly everything -- but if she did not advocate for a more progressive education, at least she never interfered.    

But Victoria wasn't only passionate about hating motherhood.  In fact, when it counted, she just as passionately supported her children and especially her grandchildren.  After Alice died of diphtheria in 1878, Victoria practically adopted her children and kept a very close eye on their development.  When she learned that one of Helena's daughters had suffered cruel treatment from her in-laws, she said sharply: "Tell my granddaughter to come home to me."  When other monarchs were using their children to produce grand marriage alliances, Victoria simply wanted her children to live near her.  That meant even sanctioning Louise's marriage to a commoner, the future Duke of Argyll -- the first royal-commoner marriage since 1515.

Yet that just describes Victoria the private woman.  Victoria the public woman is more difficult to discern because so many momentous things that happened during her reign were either the work of Parliament or were credited to her husband.  And Albert deserved much of the credit he received.  He
Prince Albert, May 1860
was incredibly progressive in many ways, though maddeningly hidebound in others.  He supported science, technology, and innovation at a time when it was the fashion for well-born Britons to spend their school years learning ancient Greek and Latin.  He improved numerous institutions.  However, in giving all of the credit to Albert, it is easy to give none to Victoria, as if she were nothing more than a cipher.

It doesn't help that Victoria spent a decade out of the public eye after her husband's death.  Others could probably do a better job summing up her accomplishments as a monarch, but from what I gather, she was a frequent advocate for the poor and dispossessed.  Among other things, she supported expansion of the franchise so that working-class men could vote, supported a Royal Commission on housing, and patronized numerous charities.  Politically, she was extremely involved in numerous international conflicts, and not just ones that encompassed her empire.  A letter from her to the German Kaiser Wilhelm I was thought to have prevented a second Franco-Prussian War in 1875.  She was deeply concerned about Russia growing too powerful, especially during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.  Victoria generally supported peace efforts, and was horrified as her once beloved grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, adopted the views of the militaristic Prussians.                    
The books on Queen Victoria and her daughters are almost too numerous to count, but if I had to recommend any to start, they would be We Two, Victoria's DaughtersAn Uncommon Woman (about Vicky, later the Empress Frederick), and Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse.  Another wonderful resource is the Alexander Palace Time Machine Forum, which is centered around the last Russian Tsar and his family, but which features a section on the British royals and their ancestors.

When I say that Victoria is "awesome," I don't mean that I would like her as a person.  I would probably dislike her -- she could be very controlling and selfish.  I also don't think she is awesome because she masterminded the expansion of her empire, because she didn't.  What I like and admire about her is that she was just an incredibly real person.  She thought unconventional things and was very frank about her thoughts.  It helped that she was the Queen, of course.  Though not the best mother by any means, she still rose up when it counted and defended her chicks, and their chicks, from international reproof.  She "had their back," so to speak.  In short, the real Victoria was a far cry from the dull matron that so many think they know, and that is a shame.        

* "Her Majesty" is, of course, not about Queen Victoria, but about Queen Elizabeth II.

All photos are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  The copyrights have expired and all are in the public domain.

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