I’ve been fascinated by Queen Victoria since watching “VICTORIA” the new Masterpiece series which began on PBS this past year. Jenna Coleman, who rose to fame as the adorable side-kick on the on-so-popular British tv series, Dr. Who, plays the young, diminutive, but strong-willed Queen beautifully. The series so intrigued me that when I saw the book, VICTORIA, THE QUEEN by Julia Baird, I just had to pick it up. Described as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire” it is just that. At 695 pages, it wasn’t a weekend read, but, I have to admit, once I delved into the pages, I couldn’t put it down.
At the age of 18 and just under 5′ tall, Alexandrina Victoria was never suppose to rule Great Britain. This tiny teenager was actually fifth in line under her father, Edward, the Duke of Kent . When Edward realized that his siblings were not producing any heirs and that the throne might, in fact, become his, at the age of 51 he choose a young woman to wed, who gave birth the following year to the future monarch. One year later, Edward died and it seemed his vision was to become reality.
Victoria never wanted to become Queen and, as a young girl, when faced with the possibility that this would become reality, would burst into tears. Sinister plots and threats to kill her always loomed over her head. Victoria’s mother would never allow Victoria to be alone or play with other children without a guardian, and made sure Victoria had an official ‘food taster’.
Of course, as Victoria blossomed into a young woman and her ascension to the throne became more evident, many a young man sought her hand in marriage. Although some of her suitors were dazed by the possibility of power, her mate had already been selected … by her Uncle Leopold … his son, Albert (yes, her cousin*).
*Aristocratic families often intermarried. It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the medical establishment began to be opposed to the practice, citing developmental issues.
Potential heirs to the throne were not surviving. Victoria was next in line. And it was with the announcement by private courier at 6am on the morning of June 20th of King William IV’s death did this 18 year-old teenager become the “Queen”.
Victoria immediately rose to the job of monarch of this vast nation, despite the thrashing and naysaying of the ministers, clergy and noblemen. With her very first address before Parliament, strong-willed and determined, Victoria proved that this little slip of a girl, whose feet could not reach the floor when she sat o the throne, was a formidable force, to be respected and admired. But, could she rule alone? Queen Victoria also needed to be married.
Although the marriage was, more or less, a foregone conclusion, Victoria did fall madly in love with (her cousin) Albert … and he with her. Despite her concerns about being a wife and mother and not the decisive, powerful, ruling Monarch that she thrived to be, three years after meeting the tall, dark and handsome Albert, they were wed.
The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, February 10, 1840
Victoria had a fight on her hands, however, because she wanted the intellectual and ambitious Albert to be recognized not just as her husband, but as a well-respected and well-paid, member of her Kingdom. She also wanted her husband to realize that SHE was the Sovereign and that nothing could stop her from ruling her country. Slowly, Prince Albert began immersing himself in assisting Victoria with her ever-increasing duties as Queen. Victoria loved being married and loved being Monarch of Great Britain. She was devastated, however, to find out, after only a few weeks of being married that she was pregnant. How was she to balance being a Queen with being a wife and mother?
Nine months later Victoria gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Victoria Adelaide, the first of her nine children. Surviving childbirth at that time was a challenge, with approximately 5 in 1,000 women dying from complications during labor and delivery. Infant mortality was much higher, about 75 in 1,000.
Within the year, baby number two was on the way and despite her earlier protestations, Victoria was becoming less and less interested in political matters. Meanwhile, Albert, a dedicated husband and father, took a greater role in handling matters of State, especially regarding slavery, working conditions and education, as well as the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, Albert suffered his whole life with, what we know today as Crohn’s disease.
The royal family divided their life between Buckingham Palace, the Isle of Wight and their beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they could relax and be at peace. The children were growing and setting off on their own with schooling, marriage, adventures and misadventures. Although Victoria was strong-willed and well educated, she depended upon Albert more and more, frequently referring to him as her “Lord and Master”. Her confidence as a ruler was slipping and she questioned her decisions. But as Albert was taking a stronger hold in politics, his health was declining rapidly. Then after 21 years of marriage, at the age of 42, Albert died.
Victoria was heartbroken. She did not attend her husband’s funeral and threw herself into mourning, referring to herself not as the Queen, but as the “brokenhearted Widow”. Dressed now only in black, with no adornments, for four years she was unwilling to appear in public. Then around the fifth year, although Victoria still continued to insist she was weak and feeble, politically, she slowly came back to being the force she was before marriage.
Never again would Queen Victoria wear anything but a simple black frock. She would go on to rule the then most powerful country in the world until her death at the age of 82. The “people’s Princess”, Victoria, was the longest reigning monarch until the present Queen Elizabeth II.
Beginning as a young child, Victoria recorded her most intimate thoughts and actions. She was religious in keeping a calendar of all events, good and bad, to which she looked back on and celebrated continuously. She was a voracious letter writer, and a very talented artist. She loved to dance, play the piano and she cared very much about animals.
Edward, Prince of Wales, by Queen Victoria 1843
One of the reasons we know so much about Queen Victoria is because of the very important diaries and letters she wrote. It is believed that, upon her death, Victoria had written a total of 60,000,000 words (2,500 per day), amounting to volumes of material (most of which have now been edited, some destroyed) which remain in the Royal Archives.
My point in writing this blog was not to give you more information about Victoria the Queen, but to share with you a woman, who, like the rest of us, loved deeply and emotionally, enjoyed fun and laughter, as well as serene, quiet moments, and upon whom extreme responsibility and pressure was forced. She was not perfect, by any means. She could be brash and selfish … certainly self-absorbed and obstinate … and battled depression for years. But, Victoria, like most of us, was fragile and needy at times, and gave of herself, perhaps too much, at other times. Keeping her weight under control was a battle she ultimately gave up on. She despised racial prejudice and injustice. She loved to surround herself with beauty.
Yes, Victoria was the ruler of an empire who left a very impressive legacy, but she was a lover, a wife, and a mother, and admittedly not the best mother she could have been. She was also a strong and passionate lover of her family, her country and the responsibility that was hers. I think I would have liked Victoria!
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References: Too many references to mention, but some included: Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Albert Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, NY Times, History, Julia Baird