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Becoming Queen Victoria Reader’s Guide

By Kate Williams

Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams



In 1819, Victoria was so named to signify that she would never rule. The modern-day equivalent to the queen of Great Britain being given a version of the French name Victoire would be to have a queen named after Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, governing Britain, if Britain had been at war with Germany for the last fifteen years. And yet Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch in British history until Queen Elizabeth II overtook her in September 2015. Victoria’s achievement wasn’t just about staying in power; she also changed the monarchy to please the middle classes. In her (not always successful) attempt to create a neutral constitutional monarchy—and also through her marketing of her husband and many children—she created the foundation of the royal family’s role, which remains so vital today. Prior generations of Georgian monarchs were painted in priceless finery, and their children barely appear in their portraits. Victoria dressed like a slightly more expensive version of any middle-class housewife and surrounded herself with her offspring at every portrait opportunity. Queen Elizabeth II, too, is often photographed with her family, and issues official family photos of her with her children, grandchildren, and—more recently—great-grandchildren. The current queen rarely wears her crown or robes—even for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, she wore a rather more elegant version of what any British grandmother might wear. She learned her lessons from her forebear.
Napoleon suggested that rulers just needed to “throw gold” in their subjects’ eyes to dazzle them and distract them from what was really going on. Victoria’s success suggested quite the opposite: that the populace had become weary of seeing gold thrown about by their rulers.
Victoria remodeled the monarchy to please a middle-class audience, composed of the men recently enfranchised to vote by the 1832 Reform Act. Her adoption of modest dress, the publication of family photos and portraits, and her lack of enthusiasm for great ceremony endeared her to a people disillusioned by the spendthrift Georgians. To us, the portraits of Victoria with her children look rather forced, but to her people they were astonishingly intimate glimpses of a family that looked quite like their own. She and Albert were keen early adopters of photography and had their own darkroom in Windsor Castle, busily presenting themselves to please a nation in which middle class industry was driving the railways, the factory—and the Empire.
The queen’s versions of family life caught on. Weddings before Victoria were quiet affairs, usually held late at night, and the bride merely wore her best dress—often blue, brown, or black. Victoria and her ministers planned an afternoon wedding, to which she drove publicly through cheering crowds, gowned in white. This evoked comments that Victoria looked like a rustic, or even as if she were wearing her nightgown—but no matter. The public was enthralled. Thanks to Victoria, we have ever-grander royal weddings as public spectacle—and also the big white weddings that have been in vogue ever since.
Christmas was a low-key festival in the early nineteenth century. People tended to celebrate and give gifts (mostly to adults) at the New Year. Pursuing their vision of a perfect family life, the royal couple created December 25 as a celebration of children, with presents and a tree hung with candles, decorations, sweets, and wooden toys. Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, had introduced the Christmas tree to Britain—but Albert made it a focal point of family celebrations. In 1848, The Illustrated London News published a picture of Albert, Victoria, and their children by their Christmas tree. Across Britain—and soon the world—Christmas became an extravaganza of presents for children and a day for family celebration.
Also vital to Victoria’s vision of the monarchy was that the royal family should be visible. The Georgian monarchs saw little of their country, remaining holed up in London and Windsor. Victoria traveled frequently, visiting towns and cities across her realm—and even made sure she was often seen on private occasions, driving out with Albert and the children.
Victoria created the modern image of monarchy: humble, surrounded by family, modestly dressed, and perpetually on view. But in doing so, she opened the monarchy up to the problems that dog it today—and that threatened to undermine it in the 1990s. Victoria’s accessibility, both in image and physical presence, was a roaring success. But this proffered intimacy also meant that people became desperate to actually get close to her; and so, like a modern celebrity, she gained her stalkers. When she became marriageable, men across Britain fooled themselves that this rather middle-class-looking girl would turn to them; when she was a teenager, one military man used to wait for her in a hedge outside Kensington Palace and dash after her to the opera. Another knocked on the door of Windsor -Castle and said he was looking for a wife and thought the “queen might do.” In the first years of her reign, “The Boy” Jones broke into Buckingham Palace repeatedly, hiding in chimneys, stealing from the kitchens. He was found under the queen’s sofa by her maternity nurse and finally sent to Australia, so addicted was he to breaking into the queen’s home.
And then came what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning called “this strange popular mania of queen-shooting.” No monarch since Elizabeth I had ever been out among her people as much as Victoria. Her habit of driving around London in an open carriage thrilled the populace—and made her the target of seven assassination attempts during her reign, the first from an eighteen-year-old malcontent, Edward Oxford, who waved two dueling pistols at her in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace in 1840. Granted, some potential assassins were rather amateurish—the last attempt, by Rodney Maclean, was foiled by two Eton schoolboys armed with umbrellas. Victoria refused to stop going out or use a special parasol lined with chain mail as a protective device. “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved,” she said.
In this fascination with Victoria’s person—and with gaining access to her—we can see the beginnings of the crossover between monarchy and celebrity. The newspapers at the time were decorous, staying well away from the affairs of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Even in the 1930s, Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson went unmentioned by the British newspapers, for fear that readers would find it too shocking. But since then, British subjects have seen the old restraint break down. In the 1990s, Brits saw tabloid coverage of the disintegrating marriages of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and of Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, complete with phone recordings, gossip—and from both camps, disloyal “insiders” telling all. As Princess Diana so memorably said on camera, “There were three of us in this marriage,” referring to the intrusive presence in the relationship of Charles’s ex-girlfriend Camilla. Two years later, Diana was dead, after her car had been chased by photo journalists through a road tunnel in Paris.
In the twenty-first century, everyone has a camera phone. The mainstream media agreed not to report on Prince William at the University of St. Andrews in the 1990s. But a similar pact to leave William and Kate alone on their honeymoon was broken by unofficial snappers—and the photos were published on websites and in magazines across the world.
“I have to be seen to be believed,” said the current queen. After Victoria, monarchy has to be perpetually witnessed to exist. Yet the round of royal engagements is punishing. I often follow Queen Elizabeth II for CNN, and her schedule is exhausting. Unlike the rest of us, she has no understudy. If you’re a school that has been waiting all year to see the queen, you don’t want a stand-in. But there is always the tension between making monarchy “seen” and revealing too much, tipping over into faults, divisions, and revelations of unhappiness and petty strife that make royalty seem so much like us that we wonder, why have them at all? As the youngest royals grow up in a world where privacy is ever more eroded by new forms of social media, the monarchy will be ever more open—as Victoria found—to the pleasures and pains of being available to the public.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Some of Britain’s most successful monarchs have been female–including Victoria. Could being born into a position in which society suggests you are inferior actually be a helpful prelude to being a monarch?

2. By the time Princess Charlotte was born, the seven sons and six daughters of George III had between them fifty-six illegitimate children and no legitimate offspring. Her uncles tended to the spendthrift and debauched. Can you suggest why they turned out this way?

3. Charlotte had a miserable childhood, torn between two warring parents. Her story–and that of her aunts and her mother–suggests that life as a princess was restricted and suffocating. Even though history gives us more unhappy princesses than happy, our society celebrates “princess culture,” especially for little girls. Why are we ever more enthusiastic about princesses in the twenty-first century?

4. Do you think it is possible to have a happy royal marriage?

5. Charlotte’s death prompted the greatest outpouring of national grief in British history, equaled only by the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Why do so many of us grieve so deeply for people we don’t even know, and why for these two young women in particular?

6. When she was born, Victoria’s father said, “My brothers are not so strong as I am . . . The crown will come to me and my children.” Gaining royal power always entails the death of one’s parent or siblings. Do you think this must poison family relationships?

7. Victoria’s name was completely invented, and given to her to signify that she would never be queen. Was having a unique name a hindrance or a help? Does the same apply to the possessors of unique names in ordinary life?

8. The British royal family is historically German: George I was German, Victoria’s mother was German, and her husband as well. The family changed its name to Windsor in 1917, at the height of World War I. Was the German heritage an advantage in any way, or only something to be hidden?

9. Why did Victoria’s mother and John Conroy watch Victoria so obsessively? Can the “Kensington System” be justified?

10. We can charge Victoria with inventing one of modern life’s most overwhelming events: big, white weddings. Before Victoria, weddings were quiet events and brides wore any color. Victoria, gowned in white for her huge royal wedding, was driven through the streets to be fêted by her people. What political purpose do public royal weddings serve, and why have we increasingly adopted this custom?

11. How did Victoria walk the fine line of being head of state without upsetting society’s perception of the female role?

12. Elizabeth I said she had the “body of a weak and feeble woman, but the heart and stomach of a king.” Could Victoria have made a similar speech?

13. In 2013, British law was finally changed so that the firstborn child was the heir to the throne, no matter whether boy or girl. Why did it take British lawmakers so long to change previous practices?

14. Women gained the chance to stand for the British parliament in 1918, while in the United States the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916 and Senate in 1922, but British government has had very few women in positions of power. Why, in an age of female equality, is the top job in a country still so often taken by a man?

15. Should Britain still have a monarchy in the twenty-first century?

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