Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria!

queen-victoria

Today is Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday!  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Queen Victoria is William and Harry’s great-great-great-great-grandmother.  She reigned in Britain when Britain ruled the world.  She was the most influential woman of her time (by a nautical mile) and therefore has been both loved and hated by history.  Currently, thanks to PBS and Judy Dench, she’s enjoying a personal renaissance, and some have even bestowed upon her the saintly title of early feminist.  However, I’m old enough to remember a time when she was considered the embodiment of every uptight, sexually repressed, socially regressed, narrow-minded, bigoted, colonial attitude that was wrong with our world.  In fact, not so many years ago, calling someone “a Victorian” was an insult.  Popular culture is history’s master, and even though history does not change, the people who write about it do – regularly.

The truth is, there is no one verifiable truth about Queen Victoria.  At various times during her reign, she was both adored and scorned, lauded and mercilessly lampooned.  She was frequently cheered in the streets but also survived 8 assassination attempts.  As a constitutional monarch, she had no legitimate power, yet through her ministers and her family, she influenced events in Britain, Europe and around the world for over half a century.  It isn’t called the Victorian Age for nothing!

The reason our appreciation of Queen Victoria gyrates so wildly is that our world prefers simple, expedient answers.  We don’t like nuances and generally resort to: good people do good things; bad people are sinister and “never the twain shall meet.”  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria doesn’t fit into that neat package.  She used her influence and the British navy to fight the slave trade, yet believed it was Britain’s God-given duty to colonize and civilize the world.  She encouraged legislation that successively gave women better education and employment opportunities, property ownership and even divorce and child custody rights; yet she believed gender equality was “a mad, wicked folly.”  She supported the Reform Act that extended the vote to most working men — even though it eroded her royal power.  She rode on a railway when it was still considered dangerous.  She used chloroform in childbirth when religious leaders were preaching that it was against God’s will.  She was an early advocate of the telegraph, photography and, in later years, the telephone and electric lighting.  Yet, despite her great admiration for science, she still believed she was Queen by “divine providence.”  And even though she was the secular head of the Church of England, she employed Protestants, Catholics, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in the Royal Household, and, for years, stubbornly campaigned for (and eventually achieved) religious freedom throughout the British Empire.

In contemporary times, we have the luxury of hindsight and the leisure to judge, and we’ve judged Queen Victoria rather harshly.  Generally, she’s still seen as the reigning queen of a nasty world of Dead Europeans who, by their thoughts, words and deeds, were sinister.  Actually, history isn’t that tidy.  The truth is Queen Victoria was neither a pioneering feminist nor a blood-spattered imperialist; she was simply a person of her time.  She did the best she could with what she had to work with — and it takes a lot of arrogance to criticize anybody for that.

 

Prince George of Cambridge: A Media Doll

royalsUnless you and your pals have just spent the last nine months contemplating the darkest rings of Uranus, you realize the world has a new celebrity, Prince George of Cambridge.  At this writing, he’s still trending somewhere in the stratosphere of ’08 Obama numbers — literally billions of people have stopped whatever they were doing to take a look at the little guy.  Rihanna and Chris Brown can only dream about this kind of coverage and even Kanye Kardashian’s Instagrams of Kim’s North West passage didn’t generate numbers like these.  The babe who will be king will now remain in the media’s spotlight for the rest of his life, his destiny shaped by his grandmother, Princess Diana, arguably our planet’s first World Celebrity.  I’m not going to go into the wherefores and the whys of Princess Di (I have a low threshold of death threats) except to say that the camera loved grandma so much that poor George doesn’t stand a chance.  Good on ya kid, welcome to the fishbowl.

Even the most rabid royal haters have to admit that, in the Age of Entertainment, being born to the purple is not what it used to be.  Back in the day, before Di was shy, royals commanded a little respect.  In the 30s, for example, Edward VIII’s indiscretions with Wallis Simpson (which were considerable) were not public knowledge, or even a matter for media speculation, until Edward himself threw the monarchy under the bus for the woman he loved.  Likewise, Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, was not above getting down and dirty with young men barely old enough to know better.  These lapses in protocol were common knowledge on Fleet Street but never made it past the editor’s desk.

These days, however, it’s open season on anybody with even a drop of blue blood in their veins.  The Slime from the Check-out Line magazines are oozing with salacious pics of any number of in-name-only aristocrats who are so far removed from the monarchy they need a GPS to find Buck House.  Anyone any closer to the Crown Jewels gets the Full Monty media treatment, complete with round the clock telephoto lens.  George’s uncle Harry, for example, has his own phalanx of 24/7 watchers whose only purpose on earth is to digitize the boy’s every move just in case he gets into the tequila again and goes commando.  Honestly, if I were Prince Henry of Wales, I’d be suing Clark County, Nevada for false advertising.  “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?”  Don’t make me laugh!

There are those who would argue that being royal is a public job with plenty of perks so they need to suck it up.  However,The Duke And Duchess Of Cambridge Leave The Lindo Wing With Their Newborn Son let me put that into perspective.  Unlike Lindsay Lohan and the League of Extraordinary Bimbos, William, Kate, Harry and company do not actively seek the media’s attention, nor can they walk away from it.  They are politically obligated to make themselves available.  They cannot whore photo opportunities of their child to the highest bidder a la Brad and Angelina Jolie nor stand down and refuse to participate.  George is going to be on the cover of People, like it or not, because he’s news, not because mom and dad need the publicity.  William and Kate have already sucked it up by showing up, babe in arms, on the steps of the hospital.  They’ve fulfilled their end of the bargain.  The problem is the media, lawless barbarians that they are, will not adhere to theirs.

I’m not so naive as to think that this brand new Prince of Cambridge’s life will be his own.  His obligations to the United Kingdom and the world began when he was born and they will be documented, with or without his permission.  (BTW, would you put up with that?)  However, it frightens me that our cultural cult of celebrity somehow equates baby George’s symbolic contribution to the continuity of our society with Miley Ray Cyrus’ new hair style.  They’re different and they need to be treated differently.  George Alexander Louis Windsor will be remembered by history, if, for no other reason than he exists whereas the former Hannah Montana won’t make it past Disney’s Hall of Fame.

Tuesday: The Real Purpose of the Monarchy