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.