Victoria and the Expectations of Queenship

Queen Victoria, 1843 (An outtake from my latest pop culture and history project.)

From soon after her birth in 1819, it was clear that Victoria would inherit the English throne. The childbed death of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, left a succession of aging men to sit the British throne, none of them with sons who could inherit. Young Victoria was raised away from the limelight of the royal court in her mother’s isolated household within Kensington Palace. Seemingly innocent of her destiny until she was provided with a genealogical chart that showed she was next in line to the throne, the young princess solemnly promised her governess, “I will be good.”

When she took the throne not seven years later, Victoria did just that: setting a model of virtuous conduct that endeared her to a nation. But it was clear that some in the country were nervous about the accession. At the outset of her reign, The Guardian expressed reservations about her youth and character.

The accession of our young queen is a circumstance full of hope and promise. Humanly speaking, it is perhaps desirable that the event should have been postponed a few years, that her character might have become more fixed, and her acquaintance with the world and with those branches of knowledge which are peculiarly appropriate to her situation and her duties, more enlarged. But it has been ordained otherwise, and, we have no doubt, ordained for the best. From all that we have read and heard, her majesty’s conduct hitherto seems to have been marked by great propriety both of feeling and demeanour.

Speaking of William IV, Victoria’s immediate predecessor, The Guardian elaborated on the question of personal conduct:

It is often said that the public has no concern with the private lives of princes. We are not of that opinion. For whilst we would neither seek to create nor to gratify a prurient appetite for scandal, in relation to a subject with respect to which that appetite is so easily excited as the vices or follies of the great, we do feel that it is a circumstance which strongly conduces to the welfare and interest of a nation, when the monarch, instead of being an insulated and selfish voluptuary, is known to be constant and unostentatious in the fulfilment of domestic duties, and the natural display of tender and virtuous affections. – The Guardian, 24 June, 1837

While William and Adelaide were a contented couple on the throne, William’s past wasn’t always so flawless. This report completely overlooks his long liasion with Mrs. Jordan by which the happy couple had ten illegitimate children that preceded his late-in-life marriage to Adelaide. But it’s clear from both the reservations about Victoria and the happy recollection of William that some in the country were concerned with the new queen’s prospects. Would she hew more to the model of her late uncle William in ensuring that her time on the throne was a period of relative sobriety with a royal focus on good government or would her reign be touched by scandal and discord as had coloured the monarchy of her other uncle, George IV?

Victoria was fortunate in that she was old enough upon her accession to rule in her own right, without her domineering mother (and her mother’s ambitious aide, John Conroy) to exert their influence. Alison Plowden suggests that her beloved governess, Louisa Lehzen was the key. To this I’d also add the broader cultural context of childhood and the Georgian concepts of virtue which filtered into Victoria’s schoolroom (consult Lynne Vallone’s nuanced study for some excellent examples).

Of course, the next expectation that Victoria had to fulfill was marriage and securing the succession. Since Charlotte’s childbirth death, the royal succession was extremely fragile. Victoria married a dashing young prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, with whom she appeared to be deeply in love. While marriage was clearly desirable, opposition arose to their union mostly in the grumblings among some Englishmen at the prospect of yet another foreign consort, in the model of Princess Charlotte’s widower enriching himself from England’s industrial plenty.

Victoria’s marriage was not simply for the benefit of the state. Her personal investment in the relationship was both the touchstone of Victorian ideals of domesticity but also a danger sign for the stability of the monarchy. Victoria and Albert enjoyed over twenty years of marriage before tragedy intervened when he fell ill with typhoid fever. Albert`s death in 1861 was a difficult blow for the queen. Even with their nine children and a nation to lead, Victoria found it hard to carry on. The devastated queen withdrew from public life for a decade and this act of mourning alienated her from many of her subjects. In 1864, someone anonymously affixed a satirical poster to the gates of Buckingham Palace, offering the property “to be let or sold in consequence of the late occupant`s declining business”. Victoria finally returned to public life in 1871 but never gave up the black mourning dress worn to remember her beloved Albert. Inspiring a ten-year withdrawal, the virtuous conduct of the genuinely grief-stricken widow was not what the pundits and wags would have wanted, but Victoria was clearly her own woman in this and in other ways.

References:

Alison Plowden. The Young Victoria. (New York: Stein and Day, 1983).

“The Accession of Queen Victoria.” The Guardian. 24 June, 1837. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/1837/jun/24/monarchy.fromthearchive Accessed 17 January, 2012.

Lynne Vallone. Becoming Victoria.. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

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