Did Queen Victoria really say “We are not amused”?

It's one of history's most famous quotes – but was the po-faced line really uttered by Queen Victoria?

Queen Victoria smiling

It’s often claimed that Queen Victoria said the infamous quote – “We are not amused” – to an equerry who had told a risqué joke (the ‘we’ in question was not the royal ‘we’ but the ladies who were present). The phrase has since come to epitomise the perceived strait-laced stuffiness of both the era and its queen. But speaking in an interview in 1976, Victoria’s granddaughter, Alice, Countess of Athlone, said that Victoria herself told her that she never uttered these famous words at all.

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In fact, if the queen’s diaries are anything to go by, Victoria had a keen sense of humour and certainly enjoyed a joke. She had a “wonderful laugh” wrote Vicky of Prussia, “and grandmama often laughed till she was red in the face and even till she cried”. Her voice, says Helen Rappaport on what Queen Victoria looked like, was universally admired for its sweet, bell-like tones and she had a habit of shrugging her shoulders when she laughed.

The popular perception of the Victorians as stern, austere and relentlessly severe may stem from the fact that many surviving photographs of the era show subjects grim-faced, rather than smiling. During the 1840s and 1850s, explains Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, in the early days of photography, exposure times were notoriously long and so the thought of holding a fixed grin as the camera performed its magical duties was too much to contemplate, and so a non-committal blank stare became the norm. Take a closer look at pictures of smiling Victorians

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Find out the history behind more famous quotes – from “Let them eat cake” to “We shall fight on the beaches”