What was it like meeting Queen Victoria? 6 royal encounters as told by famous Victorians
Queen Victoria had many encounters with the great and good of her age. Here, Ian Lloyd shares the stories behind six of these VIP meetings – and what these famous Victorian names made of the diminutive monarch in return…
During her long life Queen Victoria met everyone from the opera singer Luigi Lablache – who was a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral in 1827 – to the cellist Pablo Casals, who lived long enough to play for JFK at the White House, in 1961.
Published in the bicentennial year of her birth, Ian Lloyd’s An Audience With Queen Victoria examines the encounters between the queen and those she welcomed, a veritable ‘who's who’ of her times. It draws on Victoria's honest character assessments in her journals and letters, and the equally entertaining impressions she made on the many VIP contemporaries whose paths crossed hers. Here Lloyd relates six encounters between the queen and notable Victorians…
Johann Strauss I, 1838
It's easy to forget that the plump, mournful ‘Widow of Windsor’ staring balefully from the photographs of her old age came to the throne as a vibrant, energetic teenager.
Victoria’s coronation year of 1838 coincided with the first of two hugely successful tours of Britain by Austrian composer Johann Strauss Sr and his orchestra. In between visits to more than two dozen provincial towns and cities, they played at the first court ball of her reign and so enraptured the 19-year-old Victoria that they were commanded to perform at another eight royal gatherings in two months.
She danced a waltz between each quadrille and noted excitedly in her journal: “I never heard anything so beautiful in my life as Strauss's band… I did not leave the ball-room till 10 m. to four!! and was in bed by ½ p.4, – the sun shining. It was a lovely Ball, so gay, so nice, - and I felt so happy and so merry; I had not danced for so long and was so glad to do so again!”
Before going to bed, Victoria stood on the roof of Buckingham Palace to see dawn break over the capital. Georgiana Liddell, later one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, stood alongside the queen and recalled in old age: “It was one of the most beautiful sights I ever remember… the scene remains to this day indelibly fixed on my memory.”
Charlotte Brontë, 1843
On 18 September 1843, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had arrived in Brussels shortly after 1pm during their state visit to Belgium as guest of their uncle, King Leopold I. Watching the carriage procession pass through the aptly named Rue Royale was a 27-year-old teacher from the nearby Pensionnat Heger, a school for young women.
Charlotte Brontë was half way through her two-year stay in the capital and was lonely, homesick and had developed an infatuation with her employer, Constantin Heger. She can’t have been too excited by the glimpse of her monarch, since it took her until 1 October to write an account of it after a prompt from her sister Emily, back in Howarth Parsonage: “You ask about Queen Victoria's visit to Brussels. I saw her for an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers. She was laughing and talking very gaily. She looked a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her. The Belgians liked her very well on the whole. They said she enlivened the sombre court of King Leopold, which is usually as gloomy as a conventicle…”
Victoria would later become a huge fan of Charlotte's. She read Jane Eyre aloud to Prince Albert in 1858 and reread it more than two decades later, when she noted: “Finished Jane Eyre, which is really a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully — admirably written, such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, & such beautiful writing. The description of the mysterious maniac's nightly appearances, awfully thrilling, — Mr Rochester's character a very remarkable one, & Jane Eyre's herself, a beautiful one. The end is very touching, when Jane Eyre returns to him, & finds him blind, with one hand gone from injuries during the fire in his house, which was caused by his mad wife.”
Alexander Graham Bell, 1878
Victoria was the first European monarch to have a telephone installed, as well as the first to be taught how to use one.
Alexander Graham Bell – the man credited with patenting the telephone – gave Victoria a lecture, a demonstration and a chance to use the new-fangled device in January 1878. He took a train to Southampton and the ferry across the Solent to Cowes on 14 January. Once in situ at the royal residence – Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – Bell rigged up telephone wires from Osborne Cottage to the Council Room at Osborne House. At both ends he used a basic handset which the user had to move from mouth to ear to operate.
Victoria later recorded in her journal: “After dinner we went to the Council Room & saw the Telephone. A Professor Bell explained the whole process, which is most extraordinary. It had been put in communication with Osborne Cottage, & we talked with Sir Thomas & Mary Biddulph, also heard some singing quite plainly. But it is rather faint, & one must hold the tube close to one's ear. The man, who was very pompous, kept calling [her son, Prince] Arthur Ld [Lord] Connaught! which amused us very much.”
The inventor also committed the cardinal sin of nudging the queen's arm when she was momentarily distracted during the demonstration.
“Pompous” Bell's description of the queen was equally unflattering. In a letter to his wife he described Her Majesty as “humpy, stumpy, dumpy”, and was amazed to note that her ungloved hands were “red, coarse, and fat as a washerwoman's and her face also fat and florid”. Nevertheless he found her personality “was genial and dignified and, all in all, quite pleasing”.
Sarah Bernhardt, 1893
The queen met the actress Sarah Bernhardt when they stayed in the same hotel in Nice and they were both clearly moved by the experience, despite Victoria's initial reluctance to associate herself with someone of Bernhardt's ‘questionable’ morality.
Victoria wasn't the only member of the family to have doubts about ‘the Divine Sarah’. In 1893, Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Dowager Empress of Germany, had warned her own daughter Sophie (later Queen of Greece and aunt to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) to steer clear of her plays: “I hope you did not make her acquaintance, as alas no lady can, she is so very bad, and has an awful reputation. It is a pity those immoral pieces are always given, such as you saw.”
The queen was made of sterner stuff: “At ½ p. 6 the celebrated & famous actress Sarah Bernhard, [sic] who has been acting as Nice & is staying in this Hotel performed a little piece for me in the Drawingroom, at her own request. The play was called Jean-Marie by André Theuriet, quite short, only lasting ½ an hour. It is extremely touching & Sarah Bernhard's acting was quite marvellous, so pathetic & full of feeling. She appeared much affected herself, tears rolling down her cheeks. She has a most beautiful voice & is very graceful in all her movements… Her manner was most pleasing & gentle. She said it had been such a pleasure & honour to act for me. When I expressed the hope she was not tired, she answered. “cela m'a reposé”.*
*“It was a rest for me.”
Buffalo Bill, 1887
Queen Victoria's 1887 meeting with American hunter and showman William Cody, aka 'Buffalo Bill', was the 19th century's most unexpected encounter since Livingstone met Stanley. Their impact on each other was huge.
Cody recalled: “A great occasion of which the mental photograph will remain long with me.”
To the queen, the American showman was “a splendid man, handsome, & gentleman-like in manner”.
Cody's Wild West Show, at Earl's Court in West Kensington, must have had something special to induce Victoria to break her post-Albert exile from all types of London entertainment. She visited the show in the month before her Golden Jubilee, and five years later Cody brought his display of Cossack riders to the castle for a second command performance in front of the queen.
Victoria was not averse to raw masculinity, as her infatuation with her loyal but often brutish manservant John Brown testifies. Her journal entry after meeting the Wild West hero shows her evident fascination with Buffalo Bill “as he is called having killed 3000 buffaloes with his own hands”, adding: “He has had many encounters and hand to hand fights with the Red Indians.”
The show got off to a memorable start. After the national anthem, master of ceremonies 'Yankee Doodle' Frank Richmond gave the introduction, during which a horseman entered the arena waving the American flag above his head. Victoria instantly stood and gravely bowed in its direction. Cody later wrote: “For the first time in history, since the Declaration of Independence, a sovereign of Great Britain has saluted the star spangled banner, and that banner was carried by a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West!”
Victoria's journal takes up the story: “All the different people, wild, painted Red Indians from America, on their wild hare backed horse, of different tribes, — cow boys [which she wrote as two words], Mexicans, &c. all came tearing round at full speed, shrieking & screaming, which had the weirdest effect. An attack on a coach, & on a ranch, with an immense deal of firing, was most exciting, so was the buffalo hunt, & the bucking ponies, that were almost impossible to sit… The cow boys, are fine looking people, but the painted Indians, with their feathers, & wild dress (very little of it) were rather alarming looking.”
Other members of the show were equally forthright in their accounts. One Indian named Black Elk was reported as saying: “We stood right in front of Grandmother England. She was little but fat and we liked her, because she was good to us.”
Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan, 1888
Although Victoria never met W S Gilbert, she was a great admirer of Arthur Sullivan – though more for his choral music than his comic operas. He composed a Jubilee hymn to mark the queen's 60 years on the throne and she bestowed honours on him from a knighthood to membership of the Royal Victorian Order.
One afternoon, more than 20 years into her widowhood, the elderly queen summoned her groom-in-waiting, Alick Yorke, and announced that after lunch he and she would sing duets. While another courtier sat down at the piano to play the accompaniment, Victoria propped up on the table a copy of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience and found her place.
“Now Mr Yorke, you begin,” she instructed. The groom obediently sang to her: “Prithee, pretty maiden, will you marry me?” Then in a very clear soft voice sang, “Gentle Sir, although to marry I’m inclined.” Clearly pleased with her performance she, stopped mid-verse and threw in the non-sequitur: “You know Mr Yorke, I was taught singing by Mendelssohn.”
In 1888 the queen made a rare foray into London society to hear a Sullivan piece performed with a full accompaniment. “At ½ p. 3,” she noted on 8 May, “went to the Albert Hall… where Sullivan's "Golden Legend" was most beautifully given.”
Afterwards she asked to meet “Sir A. Sullivan, whom I complimented very much.”
Sullivan's own diary account of the meeting mentions a virtual command from the queen: “Her first words were: “At last I have heard the ‘Golden Legend’ Sir Arthur!” Later she said: “You ought to write a grand opera, you would do it so well.” The result was Ivanhoe.
Victoria didn't see the opera, but five weeks following its opening she opted to see a typical G&S comic opera instead. This time the singers and musicians came to Windsor and later the queen noted: “At 9, we went over to the Waterloo Gallery. The ‘Gondoliers’, the last of Sir A. Sullivan's comic operas was performed by D’Oyly Carte's company of the Savoy Theatre, & lasted about 2 hours & ½. The music, which I know & am very fond of, is quite charming throughout & was well acted & sung… I really enjoyed the performance very much.”
All extracts from: An Audience With Queen Victoria – The Royal Opinion on 30 Famous Victorians, by Ian Lloyd (published by The History Press, March 2019). Robert Lacey, royal biographer and historical adviser to The Crown writes: “Fascinating, ingenious — and highly readable. This compelling series of vignettes build into a full portrait of the great Queen as we have never seen her before”.