Queen Victoria’s secrets

The public image is of a stuffy, buttoned-down monarch but, as historian Lucy Worsley tells Emma Slattery Williams, Queen Victoria’s private journal and letters reveal the real woman behind the crown

Queen Victoria

In the early hours of 20 June 1837, a young woman was woken by her mother in Kensington Palace. Arriving in her sitting room, she was greeted by two men kneeling at her feet – the Lord Chamberlain and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Just a few hours earlier, her uncle, King William IV, had passed away. This barely five-foot girl was now Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Victoria received this news alone – one of the few times throughout her life thus far that she hadn’t been chaperoned.

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This tiny woman, forced to live a sheltered life until now, would go on to rule a quarter of the world’s population. Unlike those of other British monarchs, many of Queen Victoria’s innermost thoughts are available for the world to read. They reveal a passionate and strongwilled woman who defied the image created of her. Victoria was first given a diary by her mother when she was 13 and added to it almost daily, right up until just days before her death. She was also a voracious letter-writer and these letters tend to be more open and honest; her journal was read by her mother until she was queen and so she avoided writing anything that might offend her family.

Indeed, Victoria later instructed her daughter Beatrice to remove anything too personal after her death. Beatrice destroyed most of the originals and the letters were censored, helping to cultivate the image that has survived down the centuries. Despite the censorship, her vast wealth of entries still gives us extraordinary insight into her thoughts and life.

Limited options

Victoria wasn’t meant to be queen. Her grandfather, George III, had 15 children who, extraordinarily, produced just one legitimate heir between them. Princess Charlotte, the only child of George IV, tragically died in childbirth in 1817. This prompted Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, to quickly marry Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and the future Queen Victoria was born on 24 May 1819.

Victoria’s father died when she was less than a year old. Her mother and Sir John Conroy – the Duchess of Kent’s advisor – distanced her from her uncle’s courts as much as possible, using methods that later became known as the Kensington System. She was kept out of the public eye, watched all the time and was not allowed to play with other children. Dolls were her only friends. Her governess overindulged her, perhaps out of pity, which allowed her to develop a selfish streak, and she became used to getting her own way.

In her new book, Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, historian Lucy Worsley uses the journal to examine the life of Victoria through 24 key moments and asks us to reconsider the Queen through fresh eyes: “Looking at her from the point of a woman of the 21st century, there’s parts of her that I think should be drawn out and treated more sympathetically.”

As Victoria grew up, a gap began to widen between herself and her mother. Victoria despised Conroy and, whether Victoria knew of them or not, there were rumours that the Duchess and Conroy were lovers.

Victoria, whose father died when she was less than a year old, was increasingly distanced from her mother, the Duchess of Kent. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Victoria, whose father died when she was less than a year old, was increasingly distanced from her mother, the Duchess of Kent. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1819, Baroness Lehzen had entered the Kents’ household as governess to Victoria’s halfsister Feodore. As Victoria’s relationship with her mother worsened, Lehzen became ever more important to the princess, who later described her as her “angelic, dearest Mother”. Victoria was lonely and isolated, but there may have been method in the madness of her childhood. “I think there were three reasons for the Kensington System,” says Worsley. “Firstly, to keep her physically safe from assassination.

Secondly, I think it had a PR value – it distanced Victoria in people’s minds from the unpopular regimes of her uncles, so that when she became queen, it was like a fresh start to the monarchy. But the third reason I definitely think was about breaking her spirit – Conroy hoped that he could get control over her and that he could become the power behind the throne.

“Unfortunately for him, I think it also had the effect of toughening her up. During her difficult childhood, something steely was forged in her soul that would stand her in good stead later on.” Conroy tried to suggest that Victoria wasn’t fit to rule. If William IV died before she turned 18, then a regent would be required, and it was hoped this would be the Duchess – and, by default, Conroy.

Conroy’s plan wouldn’t come to fruition however, as Victoria turned 18 less than a month before William IV passed away. After learning of her ascension to the throne, two of her first acts were to have an hour alone and to move her mother out of the bedroom they had shared all her life. Although nervous and feeling out of her depth, she was aware of her duty: “Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfil my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure, that very few have more real good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.”

She came to the throne at a time when the monarchy was in a precarious position, with the past 50 years having seen revolutions across Europe destroy royal dynasties. Victoria’s two uncles, George IV and William IV, had not been popular and the threat of revolution hung heavy in the air.

First impressions

Victoria knew that her duty meant that she must marry, but she wasn’t going to make the wrong choice; she was a romantic at heart. She had first met her cousin Albert in 1836, but he didn’t make too much of an impression, so a tutor was hired to coach him. “I may like him as a friend, and as a cousin and as a brother, but no more,” she confided in a letter to her uncle, Leopold I of Belgium.

She would soon change her mind, however, writing about him in a way no one would expect from a monarch, let alone a Victorian: “Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes … my heart is quite going.”

As queen, she called the shots and even though her family had made the assumption that Victoria would marry Albert, Worsley points out that she wasn’t in a rush: “She refused to marry him for three years after the arranged match had been set up. One thing I loved reading about in her journal was that when, finally, she did agree to marry him, she announced it first to her prime minister.

She said to Lord Melbourne ‘I’ve decided to marry Albert; do you think I had better tell Albert of my decision?’ I love the idea of her telling Albert, ‘We’re going to get married’. He said ‘yes’ and didn’t have much more to say about it than that, although he did increasingly get more control over their relationship as time went on.”

They were married in 1840 and Victoria’s journal entry the day after their wedding shows no regrets. “When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful angelic face by my side, it was more than I can express! He does look so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen.”

Many of her more passionate entries were deleted by Beatrice for offending Victorian sensibilities, such as this one from their honeymoon: “My dearest Albert put on my stockings for me. I went in and saw him shave; a great delight for me.” To Albert’s dismay, their honeymoon only lasted three days as Victoria was anxious not to shirk her duties.

“One of the things that really surprised me about engaging with Victoria more was some of the false selling of her love-match with Prince Albert,” explains Worsley. “A lot of people assume that’s one of history’s great love matches and Victoria’s duties while she was pregnant – she was not a fan of relinquishing power. She was known to have extreme mood swings and could be terribly stubborn. “Had she been in public life today people might talk of her as being ‘a bloody difficult woman’,” says Worsley. “There’s an element of that in her that I sort of admire.”

Motherly love

Victoria has often been accused of disliking her children; at one stage, she likens babies to frogs. “It’s easy to say that Victoria was a bad mother as there are these eye-catching statements that she made about her dislike of children,” says Worsley. “That is a bit unfair. She also spends a lot of time in her diaries and her correspondence saying how much she loves her children and how she spent time nurturing and looking after them. It’s not entirely fair to flame her completely. She was probably like all mothers are – sometimes good and sometimes bad.”

Historians today suggest that Victoria may have suffered from post-natal depression, citing her struggle to bond with her children when they were young. Perhaps due to her own childhood, she could be very cruel and spent a lot of time correcting their behaviour rather than enjoying her time with them. She also resented how pregnancy and motherhood could take her away from her role as monarch.

After the scandals of her forebears, though, Victoria wanted to create a family to be admired. Her reign ushered in a new age of the family and, at least on the surface, her and Albert’s family looked like the Victorian ideal that would go on to inspire generations. She wanted to create the family she felt deprived of as a child.

Black thoughts

Albert’s death in 1861 from typhoid fever shook Victoria to the core. She withdrew from public appearances and wore black for the rest of her life – although her mourning dresses were always fashionable. It’s clear that Victoria would have been happier had her husband lived longer, but Worsley suggests that it might not have been best for the monarchy.

“He really enjoyed getting involved in politics. He was seen as the interfering foreigner whereas Victoria, as a woman, fitted better the notion of what a monarch ought to be in the 19th century: someone who didn’t interfere, somebody who advised, somebody who warned, but not somebody who took the lead. There is an argument that, had Albert lived for another 20 years and carried on interfering in the constitutional affairs of Great Britain, there would have been a revolution against him.”

Despite proving that she could rule, there were still those who wanted to discredit Victoria’s suitability as monarch. The fears of the ‘madness’ to which her grandfather had succumbed still haunted the court.

“There were two times in her life when people became concerned that she was going mad like her grandfather. These two periods were during her childbearing years, when she suffered from what today might be diagnosed as post-natal depression, and then after Albert died, they said she was going mad because that was when she was going through the menopause.”

The image of Queen Victoria as a widow is one of a stern, overweight woman, but there may have been another reason for her apparent large size. She had always been described as a greedy person – this stemmed from her childhood where her diet was restricted – and she was constantly criticised for eating too fast.

It’s possible that, during her grief, she turned to comfort eating, but she also had a ventral hernia – a condition often caused by pregnancy. !e pain of this would have made wearing a corset impossible, thus possibly explaining why she did not have the slim figure women were expected to maintain.

In her spare time, Victoria loved reading novels and she was very creative, enjoying singing and painting. “You can see another life in which she would have been an opera singer or worked in the theatre,” Worsley suggests. “I think she would have loved that. She was very attracted to showbusiness, which is a really good skill-set to have if it’s your job to be the monarch. She was very good at stage-managing the ritual, the ceremony of majesty.”

Primary duty

Victoria was the ideal 19th-century woman, who knew her place in societyshould fall below that of a man. She did not relish her rule, but understood she had to fulfil her duty to her people and her family.

Worsley suggests being queen did not make her happy. “I think she thought she shouldn’t have been queen, that there should have been a man available to do the job, that she was there by default. She had a lonely life as a result of it, because intimacy was something she couldn’t really afford. “e reason she had to stake everything on her relationship with Albert is that he was the nearest thing that she ever had to an equal. She certainly didn’t trust her friends or her servants because they might betray her. She had a sad life in a lot of ways.”

She may not have championed or even supported equal voting rights for women, but Victoria proved women were just as capable as men. “Her strength was a sort of passive strength,” concludes Worsley, “but she sat on that throne for so long without falling off that, by the end of her reign, no-one could possibly question whether a female monarch was acceptable.”

Victoria’s 63-year-rule was far longer than any of her predecessors’ and has only recently been surpassed by Elizabeth II. After the failure of her predecessors to win over their subjects, the Queen had changed the face of the monarchy, putting family at the centre of Britain.

What did Victoria ever do for us?

Many of the commodities and traditions we still have today in Britain can be traced back to Victoria’s reign. During the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, Victoria was given chloroform to ease labour – against the advice of the Church and her physician who believed it was for common women. Anaesthetic use during childbirth now had royal approval and began being widely used.

Britain’s love affair with curry goes back to the East India Company, whose men would bring back recipes for the exotic cuisine they had sampled on their travels. The first curry house opened in London in 1810, but many were cautious of this foreign food. A devotee was found in the Queen herself, who had developed an obsession with all things India since becoming Empress in 1876. Her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, impressed her with his chicken curry dish, and it wasn’t long before curry was on the menu across the households of the aristocracy.

Although not the first royal to be married in white, Victoria would kickstart the trend for white wedding dresses. Before this, wedding dresses could be any colour – black was popular in Scandinavia and the material was chosen to reflect your social standing. Victoria chose a white dress made of Devonshire lace and Spitalfields silk to represent British industry.

White became a popular colour across all levels of British society; the idea that the white dress symbolised virginity and purity would erroneously come about later.

Lucy Worsley is a familiar face on British TV screens having presented a host of history programmes. Her latest book is Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow. 

Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer of BBC History Revealed

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This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed