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David Livingstone being attacked by a lion.
David Livingstone being attacked by a lion.
John Murray Publishers
The puritan sides of their personalities clashed with Victoria's and Albert's livelier natures, and their need to maintain acceptable public postures for their fishbowl lives. Victoria, a true Hanoverian, enjoyed the sensual delights of matrimony, making it prudent for Albert to have a mechanical lock for their bedroom door at Osborne House installed within reach of his pillow. Albert had little need to persuade Victoria that her Court, its recent past tarnished, had to earn respect by example and be impenetrable to scandal. Since upper-class life ignored the middle-class morality promoted by aggressive Evangelicalism, Lord Melbourne declared to the royal couple that "damned morality would undo us all." Albert noted in a memorandum in 1852, approvingly, "We had found great advantage in it and were determined to adhere to it."

Overdoing one's piety and rectitude, however, left Victoria exasperated, as she saw little but hypocrisy and sanctimony in restrictions on social behavior and religious practice that only served to make ordinary life less bearable. One of the recurring problems that had weakened mid-Victorian governments had been the disputes in Parliament over the place of religion -- and which religion -- in the life of the nation. Although few then seriously questioned the privileged status of an Established Church, the Oxford movement had created antagonism between laissez faire clerics and determined ritualists. There were added strains within Protestantism as well as within its Anglican offshoot by the growth of what was called Dissent, in that it was not Anglican. As Defender of the Faith by her Coronation oath, the Queen was the sponsor of Presbyterianism as well as Anglicanism, an anomaly she found more intriguing as her acquaintance with Scotland, through Balmoral Castle, grew. She would write approvingly in 1855 of a sermon at a nearby kirk in which the lesson, from the twelfth chapter of Romans, was "Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord." The lesson was not theological hairsplitting, which was preoccupying the Anglicans, but one of "being and doing good" in what she saw as the proper British manner. And it was "not a thing only for Sunday" -- she and Albert deplored the rising influence of rigid Sabbatarianism -- but "for every action of our lives." The Queen liked pragmatic Scottish religion in her life as much as she enjoyed whiskey in her tea.
Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria
Windsor


One of the ways in which religion was promulgated strenuously was through missionary activity in the darker regions of the world, the Bible following the sword and creating in some areas a more satisfactory climate for doing British business. In part, the aim was indeed moral, and Prince Albert's first speech in English after his marriage -- he was only 20 -- was his acceptance of the presidency of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa, in which he declared that slavery was "repugnant to spirit of Christianity." That the Christianity that arrived with the missions was a puzzling and culturally alien faith to Africans and Asians posed no problems to missionaries and the churches that supported them at home, but it led to such anomalies as the question by an elderly African chief to a new governor in his area, "How am Queen Victoria? How am 'postle Paul?"

When it came to religious faith, Victoria was always a believer in a Higher Power in the heavens, and in some form of posthumous spiritual existence, but she could not accept barren self-denial as a pious impulse that would bring one into harmony with the ineffable. In June 1850, when Lord Ashley, later the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was campaigning against the delivery of the Royal Mail on Sundays, she wrote to a Cabinet minister that she thought it was "a very false notion of obeying God's will, to do what will be the cause of much annoyance and possibly of great distress to private families." Similarly, she deplored the Evangelical campaign to ban public band concerts in the parks on Sundays, as it was a rare opportunity for ordinary people to enjoy their lone day off from work.

The Queen demonstrated only a few of the prejudices of her people. She was hostile toward the Papacy, and feared Roman Catholic inroads in Britain as threatening disequilibrium. She was far less anti-Semitic than her courtiers, but refused to elevate banker Lionel de Rothschild to a peerage on grounds that his profession was legalized gambling. More likely, she did not want to face his rejection by the House of Lords because he would refuse to take his oath on a Christian Bible -- a requirement finally voted out in 1858. (Shaftesbury opposed the liberalization.) Even after that, other bankers received titles, but no Jews, until finally, in the mid-1880s, Lionel's son Nathaniel was granted the peerage denied to his father. The Queen had moved slowly with the times.
Scene from the Moral Crusade
Scene from The Moral Crusade


Overdoing one's piety left the Queen with a feeling of contempt. She would have approved of the curt rejoinder of Bernard Shaw's memorable dustman, Alfred Doolittle, in Pygmalion, about middle-class morality: "Can't afford it." Chief among the suspect pious, once she knew of his curious habits, was her four-times prime minister, W. E. Gladstone. He wore his religious and social conscience on his sleeve, and into his 80s walked the streets at night to confront desperate prostitutes, go with them to their rooms, and offer them Bibles and money to convert to a moral life. But he only picked up pretty prostitutes, then went home in a delectable frisson of physical encounter with temptation, to secretly whip himself. The Queen, who seemed to know most things through an army of Court confidants, could never warm to Gladstone. Only late in life did Victoria relent toward divorced women, permitting them to be received at Court if the innocent parties, and in an excess of innocence, she refused to approve the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which criminalized sex between consenting adults, because "women didn't do such things." The legislation was amended to refer only to males. By then, with her Golden Jubilee imminent, a plethora of improving books began to appear, celebrating her legendary virtues, one which was not female emancipation, which she resisted to the end although she was the most visible example of a woman in public life. One such book, by a man (Henry Davenport Adams), emphasized her function as role model, but failed to point to anything in particular, as Victoria remained aloof from public pronouncements, and on the rare occasions when she spoke in her own right, as opposed to mouthing a party address in ceremonially opening Parliament, she had little to say but cautious platitudes. Her character, Adams wrote vaguely in his class-ridden Celebrated Women of the Victorian Era (it was already labeled with her name), was one "which all English girls may well do their best to imitate, and a life which, in their lowlier spheres, they may rightly attempt to follow. Her moral courage, her fortitude, her industry, her elevation of aim, and her tenacity of purpose -- these are qualities which they may successfully cultivate, even if they cannot hope to equal the Queen in perspecuity, in soundness of judgment, in breadth of intellectual sympathy, and in artistic feeling. They may take the woman as exemplar, though they cannot approach the Queen."
Scene from The Moral Crusade
Scene from The Moral Crusade


As exemplar, Victoria was often described as "sensible" rather than humane and philanthropic, and that vein of narrow nineteenth-century pragmatism was vividly if undeliberately dramatized by John Ruskin in his Ethics of the Dust, a textbook for girls he published in 1866. He heard, so he wrote, "about the simplicity and good housewifery of the Queen at Balmoral" when, "some time ago, one of the little princesses having in too rough play torn the frock of one of her companions (a private gentleman's daughter), the Queen did not present the young lady with a new frock, but made the princess darn the torn one." At first he would not believe the story, Ruskin added, but was told that the royal girls had seen a sewing machine on display when at the Crystal Palace exhibition with their mother, and one of them had confided her wish to have one, "for it would save so much trouble." That meant, to him, "that they had real experience of what sewing meant." That even gentlewomen, princesses included, learned sewing and knitting, among other skills, in order to have something for idle hands to do, never occurred to the unworldly Ruskin. Although the tale can be interpreted as symbolic social conscience in more than one way, in every way it is Victorian behavior to the core.
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