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The World of Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Queen Victoria ruled Britain for an incredible 64 years, the longest reigning sovereign in history. She presided over a time of tremendous upheaval and change -- during her reign, horse-drawn carriages would be replaced by the first engines; gas lamps would be pushed out by the newfangled electricity; industrial production would undo the pastoral way of British country life; and the sacred social institutions of church, family, and even the monarchy would come under threat and question as science, literature, and radical new ideas came to the fore. Yet throughout all the change and conflict of her times, Victoria remained a symbol of virtue, honor, prosperity, and tradition -- causing her unusual friendship with John Brown to raise all the more eyebrows.

Victoria became Queen at the tender age of 18. By all accounts she was a very sensitive and emotional young woman who longed for affection and guidance. Yet she also possessed a strong will and harsh sense of moral righteousness and self-discipline that were to set the tone of her times. In 1840, the young Queen married her first cousin, Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Their marriage brought a profound sense of happiness to the Queen's life. Once she wrote in a letter to Albert, "While I possess your love, they cannot make me unhappy." She so adored Albert that she insisted he be given the title of Prince Consort, though the government and public were critical of this. The government also objected to Albert's involvement in affairs of the state, but Victoria saw him as a mentor to her in political matters and consulted him on everything. Victoria and Albert's marriage produced nine royal children who had so many children of their own that by the end of the 19th- century Victoria was called "The Grandmother of Europe."

In 1861 Albert contracted typhoid and after weeks of illness succumbed in bed, holding his wife's hand. The sudden dark void Albert's absence left in Victoria's life drove her to the brink of total despair. She went into seclusion, avoiding London and all public appearances, cloistering herself with only her most loyal servants. Some say she had a complete nervous breakdown; others say it was just a terribly broken heart.

Either way, her grief continued unabated for years and colored the rest of her life. She wrote to her daughter Vicky: "I never, never shall be able to bear this dreadful, weary, chilling, unnatural life of a widow." When public outcry began, she had her physicians declare that any exertion would be detrimental to the royal health. Still, by 1864, opinion had begun to turn against her. On April 1, 1864, the London Times published an article excoriating the Queen for her failure to take any part in the public life of her nation. Meanwhile, the highly critical tabloid press ran wild with biting cartoons and scathing editorials.

It was also in 1864 that Victoria reunited with the Scottish servant John Brown and began the relationship that would have a profound effect on her future. Brown's devotion, combined with the attentions of Primer Minister Benjamin Disraeli, seemed to reawaken the Queen's innate love of life and command. Returning to public life a new woman, she supported the Conservative Disraeli wholeheartedly against the Liberal William Ewart Gladstone. Under Disraeli the British Empire experienced tremendous growth, and in 1876, with imperialism at its peak, Victoria crowned herself Empress of India.

In 1887, England celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee with a day of unmatched glitter and pageantry. Victoria died on the Isle of Wight on January 22, 1901. She was succeeded on the throne by her son Edward VII.

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Victorian Times
Queen Victoria presided over a Britain on the verge of sweeping change. Prior to her rule, few questioned the supremacy of such institutions as Church, God, State, and Monarchy. But her times became known as the Great Age of Doubt. It was the time of Marx, Darwin, and Freud; a time when science and such inventions as electricity and engines promised to create solutions that nature never provided. It was an era of rapid social upheaval as a new lower class of industrial workers poured into the cities, and when the resulting family upheaval and poverty led to such modern ideas as unionization, feminism, and communism. And it was a period of literary and artistic innovation, launching new popular art forms such as satirical magazines and the gothic novel.

But the pace of change also produced an equally forceful backlash, a moralistic atmosphere of prudishness, sexual repression, prejudice, and class animosity. Victorian women in particular were taught never to invite sexual advances or give in to fantasies, and only to live in quiet devotion to husband, family, and country. In some ways, Victoria was the quintessential Victorian woman, although her unusual devotion to a man far outside her class and social rank remains on of the great paradoxes of her life.

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Life at Court
Queen Victoria kept three regular residences: the palace at Windsor and two holiday homes at Balmoral and Osborne. At Windsor, the Queen was attended by a large number of servants, including personal physicians, secretary, chefs, and maids, each with a very particular service to be carried out to the personal satisfaction of the Queen. Having been Queen since the age of 18, Victoria was highly accustomed to being treated in the deferential manner of all Royals: never spoken to unless she addressed a person first, never looked in the face until she initiated contact. Victoria was also used to never being alone. No matter where she went, she was accompanied by an enormous entourage who were trained to always stay behind the Queen even if it meant having to shuffle backwards to get in back of her.

The household at Windsor operated as its own mini-city, replete with its own secret politics, scandals, and rules. Life at Balmoral was much more informal, with servants actually sitting and talking with the Royal Family. When John Brown arrived at Windsor, the clash of cultures was inevitable.


Images: Courtesy Hulton/Getty Collection.


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