“I believe in the finished work of Christ for me.” – Queen Victoria
“How delightful it is to be married. I would not have dreamed that anyone could be so happy in this world as I am.” – Queen Victoria
Lovers of Victorian novels and poetry, such as myself, enjoy such literature in large part because of the “Victorian” qualities these works all share in common. Tracing the source of this “Victorian-ness” requires considering Queen Victoria herself, the eponym of the era and its incomparably greatest (and longest – she reigned for sixty-three years, which is the current record) influence. Walter L. Arnstein’s biography of the great lady, Queen Victoria, gives a rounded and interesting introduction to the Queen, sectioned into chapters on her youth, married life, widowhood, political involvement, charitable works and more.
(Contest over – winner announced here.)
The Christian Queen
It is little wonder that a good deal of Victorian literature is Christian when the figurehead of the period believed the Bible herself, and vowed, in her coronation, to “maintain the Laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant Reformed religion as established by law.” (Arnstein 42) And Protestant she was; when the the moral infallibility of the pope was declared in 1870 (more recently than many people realize), Queen Victoria was disgusted and called it “disgraceful.” (136) She even disliked many of the religious practices of her own church, the Church of England, and preferred churches that followed Reformed tradition, such as the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Considering this, it is hardly surprising that many Reformed denominations, such as Dissenters, Baptists and Methodists, thrived while she was on the throne.
Wife, Lover, Mother
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s felicitous courtship and happy marriage actually reads something like a 19th century romance novel. “About one matter Victoria felt certain: she would marry only for love,” Arnstein writes in his biography. (46) And indeed she did, for after their nuptials she pens in her diary, “how delightful it is to be married. I would not have dreamed that anyone could be so happy in this world as I am,” and Albert returns her sentiments, telling her “Your image fills my whole soul. Even in my dreams I never imagined I should find so much love on earth.” (55)
Victoria and Albert’s wedding was an enormous public affair, with thousands of cheering fans lining London streets as the royal couple’s wedding carriage passed by (not unlike Diana and Charles’ and Will and Kate’s weddings). After their first baby was born, Albert stayed by his wife’s side as nurse, tenderly caring for her every need. They went on to produce eight more children and Albert in particular was noted for his fatherly doting and care, not too dignified to wrestle on the floor with his little ones, take them on outings to the zoo and build them toys and playthings, including a little play cottage with miniature kitchen, stove, pots, pans and the works. The royal family became a symbol and model of domestic bliss in the media. Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister twice while Victoria was on the throne, described the queen thus: “‘She who reigns over us has elected, amid all the splendour of empire, to establish her life on the principle of domestic love.'” (57)
The Well-Intentioned Imperialist
Queen Victoria positioned herself strongly against slavery in both her public dealings and in her personal diary. She believed that “colonisation could be justified only if it promoted the abolition of slavery where that institution yet existed and if it bettered the lives of subject peoples.” (181) African kings who visited her stated their appreciation of her work in their countries (she being the head of the largest empire in the world at the time). She agreed with them, though, that “the natives [ ] were so unjustly used, and in general her very strong feeling (and she has few stronger) that the natives and coloured races should be treated with every kindness and affection, as brothers, not – as, alas! Englishmen too often do – as totally different to ourselves, fit only to be crushed and shot down!” (181) Arnstein’s inclusion of this information about Victoria’s feelings on colonialism sheds a different light on the vilification of colonialism in academia. There’s something worth considering here about good intentions and the benefit of hindsight….
The Charitable Philanthropist
Elsewhere I have discussed the significant charitable movement in Victorian society, as explored in social problem novels such as Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Victorians felt a strong sense of duty toward their fellow creatures in need, and Queen Victoria was very much a driving force in the 19th century philanthropic movement. She did not believe, like the Marxists and socialists, in social welfare services provided by the government and acquired through high mandatory taxes, but rather through voluntary social charity and philanthropy superintended by organizations “whose purpose it was to help educate, help medicate and help house the poorer classes of society and to relieve the victims of natural and man-made disasters.” (174) It was a commonly-held belief that charity organizations enriched the lives of volunteers by instilling in them a sense of purpose and civic pride, and promoted collaboration between the classes. (174) Volunteers also undoubtedly brought (and bring) enthusiasm and genuine concern to their work. Arnstein continues with this chronicling of amazing social generosity:
By the 1860’s, ‘most large towns and cities could take satisfaction in the voluntary hospitals, infirmaries or national schools, domestic missions, temperance societies and district visiting charities.’ Even small villages could boast of their clothing and boot clubs, their mothers’ meetings, and their Sunday schools. In 1885 The Times marveled that the monies collected that year for London charities alone exceeded the annual budgets of several European nations. (174)
The queen’s extraordinary personal patronization of charitable organizations and contributions to the founding of hospitals, almshouses and more led to her name “Victoria, the Friend of the Afflicted.” She even personally knit hats and blankets for soldiers and sent them chocolates. (191) Upon her death a Westminster Abbey minister said, “Every clergyman, philanthropist and social reformer has had, these sixty-three years past, an ally and sympathizer on the throne of his country.” (191)
Art and Literature Lover
It will please fans of Victorian literature that Queen Victoria was a great reader herself. Arnstein records that she enjoyed reading Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott, and especially liked James Fenimoore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Washington Irving’s Conquest of Grenada. (25) Both she and her husband appreciated many forms of art, including poetry, opera, paintings, sculptures and architecture.
Much more could be said about both Victoria and Albert’s astounding political industriousness, how they laboured daily for their country and how incredibly involved in and knowledgeable of political and international affairs the Queen was, even more than her own parliament, as her daily personal letters and diary attest to. If you want to read more about Victoria, enter to win a free copy of Arnstein’s biography by doing at least one of three things: leave a comment below, like or share this post on social media, or subscribe to become a follower to this blog for the first time. International entries welcome. The book will be a secondhand copy (in good condition) from The Advanced Book Exchange, an excellent source for rare and affordable literature. The deadline is 12:00 a.m. Jan. 31 ET and winners will be announced February 1st. Thank you!