Queen Victoria and Mrs. Brown

Article excerpt

Michael Timko is professor emeritus of the City University of New York. His article "Why Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol" appeared in the December 2001 issue of The World & I.

While we ought to be grateful to the recent movie Mrs. Brown for reminding us of her existence, we should also keep in mind that it told only part of Queen Victoria's story. Her "affair" with John Brown was important, to be sure, but she deserves to be known for other reasons. She gave her name to a significant period in British history, as the recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum demonstrates, and poured her being into the various roles she played during her years as monarch: queen of an empire, devoted wife, loving mother, and, above all, a warm and passionate person.

We know the outlines of the almost forgotten story. Married to Prince Albert, mother of nine children, grieving widow, and stern ruler of a nation for almost sixty-five years, Victoria set the tone of her era. This was not only a time of optimism and progress; it was especially an era with a strong faith in public morality. Alfred Tennyson, the poet laureate, called it "A land of settled government / A land of just and old renown." Or, as the old hymn had it,

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.

Decency reigned during this time; one was expected to be respectable, serious, sober, industrious, and respectful. Some rules of etiquette were:

l. Never ask a lady any questions about anything whatever.

2. If you have drunk wine with everyone at the table and wish for more, wait till the cloth is removed.

3. Never permit the sanctity of the drawing room to be violated by a boot.

A writer tells of the legs of tables and pianos being "covered," since these extremities were not to be seen in public. They were to be clothed in the name of decency and morality.

A MODERN WOMAN

In the light of our fascination with the late Diana and Margaret, and surviving members of the British Royalty, the story of Queen Victoria is especially intriguing because she was a "modern" woman in many ways. Passionately in love with her husband and devoted to her children, she did all that could be done for her family. All the while, of course, she was a career woman, ruling the British Empire during the years of its greatest expansion and power.

Most of us, when we think at all of Queen Victoria, probably envision the dowdy dowager looking straight at us and murmuring, "We are not amused." We need to think again, however, for she herself liked to be amused, often with her husband while she was married and later, after his death, with the other men in her life. She truly enjoyed life. She enjoyed giving parties, playing the piano, singing, dancing, going to the theater and opera, and painting. Quadrille music, she said at one time, almost drove her mad.

It has been said by many that Victoria was raised to be a monarch. Her birth and childhood in fact do offer material for a novel. Her father, Edward, the fourth child of the fifteen of George III, had married a German wife, Victoire, princess of Saxe-Coburg and dowager princess of Leiningen. He had done so deliberately in order to fulfill the terms stipulated as necessary for a British monarch, namely that one had to be Protestant and of royal birth. Victoria, the future queen, was born on British soil on May 24, l8l9, and was carefully groomed for the monarchy. Her father died when she was only seven months old. Many of her biographers speculate that she spent the rest of her life seeking a surrogate father, hence her "affairs" with the men in her life before and after Albert.

Her childhood was a sheltered one, in part because her mother felt that was the appropriate upbringing for a queen, but more likely because of all the political maneuvering going on regarding the monarchy. …