Victoria at 200: a woman afraid of nothing

A young queen: Photography was one of the many revolutionary inventions of the Victorian era.

Tomorrow, Britain will celebrate the 200th birthday of one of its longest-reigning monarchs. The creator of ITV’s Victoria says the Queen makes a fine role model for young women today.

It is 6am on the morning of 20 June, 1837. An 18-year-old girl is roused from her bed in Kensington Palace in London.

“Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor uncle, the King, was no more,” Victoria wrote in her diary later that day, “and consequently that I am Queen.”

Tomorrow, Britain will celebrate 200 years since the birth of Queen Victoria, one of its longest-reigning monarchs.

Today, most people imagine Victoria as she was at the end of her life: the “Widow of Windsor”, still in mourning for her husband Albert, 40 years after his death. “We are not amused,” she declares, po-faced, when someone tells a scandalous story over dinner.

But Daisy Goodwin, creator of ITV’s Victoria, says the Queen can be a role model for young women.

In The Daily Mail this week, Goodwin wrote of Victoria as: “A woman who was afraid of nothing, who never worried about what she looked like or what people said about her behind her back, a woman who could speak without fear of being interrupted, a woman who commanded respect as well as inspiring affection, a working mother who never felt a shred of guilt, the wife of a great man who never surrendered her own identity.”

Unlike Elizabeth I — who never married and described her body as that of “a weak and feeble woman” — Victoria refused to deny her femininity. She could be a mother, a wife and the most powerful person in the country, argues Goodwin.

Victoria survived eight assassination attempts in her lifetime. She was unafraid of expressing her opinion, and had a fierce temper. She was passionately in love with her husband, Prince Albert.

But although they had nine children, she saw pregnancy as the “occupational hazard of being a wife”. She hated the toll it took on her health, and that it took her away from her work.

She was also a highly successful ruler. Victoria oversaw Britain’s industrial revolution, the expansion of its Empire, and maintained the royal family’s popularity — even as other European nations revolted against their kings and queens.

Victorious?

Can we really call Victoria a feminist role model? She was stridently against votes for women, arguing that equality would make them “the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings”. And her role as Empress of India is nothing to admire: millions of Indians died under Britain’s colonial rule.

But surely we can still be inspired by Victoria’s spirit? She lived in a very different time. Yes, she was flawed, but why should we expect women to be perfect? “Young women identify with a girl who liked men, parties and dogs, but who also wanted to be a successful monarch, and who was not going to be told how to do it by a bunch of old men,” argues Goodwin.

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite king or queen?
  2. Today, Victoria’s views on women’s suffrage are extremely old-fashioned. The British Empire is seen as a brutal regime. Is it wrong for people to admire her?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have a time machine which can send letters into the past. What would you write to an 18-year-old Queen Victoria, at the very beginning of her reign?
  2. ITV’s series Victoria is a popular historical drama about the life of young Queen Victoria. Write the first scene of a similar TV show about one of Britain’s other monarchs.

Some People Say...

“The important thing is not what they think of me, but what I think of them.”

Queen Victoria

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Queen Victoria is the second-longest reigning monarch in Britain’s history, and the tenth-longest reigning monarch of all time. She was the daughter of Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III. Normally, this would make her unlikely to be queen, but her three uncles all died without heirs. She became queen less than a month after her 18th birthday, and died aged 81 on 22 January, 1901.
What do we not know?
What Victoria would make of her country now — its empire has disappeared, but its countries remain connected by the Commonwealth. The industrial revolution brought prosperity to Britain and eventually led to the amazing technologies we have now, but it is also responsible for the climate crisis.

Word Watch

Diary
Victoria started keeping a diary as a 13-year-old, and kept it up throughout her life. She wrote about 62 million words in total, offering an insight into her inner life.
Queen Victoria
Born on 24 May, 1819, Queen Victoria ruled the UK for 63 years, seven months and two days. Only the current queen, Elizabeth II, has ruled for longer.
Declares
In fact, there is little evidence that Victoria ever said this. It comes from a book by a courtier named Caroline Holland, written eight years after Victoria died.
Elizabeth I
The last Tudor monarch, ruling from 1558 to 1603.
Prince Albert
Victoria’s first cousin, and a member of the German royal family. He shared many of Victoria’s responsibilities and championed several causes. He died aged just 42.
Industrial revolution
Although this began in the 1700s, it reached its peak in the Victorian era, partly thanks to new inventions like railways and electricity.
Empire
The British Empire also reached its peak under Victoria, expanding to include a quarter of the world’s population.

Subjects

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